A Change of Pace: 2017 Bike the Drive

For those of us who had a bike as kids, there was something liberating about the machine. It let us travel farther, faster, and with a sort of reckless abandon that often begged for a lesson learned the hard way. And yet, as kids, it almost felt like a toy. We’d drop it in the grass at our friends’ houses, wouldn’t clean or take care of it, and we’d watch with dead eyes as it became a relic in our garage, its chain quickly becoming a rusted tangle of brown teeth.

In Costa Rica, I learned to love mountain biking mostly because flat stretches of road are rare. As a senior in high school, I would wake up at sunrise to join my uncle for an hour-long ride around our neighborhood, which usually involved many climbs around coffee plantations. At no point during these rides do I remember treating them as exercise. I hadn’t developed the attitude towards health and fitness that I have today, and I was a skinny kid with no imperative reason to lose weight. I was just out there because it was fun.

It wasn’t always that way.

Biking el Rincón de la Vieja volcano in 2000. That’s me on the far right.

The sport was one of my extended family’s favorite pastimes. My uncles often organized trips to nearby volcanoes, where half of the family would stay at a hotel while the rest would hop on mountain bikes and grind up and down the surrounding peaks for hours. The rides weren’t easy. More than one uphill slope stopped us in our tracks, some slick trails were too much for my treads, and rain was always a looming threat. These challenges always made reaching our destination far more worthwhile than merely sitting on an air-conditioned bus.

I remember specifically joining a gym and participating in my first ever Spinning class to prepare for what I anticipated would be a serious throttling of my legs and lungs. It was the first time in my life that I actively trained for something, hoping to get more out of my body, to go farther, faster, and not get left behind.

Bike the Drive’s southern tip, the Museum of Science and Industry

Since high school, I’ve gotten on a bike exactly once. I never owned one in college and in every apartment I’ve lived in since graduating, it never felt like I had enough space to have one. I always lived near a train and multiple bus routes and could freely move around the city, and my fitness was no longer an issue once I discovered running. Consumed by a new sport and diving headfirst into it, I stopped looking for places in my apartment to stash a bike.

A phantom itch lingered, though. I’d feel it every time I’d witness a triathlon or as I’d watch the Tour de France. There was something far more liberating about riding a bike that running couldn’t match. Though I had reached a level where I could run up to twenty miles, I would usually be incredibly tired, sweaty, and starving by the end. Running from Chicago to Evanston, for example, always felt like an incredible feat, but once there, I’d usually be completely spent and in dire need of a change of clothes.

I kept telling my friends that I would get a bike once I soured on running, that I’d eventually want to attempt a triathlon. The desire to ride was always tied to running, which wasn’t losing its luster as I continued to find new goals and events to test my dedication. I was even still somehow getting faster by finding new ways to push my limits. It was going to take something monumental to get me on the saddle. Nothing short of a great disruption would force me to change gears, pun intended, during a prolonged, injury-free stretch of successful locomotion.

Chicago as seen from the south

So the Great Disruptor himself answered the provocation.

My father-in-law, almost completely responsible for turning me into a runner, signed up the entire family for a crazy event he has completed several times already, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). As the name plainly states, it’s a seven-day, self-propelled westward bike ride across our neighboring state. Each day averages about sixty miles and riders are expected to encounter winds, rain, and hills, despite everyone’s idea that Iowa is nothing but flat corn fields.

After finding a bike, which wasn’t easy as my legs amount to roughly 80% of my height, it was time to start riding.

I took to my usual running path on two wheels and remembered with instant clarity how easy it is to go long distances on a bike. I reached Promontory Point, an outcropping of lake path that becomes a social hub in summer, without breaking a sweat. I was pretty far from home, but the effort to return would still be a fraction of what it would be on my own two feet. I spent that entire ride smiling, enjoying something I had missed for far too long, expanding my radius of freedom with every pedal rotation.

In the heart of Grant Park, no cars allowed. Such a heavenly liberal bubble.

A few weeks later we signed up for Bike the Drive, an annual event in Chicago where the famous Lake Shore Drive is closed to vehicular traffic, allowing for a 31-mile stretch of nearly flat pavement for 20,000 cyclists to enjoy. It was a still morning, with nary a breeze to be felt, with a comfortable late spring warmth. All five of us were there; my parents-in-law riding together, Steph and her sister Janine opting to keep each other company, leaving me to ride ahead at my own pace.

I flew up Lake Shore Drive, clutching the handlebars as I reached new speeds I could never hit on a mountain bike. I flew past families with kids in tow, large groups with colorful, custom jerseys, and the occasional recumbent bike. I had no intention of stopping at the rest stations and kept covering distance, feeling as my heartbeat slowly rose.

As I rolled over Lake Shore Drive’s gentle hills, I got a much better sense of how my body was responding to this new sport. When I run, regardless of pace, my goal is to stay strong and composed as long as possible. With every step, my heart rate inches ever upward, my legs tire, and I feel as vitality is slowly leeched from every pore. It’s a slow, inexorable path towards fatigue and eventually pain.

Family pit stop at Bryn Mawr, the circuit’s northernmost tip

On the bike, it was a reliable pattern, an ebb and flow of pain and relief. Just as I’d start feeling winded and tired, a sure sign of an impending slowdown, I’d feel great again. The moment my legs would begin to feel acidic was followed by a stretch of easy riding. This reliable pattern stayed with me until the final turn onto Columbus Drive, marking the end of the event’s full circuit.

Though the ride had no significant elevation change, it was the perfect introduction to going long. I felt like I had accomplished something at the end, even if the total distance was about half of what we should expect to ride every day for a week straight in Iowa.

Steph and Janine still having fun 25 miles in

But most importantly, I loved it. It’s very easy to get stuck in one’s ways, especially when the going is good. Having gone completely uninjured since last March and generally faster on average, my running had been seeing one of its most successful and long-lasting stretches. While this is great on its face, it does have the potential to put up blinders to many new adventures. As long as everything is going well, the incentive to try out something new diminishes.

So I’m once again grateful to Steve, whose predilection for family events once again has us all, literally and figuratively, staring at an uphill climb. The first time he did this it was for a flat 8k in the city, one that would eventually transform me into the long-distance fanatic I am today. It’s too early to tell if RAGBRAI will have a similar effect.

But if my unbridled excitement is any indication, I think I know the answer.

Shore Footed: 2017 New Jersey Marathon (State #47)

It’s hard to PR these days.

New Jersey Marathon Starting Line

They say that you reach your peak after seven years of running. While I can’t name with any due certainty who “they” are, there seems to be widespread agreement on this theory. Something potentially stalls after seven years of consistent training and a self-propelled drive to improve. It could be aging, burnout, or the ignition of a very specific gene that targets your VO2 max with surgical precision. Regardless, this theory exists and as someone who is still very much on board with running and improving my times, I refuse to succumb to it.

But despite the inspirational aphorisms to the contrary, running is very much a physical activity. After this much time, running through my late 20s and early 30s, what many scientists and laypeople alike would consider the tail end of someone’s athletic prime, my best times become harder and harder to best. So when I decided to re-focus my training in 2017 to once again try and qualify for Boston, I knew I had to do something new, something different, something that those familiar with my training habits would consider radical.

I joined a running group.

Thanks to Fleet Feet Chicago’s Boston365 running group, I honed my speed like I never had before. We would gather on Wednesday nights in the parking lot of Lincoln Park Zoo, rocketing through intervals in dense pelotons, and reconvene in the hilly suburb of Barrington on Saturday mornings for long runs. As the weeks went on, I expanded my comfort level with explosive speed, setting an aggressive PR at the 8k distance in late March. But I wasn’t quite enjoying the same surge in improvement with long runs.

Everyone in the group was training either for the Boston Marathon or another race held shortly after. I had chosen the New Jersey Marathon in Oceanport as my spring race, the event that was going to bear the brunt of all my training. It not only takes place in a state I have yet to run, but I quickly learned that it is considered one of the flattest races in the country.

Smiling through mile 6

The race began on the grounds of a raceway in Long Branch, a few miles west of the coastal town of Oceanport. Shaking off my last minute nerves, I put on my sunglasses to block the eastward breeze keeping us cool. It was game time. I had put in four months of solid, uninterrupted training for this race, each of which broke that month’s mileage record. I had run 50% more miles leading up to his race than in the same time period before my standing marathon PR. I had masterfully eaten a reliable stream of carbs in the three days prior and hadn’t even sipped a beer in ten days.

So it was with great confidence that I knew literally anything was possible.

Anyone who has ever run a marathon will tell you that nothing is guaranteed. The distance is so long that it gives ample opportunity for anything to happen. If you start too fast in a 5k, you will probably only suffer for one mile, and even then the decay won’t be as pronounced. If you overdo it in a half marathon, you might not know it until mile 9. But over the course of 26.2, you could be riding high for 15 miles before you even get a hint that this glory chase is actually a fool’s errand.

Mile 20 at the Asbury Park Boardwalk

And that is mostly what happened to me. When you’re trying to qualify for Boston at my age, you have to run a marathon in about 3 hours, 8 minutes. That, therefore, requires that you pass the half marathon mark in about an hour and thirty-four minutes. Thanks to gray skies and a cooling sea breeze, I was able to confidently run the first half of this race about a minute slower. Many times during that first half, I evaluated my form, my breathing, my turnover, and cadence, feeling emboldened by how easy it felt to carry a 7:09 pace this far into a race.

Two miles later, I got the first indication that this wasn’t my day. As I ran through black asphalt ocean-side neighborhoods, I glanced at my watch and saw that my pace was ten seconds slower than my target pace. That would normally not be an issue were it not for the noticeable uptick in perceived effort. This early in the race, I knew there was no way I could keep up the pace. Had this slowdown happened after mile 23, I could dig deep into my grab-bag of clichés and save the day. But at mile 15 you’re not even past the psychological halfway mark.

Mile 24

I was therefore faced with that frustrating decision: do I keep going as fast as I can, whatever that pace may be, and dip my attitude into a vat of acid for the rest of the race, or force myself to slow down gradually, at my own pace, and still somehow enjoy the experience?

Salvaging the race and finishing with a semblance of a smile felt like the better option. I know what it’s like to snarl through the second half to finish with an unimpressive time. It shines a pool of light on the decision some elites make to simply drop out of a race around 30k rather than finish. If you’ve been training for months to murder your PR and you can tell this early that it’s not going to happen, what is the real reason to fight against the strain?

Mile 26.1, oceanside

The only real reason was simply because! Life is for the living! Leave it all on the field! Nut up or shut up! But you can’t make that decision until you’re actually running the race and can feel the blood pounding in your head and lungs, realizing that every mile will only get worse if you continue to resist the ever mounting weight in your legs. When you’ve run 36 marathons, you learn to take these days in stride, pun fully intended.

All of this is to say, I took it easy in the second half despite running smoothly through the race’s early miles. It seemed that my group runs had imbued me with great speed but not with the necessary endurance to keep it going. Moving forward I might try and break one of the foundational rules of long-distance training, and actually run some of my longer distances at race pace, rather than just the last few miles. My subpar performance in New Jersey (a 3:41 for those who care) hasn’t killed the quest to BQ, just delayed it until the fall.

Surprise race participants Chris (remember him?) and debut marathon slash birthday girl Melissa

As for the race itself, I really enjoyed it. It was easily one of the flattest courses I’ve ever run, especially the second half. What begins in tree-lined residential neighborhoods on wide roads eventually became a tour of New Jersey’s many seaside communities, from Long Branch to Asbury Park, Allenhurst, and Monmouth Beach.  Several miles were run on dew-soaked wooden planks, which felt elastic after seventeen miles of black asphalt. The smells of sea salt mixed with cotton candy as runners passed through each new community, the crowds lining the shore growing as the miles ticked up.

With state 47 behind me, I have just West Virginia, Alaska, and Hawaii to visit to bring my 50 states journey to a provisional close. In between now and then, I’m letting myself be lured down a new path, one with its own language, maps, and cultures, not only to explore uncharted terrain but to reignite the flame of athletic discovery and re-draw at further distances the lines that we call our limits.

Ever onwards.

End of Year Recap (2016)

After the quantum success of 2015, it was only natural to expect some sort of reversion. Statisticians call it “reverting to the mean.” It’s like how the tallest male in a family is unlikely to have children taller than him because he is an outlier, or how some sports teams are unlikely to follow up a surprise victory with a repeat performance. Last year saw exponential improvement, which meant a slew of brand new PRs. Almost as if to tamper my own expectations from the beginning, because deep down I knew I’d risk breaking myself to improve on 2015’s vast strides, I determined that 2016 would change the course of my running path from speed to endurance.

recap_2016

The year began with a monster goal: to finally vindicate my only DNF by finishing a 50-mile trail race. Three years earlier, I dropped out of my first ever attempt thanks to a last-minute injury. Although it’s melodramatic to say I’ve been “haunted” by that failure, it has lurked quietly in my mind, like a flickering light that’s too high to fix. Wanting to earn the title of ultrarunner once and for all, I felt determined to attack this challenge, throw everything I had at it in an unrelenting pursuit of glory.

The problem with that path is that it leads to an unsurprising pit of injuries. Despite my excitement and alacrity, by the first day of March, the walls echoed my curses every time I got out of bed to shower or stood up at my work desk. My right IT band was not happy with my reckless ramp-up to ultra distances and it took me two whole months to get back to normal. Unfortunately, that brought me just shy of ten days before the big day.

Silurian Spring 25k (March)

Silurian Spring 25k (March)

Whatever bad luck I suffered leading up to the Ice Age Trail 50-Miler, it fell prey to ten straight hours of pure running magic. I ran comfortably, through fields, over coiled roots, and up the dirt face of more than one bluff to finally conquer the distance. At no point in the race did I feel remotely fatigued or defeated, and I had the perfect 45-degree temperatures to thank for it. The day’s constant chill was unusual, as if trapped by a giant, glass dome.

This was the race of 2016. Even if the rest of the year I had fallen completely apart and stopped running altogether, I would remember it for this one accomplishment. Upon crossing the finish line, for better or worse, I felt invincible. Longer distances were no longer as intimidating as they were that morning. The selective amnesia that plagues most runners was strong, and for several weeks, I was considering events I had previously thought crazy.

Ice Age Trail 50-Miler (May)

Ice Age Trail 50-Miler (May)

The glow of May was so strong that the rest of the year felt like it was in its shadow. From the highest high I plummeted to new lows in Omaha, where I went from 8-minute miles to walking around mile 18. Dehydration, sunburn, and a subpar summer training plan had spelled doom for me in the Cornhusker State. After years of running marathons, I had an insouciant expectation that I would simply finish, no problem, maybe even under 3 hours and 30 minutes.

That did not happen. Instead, I ran my second slowest marathon ever, the world around me literally spinning at mile 24. Three weeks later, I put in a considerably better performance in Newport, Rhode Island, but I still felt like the distance was breaking me in the last 10k. I felt like I was losing the endurance from my marrow, hearing my in-laws’ admonishment with every tired step:

Wait ‘till you get older.

Mad Marathon (July)

Mad Marathon (July)

The confidence that I had carried with me all year had faded with these two performances. On paper, they made sense. Last year, I was focused and disciplined. Every workout was aimed directly at Berlin. Weekly workouts were tailored with specific goals, months had overarching purpose, and each season was part of a carefully calculated regimen. Like a transparent, steampunk machine, my program was chiseled and welded to (near) perfection.

After washing off the salt from my trail-worn legs, 2016 lost its compass. My only real goal was to add more states to the map. In previous years, I’ve used races in new states as milestones en route to a time goal. But without a time goal, I lacked the motivation to wake up early to run before work, or to push the pace during long runs. Running became perfunctory, something I did out of obligation; something I had to do, not something I wanted to do.

Rock 'n Roll Half Marathon (July)

Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon (July)

But then I ran a 50k on a whim. I hadn’t put in the necessary training, but I signed up anyway. As if to close the year how it began, the race took place in perfect running conditions and I ran up and down the path three times, strong and confident. I was back in a warm, happy place, letting my legs do the work, air rushing through my lungs, surrounded by equally driven people.

Big Ten Network Big 10k (August)

Big Ten Network Big 10k (August)

As I look forward to 2017, I have decided to pursue another unfulfilled challenge: to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I tried to achieve a fast time in Berlin in 2015, but I was unable to make it happen. I’ve signed up for a weekly training group whose sole purpose is to earn that envious time, which is a big step for someone who uses running as a means to disconnect from the world. My hope is that it will reinvigorate my drive to improve my running times, and at the very least, allow me to post a competitive time this spring.

Omaha Marathon (September)

Omaha Marathon (September)

It becomes more obvious as I think about it, but maybe adding a group component to my training is exactly what I need now. After hitting the paths solo for almost eight years, I’ve reached another dreaded plateau. My 1:29 half marathon PR is two and a half years old, and it will be two years this May that I ran my 3:16 PR in Fargo. I don’t expect to improve my times every year, but as I write this, I’m not remotely close to either mark. But though I enjoy the physical act of running, the community is what keeps me connected to the sport.

So perhaps it’s time I actually run with people without bibs.

Newport Marathon October

Newport Marathon (October)

My enthusiasm, of course, is not enough to inoculate me against injury or my own bullheaded drive for improvement. Every year that passes is a year of experience – wait ‘till you get older – and a year of surprises, good and bad. And with each surprise is a new lesson learned, a new toolkit for solving problems. I just need to stay focused and committed.

Chicago Lakefront 50k

Chicago Lakefront 50k (October)

If you’re reading this, I want to thank you for humoring me every so often as I try and translate my passion into writing. If we’ve run together, read each other’s stories, or have yet to share the path ahead, I hope you chase exciting goals in 2017 in and out of running shoes. This sport, and so many others, affords us the opportunity to be together and to improve ourselves. With the world quickly drawing ugly lines between us, we need to embrace every friendly gathering and strive to help everyone reach their own finish lines.

Onwards to another year, one foot in front of the other.

10,000 Miles: 2016 Chicago Lakefront 50k

Note: It took me longer than usual to write and upload this post. Let’s just say I’m happy to write a story about a race that ended well.

Sunrise in Chicago

Sunrise in Chicago

In the fall of 2009, with my legs still reeling from my first marathon, I was stunned to discover that there was an even longer race that took place just three weeks afterward. A colleague who worked in the mailroom told me he had been walking along the lake front path and seen people running with bibs, up and down the path, all day. I had never heard of it and no one seemed to talk about it. If the Chicago Marathon attracted 40,000 runners and over a million spectators, why did this race, which was 4.9 miles longer, not attract just as many, or even more?

Start / Mile 10.37 / Mile 20.7 / Finish

Start / Mile 10.37 / Mile 20.7 / Finish

Year after year, I was quietly taunted by this timid race. The Chicago Lakefront 50/50, as it is known, takes place every year on the city’s beautiful park paths that line Lake Michigan, usually three weeks after the city’s marquee race. This might be a strategic move, as it not only takes advantage of the typical drop in temperature, but also allows diehard locals to use Carey Pinkowski’s world class event as the start of a mega-taper, culminating in a 50k or 50-mile race. Every year I considered giving it a shot, but I would always end up signing up for an out-of-state race, or opt to run a shorter distance instead, a decision usually forced by a late season injury.

But the 2016 race season was turning out to be an interesting one. It began with my second attempt at the 50-mile distance, which sucked the speed out of my legs in favor of endurance, and then continued into the summer with some unremarkable marathon performances. Upon finishing the Newport Marathon in a time I might have considered fast six years ago, part of me wanted to end the year on a higher note. Ice Age had added a bright sheen of success to my race exploits, which had started to quickly fade.

Lakeshore & Fullerton; Chicago skyline

Lakeshore & Fullerton; Chicago skyline

It wasn’t until my buddy Otter told me he was checking the weather for the Lakefront 50/50 just days before the event that I decided to register. Of course, the day after I did, the weekend forecast immediately jumped ten degrees.

Although it might sound like I’m prepping the reader for another disastrous race beset by heat, I was lucky to avoid that. In fact, the day was near perfect for a long, meditative run crisscrossing paths that have become intimately familiar to me. The race began in characteristically quiet fashion just south of Foster Beach on the lakefront trail. The 50-milers had started an hour earlier, so we were left to mingle with an incredibly diverse group of 50k runners. Long distance running, especially in large cities, is a mostly white sport, but I would have never guessed that as I listened to the sounds of pre-race jitters in several languages.

The course would trace a five-mile path south to Castaways, a bar and event space modeled after a marooned ship, whose crew decided to surround with beach volleyball courts. From there, we would turn around and retrace our exact steps back to the start, and then repeat the process two more times for a total distance of 31.1-miles. Aid stations would greet us every 2.5 miles, whose assortment of cookies, potato chips, Nutella, and fluids held us in place for longer than the standard 10-second visit.

A sample aid station spread

A sample aid station spread

The lakefront trail is never closed, even for races. This meant that at any point, we were running alongside casual runners, cyclists, walkers, and families. Under normal circumstances, this would bug me. You expect race officials to clear the course for runners so you’re not faced with unexpected weaving or dodging. But having run thousands of miles on this path, I wouldn’t have wanted to clear it. Chicago is a city that loves its parks and knows to enjoy beautiful weather while it’s an option. Despite bibbed runners having to take a more serpentine approach to the path to avoid weekend warriors, we felt like we were blending in, again, ever so quietly.

Right around where I ran my 10,000th mile

Right around where I ran my 10,000th mile

It was warm for late October, but perfect for a long run. Although the sun had been shining just over the horizon as we began, a grey screen was eventually pulled across the sky. Autumn leaves crunched below us, often brushed aside by a reliable eastward breeze.

As with any race that repeats certain sections, each iteration was a completely different experience. The first lap was meant to develop an impression, the second challenged you to stay strong, and the third dragged you home. I ran the first twenty miles comfortably, but began to lose speed right around mile 25. I reached the marathon mark in 3:49, right at the last turnaround, with five north-facing miles separating me from the finish. My phone buzzed in my hands three times and I glanced to find out that Otter had dropped out with IT band issues.

I gave myself a moment to shake my head in solidarity as I know how the dogged the struggle can be to vanquish IT band pain. But he knew it was the smart thing to do. I continued on the path, whose many turns, splits, ponds, landmarks, and recreational areas have become almost sacred territory. These were the roads that made me a runner, that pulled me farther from my comfort zone and built the foundation for what I hope will be lifelong endurance. It was almost transcendental when I learned that somewhere between that last turnaround and the finish line, after almost eight years of running and meticulously tracking every step, I ran my 10,000th mile. There, on the path that gave me my runner’s legs, the trail that has allowed me to cover paths in almost every state, I was back where it all started.

Fourth ultra in the books

Fourth ultra in the books

I ran into Steph’s uncle Jim at mile 29. He biked alongside me for a quarter mile and seeing a familiar face allowed me to speed up ever so slightly. It wasn’t just theatrics, as I wasn’t completely dead. But the bottoms of my feet were so beat that my insoles felt like they were made of sandpaper and nails, and my calves were one kick away from a harsh cramp. But I kept a workmanlike pace through the dirt path around Cricket Hill and toward Foster Beach. There were no large crowds, just a handful of spectators and even fewer fatigued runners beneath a rapidly thinning orange ceiling. In just my fifth ultramarathon, I crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 40 minutes, a half hour faster than my 50k PR.

I stayed for a few minutes to let my legs rest and watch runners trickle in, about one every five minutes. It was quiet, as if everyone were keeping a secret. Like most other ultras I have run, the event felt clandestine, almost forbidden. Runners were blending into their surroundings, focused and happy in their isolation. They weren’t there for the crowds, thunderous applause, or the deep bass thuds of the year’s most popular single. The Lakefront 50/50 and its faithful handful don’t really care about any of that.

You see, the Chicago Marathon is a spectacle; the handsome quarterback who parades down the halls and beams a cover-worthy smile to everyone who sees him. The floor clears ahead of him and his posse fawns from the sidelines, ready to do whatever it takes to get or stay on his good side. He points at you and you point back, but you don’t always know why. He’s the one destined for greatness and can do no wrong. The Lakefront 50/50 though, watches him walk by and moves on with his day. The 50/50 plays in an intramural rugby league after school with a small group of rebels, usually sharing the field with soccer drills. He doesn’t have a uniform or use expensive gear, but he makes up for the glitz in blood, sweat, and the occasional cracked bone. His legs are bruised, his shoes leave behind him a speckled mudpath, and very few people come out to see him play.

But they both love their sport and go home happy.

The lake front path, my winding home away from home

The lake front path, my winding home away from home