State 38: Maryland (2014 Maryland Half Marathon)

I was tired at the start of this race. It wasn’t because I had done anything strenuous the day before, nor was it from lack of sleep or the marathon I ran last weekend. I was yawning at the start of the 2014 Maryland Half Marathon because I was simply running this race to cross off another state, and for little else. The real reason for flying from Chicago to the Northeast was to run the Delaware Marathon the next day, but in the interest of frugality, I had chosen to add this race to save on travel expenses.

Start / Finish Area

Start / Finish Area

As I stood waiting for the minutes to count down to the start, I wondered with a slight grimace if my parsimony was cutting out some of my enjoyment of the sport. Some of my favorite activities are special precisely because they happen infrequently. I have a three-month window for skiing and Chicago’s merciless winters don’t allow for beer garden gatherings with friends for much of the year. Since I typically run between 16 and 24 races every year, few of them have the special haze that comes with months of daydreaming. I think of groups like the Marathon Maniacs, who run one or two marathons every weekend for the entire year and wonder how they can enjoy races if they’re a staple of the everyday, like eating or brushing your teeth.

So instead of writing about my performance at a milquetoast half marathon, I have decided to focus on three key lessons I learned during this 13.1 stretch of Maryland neighborhoods.

* * *

And we're off!

And we’re off!

Don’t Get Cocky

As you become more comfortable with the marathon distance, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that its shorter brethren is a walk in the park. I liken it to running eight miles during training – since it’s much shorter than a typical long run, you go into the run thinking it will be a quick, effortless jaunt. But if you start with that attitude, you’ll soon find yourself bored or worse, tired and humiliated.

Long stretches of gently rolling hills

Long stretches of gently rolling hills

Sadly, I was going into this race with this kind of thinking.  I wasn’t running for a time or the thrill of a race, nor was I expecting Mother Nature to put up a fight.  But it was a warm morning, the air was thick, and the course ahead was stubbornly hilly. I stepped over the start mats with a slow, slumped stride, as if running were punishment for not doing the dishes. There was nothing particularly special about this race that grabbed my attention months ago. It was simply on the Saturday before the Delaware Marathon. Convenience alone got me to sign up for it.

I soon realized, after dragging myself through that first mile, that if I wanted to successfully navigate the hills, heat and humidity, I’d have to overcome my own attitude. That process began by recognizing the challenge that lay ahead and to never assume that any given race is in the bag. Hubris is dangerous because it sets up unnecessarily high expectations, and the looming threat of an injury is increased by perfunctory form.

Each Run Should Have a Purpose

Whether you’re running three miles on a weeknight or a half marathon, you should have a purpose every time you lace up. Many people might disagree with me here – how often does a 4-miler really have its own unique mission? I’d like to say, hopefully every time. There exists a debate on “junk miles,” or miles that you run conservatively to rack up a bigger weekly total, and I’m on this side of striking them from your training program. Running miles simply to rack up mileage isn’t as effective as targeted miles. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of perspective. Four miles at marathon pace can either be four junk miles for the hell of it, or four miles to recover from the previous day’s hill repeats.

Lots of old residential neighborhoods

Lots of old residential neighborhoods

When each run has a purpose, it makes training much easier. So you could say there was a hypocritical conflict of interest when I decided to sign up for this event in the first place. By squeezing in a half marathon before a marathon, I was basically creating junk miles that would tire me out for the next day’s run, going completely against this ethos.

And then it hit me: these aren’t junk miles at all. I actually need to start the Delaware Marathon on tired legs. After this 39.3-mile weekend, my next big race is the Bighorn Trail 50k, where I’ll face the debilitating effects of mountains and altitude. The best thing I could do for my legs at this moment was to run long while tired. Suddenly, this impromptu, hilly half marathon was not a footnote but a bullet point.

Even in a Training Run You Can Still Challenge Yourself

And lots of new residential neighborhoods.  All in all, mostly neighborhoods.

And lots of new residential neighborhoods. All in all, mostly neighborhoods.

But that didn’t mean that it was suddenly time to run with zeal like a lissome gazelle. Had I decided to tackle this race at the threshold of my abilities, I would put myself at risk of dehydration and injury, neither of which would help me get through the next day. So instead, I mapped out a plan. I would keep a relaxed pace until mile 9, and then crank up the speed to a tempo until the finish. This not only made the race fun, it made the finish much more worthwhile.

Last year I ran the Garmin Marathon as a training run leading up to my first 50k and the finish line was all but celebratory. It felt like I had walked through an aid station and simply decided to stop running. I finished the race, but didn’t give myself a moment to feel pride

Last ditch effort

Last ditch effort

because by playing it safe the entire way, I had somehow cheated myself out of a meaningful experience. By actually kicking through those last four miles, I made the race itself count for something other than a conscious attempt at tiring out my legs.

It became a fun experience, a chance to run with new people in a new place.

It’s strange to have to re-learn such fundamental lessons. Racing is why I got into this sport so you would think that it would be at the forefront of my runner’s psyche. I thought this 50 States project would keep me excited about running, but it seems like I let myself forget that the true purpose of the sport is, quite simply, to run. The race is the carrot, and dipping race times are the stick. But both of them come together to push me out the door five times a week and quickly course air through my lungs and blood.

* * *

Fun weekend with Laura and the Fam

Fun weekend with Laura and the Fam

I crossed the finish line just over 1:41 and went to meet up with my college friend Laura and her mom. Not only were they generously hosting me for the weekend, but Laura had signed up for the Delaware Half Marathon the next morning, so the two of us had very important pre-race rituals to perform, including but not limited to two hours of bottomless mimosas and three miles of exploring Washington DC’s Museum Campus.  It would be our fourth half marathon together and we each had our own hopes and doubts about them.  She had PR’d at all three of her half marathons (but the most recent one happened almost exactly three years ago), and I was aiming for a respectable performance on tired legs.

The next day would prove interesting.

Are there any unexpected lessons you’ve learned during a race?  Perhaps some old, obvious ones that you had forgotten over the years?  Have you ever run a race “just for the hell of it” and ended up unexpectedly enjoying it?

Marathon_Map 048 (MD)

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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.

18 Responses to State 38: Maryland (2014 Maryland Half Marathon)

  1. Pingback: Race Schedule & Results | Dan's Marathon

  2. Great points! Always respect the distance, whether it’s 5k or 50k, and remember that most people wouldn’t run any of those distances. Map is filling in quite nicely now. Excited to see you fill it in completely. As far as “junk miles” go, I have a hard time telling people who like to run that every run must have a purpose. To me, running always has a purpose (it’s fun, man!) but I don’t like the idea that it has to have some goal or meaning. That can take the fun out of it in my opinion. I understand that, if in training mode, it’s a good idea to focus one’s self, but I don’t think it’s as important as the act of running itself. Looking forward to hearing about the next day!

    • Dan says:

      I think we agree to some extent, but disagree on the semantics. I don’t necessarily think that every run should have a detailed mission, such as “maximize slow-twitch while increasing stamina” — but perhaps simply, “today’s run will be slow, because I don’t want to overload my muscles” or “today I’ll do a tempo run because I’m feeling lithe and fast.” Having that mentality can not only make each run more enjoyable, but it has its place in a training regimen.

      Maybe this is because I’ve never run just for the hell of it — I always have a race on the horizon, so it’s just the way I co-exist with the sport. But you have a point, running should be done for its own sake. But for those who need that extra nudge, I think it’s good to give every session a goal.

  3. Patty says:

    Thanks for this post Dan! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’m a member of the 50 States Club, and a Marathon Maniac. I have 32 states completed but it has taken me 16 years to get this far. I see a lot of Maniacs running marathons every weekend or every other weekend, and sometimes wish that I could afford to do that. But then I remind myself that I want to savor my marathons, and for me that means 4 – 6 a year. I ran 6 marathons in the last 4 months of 2013, and while I enjoyed every one of them for different reasons, I got to the point where I wasn’t looking forward to the next one. I’m not knocking anyone who runs marathons or other races every weekend, obviously they get enjoyment out of it. It’s just not for me.
    Also, I like to think that every run has a purpose to me. Even if it’s a struggle (or junk miles), I feel better afterwards because I feel alive.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for the comment, Patty. If anything, I admire the Maniacs that can peregrinate through all 50 states in two years (I wish I had that kind of dough!). But it’s all about perspective. The runners who run 1 or 2 marathons a year might look to us and think “man, they must not enjoy THEIR races as much as I enjoy mine” and who knows, they’re probably right. If I were to pick ONE marathon a year and dedicate all my efforts toward it, I would likely come out of that experience with a greater runner’s high.

      So it was nice to break out of that headspace during this race and simply enjoy it for what it was. Thanks for chiming in 🙂

  4. I agree with you on all counts. You gotta respect a race distance, regardless of whether it’s a 5k or a 50k. And every training run has an objective – sustain a pace for a targeted duration, execute a specific speed or hill workout, or accumulate fatigue before a long run. I’d signed up for the ‘Gold medal challenge’ earlier this year at the Icebreaker indoor half marathon/marathon (half on Saturday, full on Sunday) – simply as a test of my endurance. I met my targets for both races. So you do learn to challenge yourself in different ways, not just trying to get faster at a specific distance.

    • Dan says:

      Well done on that 39.3 challenge — anyone who’s done it knows it’s not exactly easy. I hope this isn’t the natural development after reaching a plateau in the marathon (not saying you have, but I feel like I’m there at the moment). Going longer, doing crazier things, stringing up races closer together … maybe it’s our desire to continue giving these races a purpose when hitting faster time goals gets progressively more difficult. Alas.

      Thanks for reading Krishna. Best of luck with your next race(s).

      • I don’t think you have plateaued at all. Sometimes the biggest obstacle to achievement is your own inner naysayer. With the right focus, training and proper spacing between races, you will shatter barriers that you previously considered insurmountable. You’ll do it 🙂 !

        You’re right, we indeed wish to challenge ourselves beyond running multiple marathons. Some of us go for faster times, others branch into trail running, ultras (as you can proudly attest), triathlons, ironmans and so forth. For me, this spring season has been all about hill training and finding races that have hills – knowing full well that I won’t come away with a PR in any of them.

        The other way to find purpose in training runs and races is to help someone else achieve his/her goal. I’m helping colleagues at work train for their first race, and the joy of watching others accomplish something that they considered impossible is unmatched. You do this too through your blog, which is a great resource for runners looking for valuable information about marathons and about setting long-term life goals and working towards accomplishing them.

        All the very best to you in your upcoming races. Appreciate the journey – how far you have come as an athlete and as a human being – since you started running. Know that your story is as compelling as anyone else’s. Keep on bloggin’.

  5. Mike says:

    Strong start to the weekend, apathy or no. Though my initial reaction was… where’s the medal? Neither you nor the background runners in your finish line photo appear to be wearing medals. Don’t tell me the race organizers blatantly disregarded finisher’s memorabling for their eponymous state half marathon??

    So far, the key to my staying interested in each and every race (aside from not racing 104 times a year) is to keep changing, and keep challenging. I understand it’s important to respect the distance, but the truth is that many of us can now run a modest-paced marathon without pushing our limits… so unless I’m running for a PR, the distance itself really isn’t enough to keep me focused.

    I’d never be able to run 50 road marathons in 50 states, I’d fall asleep by the side of the road somewhere in Nebraska. So instead I’ll include as many trail races as I can along the way, at different distances (marathon, 50K… longer?) and in all types of weather. If a state has a particularly appealing road marathon I’ll run that, otherwise I search for quirky races (e.g. the E.T. Midnight Marathon). I try to keep mind and body guessing – Mississippi and Alabama were well-timed because, though not visually stunning courses, they were my first back-to-backs, so I had that new twist to keep me focused. In general, I find I lose interest more quickly on roads than trails, and so a mix of the two feels juuuuuust right.

    The term “junk miles” always strikes me as coach-speak. I’m not sure how to define “junk miles” because as you mentioned, one man’s junk (um, so to speak) is another man’s recovery. I’d argue your 13.1 miles in Maryland were definitely not junk miles, since a 39.3-mile weekend on slightly tired legs augmented your training (and medal collection) in a way that running one or the other could not. Unless you were specifically targeting a PR in Delaware, I’d say Maryland will be nothing but a benefit down the road (or trail, since Bighorn’s next!).

    Looking forward to the weekend’s thrilling DEnouement! And you’re right, by the way… those are some really short shorts.

    • Dan says:

      Rest assured, they gave out medals — that picture is misleading as it was taken BEFORE the race. We had to hustle back to the house to shower to make a brunch date with Laura’s friends, so a post-race picture was not part of the schedule. I’ll post it on my Medals tab shortly.

      Do you think you’d fall asleep roadside during this guy (www.sandhillsmarathon.com)? That’s tentatively the NE race I’m looking at. Might be fun, who knows?

      And I think I had this crisis of purpose during this race precisely because it could not on its own “keep me focused.” The race on its own merits was not intriguing enough to warrant a typical Dan’s Marathon review, so I went elsewhere to figure out how this event could fit in the grand scheme of things. I ultimately liked the lessons I learned during the race, but yeah, if it had been more Big-Sur-esque (if we’re asking for tall orders), then I might not have had to reflect as much.

      Look for Delaware later this week. Don’t peek at times!

      • Mike says:

        I’ve intentionally resisted the urge to look up finish times, to maximize the impact of your Delaware post. Consider my interest peeked, er, piqued…

        The Sandhills Marathon has an interesting trail feel, and by that same token looks definitively, well, Nebraska… I think I can see Kansas in the background in some of their photos!

  6. Amy says:

    As a 1-2 race per year runner, I do sometimes wonder (aside from the financial side) how people who run races all the time manage to not get disenchanted with all of the running. I imagine that the people who do races every weekend have a very different goal in mind than I do when it comes to running (traveling, meeting people vs. hitting certain times). Maybe in your 50 state quest, your goals have transformed from your initial mission of running across the country and getting lots of fancy medals to realistically getting to Boston in the near future and this race and all of the Maryland neighborhoods was your big “AH HA!” moment? I should be a psychiatrist, obviously.

    During training, each of my runs has a specific purpose, so I totally get that. Also, very interested to see how Delaware plays out. Are there even 13.1 miles IN Delaware???

    • Dan says:

      Hilariously enough, the Delaware race is a two-looped course, which might make you wonder if there was just too much state border around it to stretch out.

      The 50-states thing is admittedly made much easier by living in a city with two large airports, which makes travel not only easier but sometimes cheaper. Plus, Chicago is driving distance from many others, so it opens up the possibilities. You happen to live smack in the center of a large state, surrounded by other large states. Geography can be a blessing and a bitch.

      There may have been a moment of revelations somewhere along the line, but I think the Boston goal will have to exist concurrently with the 50 states. We’ll see which one happens first 🙂

  7. Pingback: Race Medals | Dan's Marathon

  8. Jen says:

    When I started reading this recap, I admit that I was a little disappointed to see that Maryland, my home state, was such a sad race that it wasn’t worthy of a normal report. However, after realizing that you ran it in Fulton (which I had to look up), I had to concur. Nothing but suburbs and housing developments there!

    I feel like I learn at least one substantial lesson every half marathon or marathon I run. I have yet to underestimate a race. Training runs? Yes, most definitely. But races, no. Maybe that will come with more races under my belt… we’ll see. The races I’ve been most surprised by are the ones where I have no expectations at all, except to just run with friends and have fun. I don’t care about my time and usually finish the race feeling really strong (because I don’t go out too fast, duh).

  9. Pingback: State 39: Delaware (Delaware Running Festival Marathon) | Dan's Marathon

  10. Pingback: End of Year Recap (2014) | Dan's Marathon

  11. Pingback: All Hills & Fall Chills: 2016 Mad Marathon (State #44) | Dan's Marathon

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