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.


Marathon_Map 046 (MO)

About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

28 Responses to Missouri (2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon)

  1. Laura says:

    I was just starting to get nervous about hills in Delaware… this didn’t help.

    • Dan says:

      I just realized that the Delaware Marathon is a two-loop course. So if your goal is sub-2, then I could run the first half with you and then go off and do that dastardly second loop. Sound good?

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  4. Charlotte says:

    Your vivid description makes me worry about even attempting the full marathon in April! lol I’m tired. I am registered for the Rock n Roll in St. Louis but last year, the half was not as bad as the Go! half. But 26.2 no matter the terrain will likely do me in! Love your blog, btw.

    • Dan says:

      I never mean to discourage people from running, so my apologies if the entry came off as a bit intimidating! The lesson to learn from it is to train specifically for the race you will run, and not to assume that a down-the-middle training plan will help you conquer a challenging course. You may finish it, but it’ll put you through some pain first.

      Thanks for following — best of luck with the summer training!

  5. tootallfritz says:

    As a very poor uphill runner, I don’t think I’ll be adding this one to my list any time soon. 🙂

    I did go ahead and register for they KY Derby Marathon and IL. Of course, IL isn’t a new state but I enjoy running with friends way more than running solo and well tons of people are going down so I’m just jumping on that bandwagon. It will be my 4th marathon in 21 days so I figure I may need a friend to wipe my tears and another to carry the Kleenex. 🙂

    • Dan says:

      The Derby mini was fun, and super flat. One thing to watch out for is that in 2012 they weren’t offering electrolyte drinks at the aid stations for the first half. I didn’t care because I was running the 1/2, but full marathoners complained that they didn’t get their salt fix until well into the race.

      And four marathons in 3 weeks is crazy talk — even for me!

      • tootallfritz says:

        I had to come back and reread this. I just don’t understand why St Louis is so hard. The hills aren’t huge. They just keep coming. Gentle inclines and declines that just don’t stop. No I don’t do hill work either. It’s as flat here in Indiana as it was in Chitown. But it shouldn’t have been as hard as it seemed to be on race day.

        I had a random issue with my knee/hip in St Louis too and I know that took a big toll in the last half but dang this was a tough race. The elevation changes for St Louis (for 2015 – easier than 2014, I’m sure) were less than Pittsburgh but yet Pittsburgh seemed way easier.

        I think I’ll eventually work my way back to St Louis and try it again. I’m just not satisfied with how things went. On that note, I’m not in a hurry to go back just yet! LOL!!!

  6. Oh man, that brought back a bunch of bad memories for me 🙂 I remember getting to the finish and seeing ANOTHER hill and wanting to puke (also it was 80+ degrees in 2011). But, a finish is a finish. Hope you’re enjoying it as much as I, “honest to Haile”, love the following sentence:

    “Miles are so much longer when you’re in the middle of falling apart.”

    So true, man. So, so true.

    • Dan says:

      Glad I could take you down a (not so) fond trip down the ol’ memory hole. I definitely lucked out with the weather — many people in our pace group were bemoaning last year’s heat, and the rain/wind of another year, and the awful humidity of another year. It seems like it all came together this time for near-perfect conditions.

      Though it does mark the first race that I run competitively with a long-sleeved shirt … maybe it was a little cold …

      Thanks as always for reading, Jeff.

  7. Jen says:

    I was debating this as my first full either next spring, or the Indy Monumental next fall. I’ve done the Indy Monumental half and it is nice and flat so I think I will stick to that one for my first full. Maybe I will do the Go! Half next spring though!

    • Dan says:

      I’m contemplating doing the Monumental this year as my fast, fall marathon. I’ve heard great things about it and it’s a much shorter drive than St. Louis. Plus, it’s flat, which will be a nice change of pace (literally). Let me know if you end up going for it!

  8. Jen says:

    What is it with marathon courses that end on an incline? It’s a very, very sick joke. Two of the three marathons I’ve done have finished with a nasty hill (MCM, Oakland). I believe Big Sur has a sizable hill at Mile 25, but hopefully it’s a downhill/flat stretch to the finish.

    Anyway, congrats on finishing your 21st full marathon!

    • Dan says:

      It’s a sort of sadism, no doubt. It’s a good thing I wasn’t trading seconds with my PR in the last 2k of this race, because I would have had some truly unholy things to say about that last hill had that been the case. Fortunately, I was trying to climb out of the depths instead, so it was merely one last kick in the face before the beer tent.

      Thanks for reading!

  9. Mike says:

    Even as a seasoned marathoner, it’s good to run up against a race every once in a while that reminds you – yeah, 26.2 miles is STILL a long way. Sounds like St. Louis provided a golden opportunity to hone your mental game (and your calves) early in the race season.

    Your tone suggests you’ve reached a tough stage in your running career… that weird in–between place where an otherwise excellent finish time of 3:31:53 stands as your fifth-fastest marathon, and really how do you honestly assess a strong performance that isn’t among your very best? It’s the marathoner’s motto – “no prize worth having is easy to earn” (I read that somewhere). Running is a game of patience, and those looking for instant gratification should probably look for a different hobby.

    Coming from Texas, I had to smile at your analogy of the church spire in the small town… most small towns in the South boast either a church spire or a Walmart on every street corner.

    I may be mistaken, but isn’t this the first time you’ve publicly admitted to revisiting your running goal as a “50 marathons” mission? Glad to see that in writing, it’ll increase our chances of (literally) running into each other along the way.

    • Dan says:

      Yeah, it seems like I’m waiting for the next quantum leap in performance. It happened in early 2011, where I went from 4:03 to 3:40, then again in 2012 when that became 3:25. The 20s seems to be my “zone” for the moment, so I need to shake up the training a bit and figure out the next big thing. Maybe semi-weekly hill drills will be the panacea …

      And yes, I’ve had the 50-states marathon goal in the back of my head for a while, but I suppose I’ve never articulated it on the blog. I will still continue to consider half marathons as states in their own right and will feel a crazy sense of accomplishment once I hit the 50th state in that journey. However, after that I’ll want to cover the entire country with marathons, though with less of the urgency and alacrity of the last 4 years.

      Or maybe I’ll pick one international race per year and sink my running budget into that. I could get used to that 🙂

  10. millhouse says:

    I loved this run and how well it represented the spirit of the community.
    The route really showed the town at its best – its hilly best. Not a boring mile on it.

    Thanks for a great report. You captured it perfectly.

    • Dan says:

      Glad that we got to share our first marathon together! It was great to hear that your ankles and Achilles didn’t bug you during the run. Time to recover and build back up for Chicago and whatever fun races may pop up in between, like say, Rosehill?

  11. MedalSlut says:

    Ugh, uphill finishes are just a kick in the balls, aren’t they? Well done, however, on a still-impressive time on a challenging course. And I’m also glad you’re planning on revisiting the half marathon states for a full – I think I’ve been sucked in to the longer distances now as well, but I have no states to conquer. So – because they’re probably closer to me than many states are to you – why not hit up different European countries? If you ever plan on tackling one, let me know!

    • Dan says:

      I do put my name in the London Marathon lottery every year … my absence at the race in the last three years should explain the results of those drawings. That said, I DREAM of doing international races. In fact, I’m going to post something one of these days about an ideal 2-month vacation I’d love to take if I were to find myself a giant pile of money.

      But yeah, when I get around to crossing the pond for a race, I’ll definitely holler.

      • MedalSlut says:

        Well, Tuesday the 22nd is when the ballot for next year’s marathon opens, just in case. I had a friend who was forced to defer on Thursday, so I’m taking that as a sign that I’ll get lucky this year and we can run together! Although my track record is, oh, 0/5.

  12. Josh says:

    Being in NYC, training for hills while running typically comes in the form of the treadmill which I can’t stand. Something about pushing that incline up, just completely begins to dishearten me. I typically try to do a lot of leg training though to compensate. Anyway, congratulations on making it through the St. Louis Marathon and booking your fifth best time… definitely an achievement!

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for reading Josh. But at least Central Park has more hills than the Chicago Lakefront does. Hell, even New York as a city has more inclines in its busiest streets than we do in the Loop. But today after work, I’m planning on doing the hill drill on a treadmill (not meant to rhyme) because the weather is back to being gross. Hope it doesn’t siphon out my will to live.

  13. Well written, Dan. I had a similar experience at the 2013 Cincinnati Flying Pig marathon. I started off with the 3:20 group but couldn’t keep up on the big climb that begins at mile marker 3 and ends past mile marker 8 (and there are some steep short ones after that too). I managed to hang on and finish in 3:24 and change.

    Last year and this year, I was a runner in the super hilly River to River relay – 8 runners doing 80 miles in southern Illinois. Each runner essentially does three all-out 5ks. To train for it, I used a 60 minute treadmill workout with a 1 mile warm-up and a repeating cycle of 2 minutes hill followed by 4 minutes flat. I cranked up the grade on each repeat, starting at 5% and ending at 9%. Sounds mind-numbing, but time actually passes by quickly.

    The Big Sur marathon is coming up in slightly more than a week – though I won’t be doing it for time. Hill repeats are the only way to train, on the treadmill or outside. Nowadays, I also try to sign up for hilly races as preparation – the Quarryman challenge 10 miler in Lemont, the North shore half marathon, and the Waterfall Glen Xtreme 10 miler.

    No matter how many marathons you do, it remains a challenging distance. I applaud you for tenaciously sticking to your quest and raising the bar with a target of a marathon in all 50 states.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for the tips, Krishna. My hill drills (in the rare event that I do them) involve half-mile climbs at six degrees, followed by half-mile flat recovery. I do these intervals until I hate myself. I like your 1:2 ratio though, so I might try that one out as well. And if I had access to the North Shore Half Marathon’s hills, I’d just run them all the time. I ran that race in 2010 and the Park Avenue Hill (is that the name?) definitely wrecked me.

      Best of luck with Big Sur! I know several people running, so I’m looking forward to reading all about it.

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