Loops and Troops: 2015 Veterans Marathon

As I waited for the cannon to boom in the tiny town square of Columbia City, Indiana, I forced warm air into my gloved hands and slapped my hamstrings to keep them from shaking. Although a cloudless sky surrounded the rising sun, it was just below freezing and I had already shed the hoodie Steve had given me earlier that morning. As a veteran of the US Armed Forces, my father-in-law had decided to join me for the Veterans Marathon and Half Marathon, but a bone spur aggravated by running both the Chicago and New York City Marathons relegated him to strict spectator duty this chilly morning.
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2015-11-14 07.51.07After a moment of silence in memory of those killed in Paris the night before, the organizers gave thanks to the veterans in the crowd, who gathered to greet and salute each other just ahead of the start line. The town’s cherubic mayor gave a few words of encouragement and the starting cannon thundered through the air, releasing about 450 runners into the town’s sleepy streets.
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The race was a 13.1-mile circuit that began in the town square and cut between plots of farmland. Marathoners would run the circuit twice, so I was treating this first lap as a preview. In between, we would run past a few country homes, barns, and grain silos. It was the exact opposite of my most recent marathon, the massive, machine-like Berlin Marathon, where every turn was a raucous celebration. Today, I was treated to the exact opposite … and it’s strange to say, but I enjoyed it almost as much, probably because it allowed me to zone out, to stop thinking.

Columbia City, Indiana

Columbia City, Indiana

I was completely focused on my stride, my breathing and energy levels. I didn’t have to worry about sidestepping past slower runners, quickly reading clever signs, or absorbing the cosmopolitan sights around me. It was just about running until you were done. Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy this straightforward, unencumbered approach to the sport, whose apotheosis is the endless desert run. But every now and then, something would shake me out of my reverie.
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“Ugh,” I said aloud as the air around me took on the acrid smell of manure. I caught up to a runner with a bandana and had locked in with his stride. “Makes you want to run faster just to stop smelling this, right?”
His reply, which was a grunted “yeah,” hinted that he wasn’t available to talk.
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I rounded the bottom of the race, which looked like a coat hanger, and sped back north to the finish line. This portion of the race, like almost every other stretch, was surrounded by yellow farmland and patches of forest shedding the last of their autumn colors. I passed a couple who I had been tailing for over a mile and hadn’t stopped talking the entire time. As I slowly passed them, the young woman noticed me.
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This is what most of the race looked like, except with a clear, blue sky

This is what most of the race looked like, except with a clear, blue sky

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“Man, I’m so jealous of that stride,” she said, her friend laughing.
“It’s all in these legs,” I replied and took a few leaps for effect. “But if you were to sit down next to me, we’d be very similar heights.”
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It’s true. My body doesn’t exactly follow the divine proportions, unless god is a mosquito. At some point in my development, my legs and arms stretched out more rapidly than my torso, and I’ve had these stilts ever since. Some days I regret not becoming a runner sooner, as I technically have had this lanky frame since high school. I often wonder if I am destined to struggle as a swimmer on the day I inevitably tackle a triathlon. It was a lot to think about ten miles into a marathon and thinking is usually reserved for afterward.
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2015 Veteran's Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2015 Veteran’s Marathon Google Earth Rendering

For example, I do a lot of it after a race doesn’t go my way.

I sulk for a bit, and let me head droop just enough to give me a dull ache in my neck. I try and tease out what I did wrong during training or what I could have done to guarantee a strong performance. Through all the excuses, I pick one or two and render swift judgment. I didn’t do enough long runs, or I should have cross trained more often. Surely these two culprits are to blame; next time I will make sure they don’t hamper my path to speedy victory. After a sensational implosion at Berlin, where I missed my target time by 26 minutes, I had plenty to consider. Ultimately, I decided that it was jet lag, combined with a hubristic first half that I couldn’t keep up.
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Halfway done

Halfway done

But there was also that unnerving voice in the back of my mind that I couldn’t quite tune out. It was a frightening perspective that asked, in a sober and defeated tone, what if I’ve hit my limits? What if my standing marathon PR, which I earned in Fargo this May, was a complete fluke? What if my ambitions are too far beyond my abilities? Is this as far, or as fast, as I go?

I had signed up for this race wanting to silence that voice. Although I spent the week after Berlin with Steph in Munich and later Brussels, happily eating sugar-cratered waffles and full-bodied Belgian brews, I knew I hadn’t lost all of my fitness. I built it back up in aggressive fashion during October and chose this tiny race as an act of vindication. As I ran over the timing mats of the first loop, I passed Steve and threw two happy thumbs up. I left the only crowd of the day behind me as I ventured back through the path already taken, determined to prove something to myself.
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I ran past the now familiar landmarks; the warehouses, silos, and manure-caked fields were right where I had left them. Though I’ve run two other double-loop marathons, I don’t like them. There’s something paradoxically challenging about knowing exactly how far you have left to go. Even if you have a watch and it tells you how far you’ve run down to the hundredth of a mile, visualizing it makes it worse. Seeing “23.2” on your watch can become a hieroglyphic, a meaningless symbol that simply changes over time. However, zooming through that mental course like a hawk only to return to reality’s deteriorating plod can really leaden your legs.
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Train tracks, then the poop fields, coat hanger, big hills, neighborhoods, and then we’re done.
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Oh man, that’s a lot.

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But again, I was trying not to think. I was keeping my head up, staring ahead and waiting for the next turn. The more I thought about the road ahead, the heavier my legs felt. The hills were far worse this time and every glance at my watch revealed a slow drop in pace. I couldn’t feel it in my legs or lungs, but running had officially become hard. Two out of three participants had stopped running at the half marathon mark, so I had no one to chase. With five miles left in the race, I was far from done. It was time to simply survive, the chorus of Symphony X’s “Legend” playing on repeat in my head:
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“Rise and fall, although I fight like hell
There’s just no certainty …”
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Just shy of the finish line

Just shy of the finish line

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There were a few people I could chase, notably the first female. She was wearing a bright pink fleece zip-up, which made her an easy beacon to follow. We seemed to be losing energy at the same rates though, as she stayed just about a third of a mile ahead of me for the rest of the race. I slogged up the toughest hills and through the remaining bouts of déjà vu before reaching Columbia City’s small town square. With City Hall visible, I tried to keep going at an aggressive clip without my calves buckling. I saw Steve again as I reached the town plaza, but this time I didn’t have any positive gestures. I had just one loop around City Hall to run before earning a finisher’s time. Though my second loop was a few minutes slower than the first, I was proud of my 3:17 finishing time, my second fastest marathon ever, just a minute shy of my all-time best.
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It was a great run, though not perfect. I had to struggle to keep an 8-minute pace for the last 10k after cruising at a 7:19 for the rest of it. I began to lose steam right around mile 21 as a product of running a maximum distance of 18 miles in the interim between races. Maybe I need to do more 20-milers at marathon pace, or expand my interval distances to 2-mile repeats. There might be some use in stretching my progression runs to 10 miles or beyond. More hill runs, that’s a must. Maybe I could take a crack at strength training …
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veterans-marathon-medalAnd before I knew it, I was back to overthinking the result without really savoring the fact that Berlin had been a fluke, not Fargo. Despite the hills and short ramp-up, I ran within striking distance of a time I had suspected was an outlier I might never again approach. But now I’ve added a new time to the sample, adding a companion to the statistical improbability. Maybe the 3:17 is my new normal, like 3:26 was three years ago or 3:40 in 2011. Sure, it wasn’t the BQ I had declared I would earn at the start of the year, but it is an indication that I’m moving the standard in the right direction. My goal is still to achieve that Boston mark, but it won’t be done in large, magical improvements, but instead with steady, incremental change.
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With my Indiana-shaped medal hanging in my collection, the Veteran’s Marathon has brought the 2015 long distance season to a triumphant close. With my 2016 goals still unannounced, it’s time to rest, relax, and nurse these proud, aching legs. Onwards!
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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.

15 Responses to Loops and Troops: 2015 Veterans Marathon

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

  2. Patty says:

    Congrats on your second fastest marathon ever!! I also had my second fastest ever this year, at Missoula. It was my 61st marathon in 18 years. I also ran my 5th and 10th fastest times this year. When I ran Fargo in May, I was trying to break 4 hours, and ran 4:12. I was ok with it, but my thinking was similar to yours, maybe this was as fast as I could go. But then I ran Missoula and ran 4:02 and then ran Omaha in 4:08 and qualified for Boston for my second time. All that to say that I’m glad you found out that Fargo wasn’t a fluke for you! I’m one of those people that believes we can do anything we set our minds to. It may take a lot of hard work and a little luck, but if you want it bad enough, you’ll get it. Congratulations again!

    • Dan says:

      Thanks Patty! It’s very encouraging to know that I too can hope to achieve fast times when I reach my 61st marathon. That’s incredibly impressive, especially given that you managed to BQ, a feat that I hope to one day achieve. I always appreciate your thoughtful comments – I hope you enjoy the rest of the year, even if the racing season has come to a close. 🙂

  3. tootallfritz says:

    Hey Dan! Great job in Columbia City. I’m now living not too far from CC but I grew up here and am very familiar with Veterans. It used to be one loop for the marathon but the course was horrible and ran down some very tough gravel roads. They revamped the marathon to the 2 loops not too long ago (within the last 5 years) and that seemed to make everyone a lot happier. I ran it in 2013 but had fortunately only signed up for the half. It was ridiculously windy and the hills seemed insane. I remember running the Veterans half slower than I had ran the first half of the Chicago Marathon the month prior. Kinda funny but that’s what I remember: being slow, having dirt/dust flying around in my eyes from the high winds, and hills that I hadn’t expected which seemed to never end.

    Great job, knocking another one back. Hopefully we’ll eventually be at the same race! I’m headed to the Flying Pig on May 1st, maybe I’ll see you there?

    • Dan says:

      You know, during one of the many times I eavesdropped on conversations during the race, I picked up that the race used to sport a different course. Given how hilly it was, I’m not so sure I would have wanted a giant circuit, because that might have exposed us to even bigger, more challenging climbs. Regardless, it wasn’t TOO bad, but on tired legs aiming for speed any incline is murder.

      As for 2016 plans, I’d love to fly the pig, but I have 50-mile ambitions in mid-May that would preclude any marathons from happening the weekend before. Have fun though, and with every interim race you have in between 🙂

  4. I’ve been thinking about you this week as I’m about to head back to Route 66 for the fourth time and came across some pictures of you and Otter from the other day. There’s always races that are outliers – my best races are WAY better than my average, to the point of it almost being impossible. Clearly, though, your outliers are the bad days. You train so hard and put so much energy into running and preparing for these races that that is no surprise. You work hard and it shows. Congratulations on your second fastest!

    • Dan says:

      Having just seen the Facebook post that you finished Route 66, the admiration and nostalgia is a two-way street. I read your build-up to it, the conflicting emotions that are rooted in a complex weave, hoping that you would gut it out (no pun intended) for one more run. Note that I said “more” and not “last” because come on, let’s be serious, there’s no last run until you’re dead. And even then there’s probably another run through the celestial aether. But let’s not get too high here — thanks for reading and for taking the time to chime in. It’s always appreciated. Looking forward to reading Tulsa’s play-by-play.

  5. Mike says:

    Guess that officially rules out Dallas this year? Nice job in IN! You had a much better showing in your first time trial after Berlin than I did last year, when I ran an entire 26.2 just to come in one second slower at CIM. Great result to end the year on, clearly the memory of a 3:17 will play well with the sugar plums dancing in your head through the holidays.

    Other than the double loop – an evil I’ve yet to encounter and hope to avoid – the Veterans Marathon sounds like the optimal venue and field size: simple and small. Berlin really is an *experience* more than a race for all but the elites, and as much as we’d all love to PR on the biggest of stages, the reality is that it’s the Fargos and the Mountains 2 Beaches that really let us do what we’re there to do: JUST RUN. There’s a reason no one includes “read spectator signs” and “weave around other runners” (some track workouts excepted) in their 16-week training plan.

    Amusing (from my onlooker perspective) to think you may have doubted your baseline potential after Berlin – understandable to be sure, but you’ve trained too hard and built up too much of an aerobic base to start sliding backward inexplicably. Blips will happen now and then, especially with the severe change in routine that Berlin entailed, but for the time being you’re still very much trending upward, and I’m psyched you have the Veterans as another data point to confirm that.

    I’ll be interested to see how you tweak your training. Given the marathon’s aerobic demands, increased weekly mileage seems to be the most surefire way to improve finish times, though impossible to say whether more miles by itself would be enough to boost you to a BQ. And how many more? Hill training and progression runs are both good ideas, though I wouldn’t recommend too many 20-milers at marathon pace. In any case, mind & body will let you know if/when you’re in danger of overtraining. Until then, push those limits! Seriously, what would we do without the dangling blue-and-yellow carrot that is Boston?

    Very cool too that Steve was able to join (if not run with) you – I’d imagine he was champing at the bit to be out there pounding the pavement. Best wishes on his quick return to the endurance circuit.

    Is 2015 almost over already? Onwards to 2016 – can’t wait to see what comes next!

    • Dan says:

      Dallas was just to throw you off the scent, Mike. And after yesterday’s run, where I slipped on some ice and landed on my ass and elbow, Dallas is DEFINITELY not happening. Just a bruise to the glute (and a bit to the ego), so this too shall pass … even if it means I can’t call 2015 a completely injury-free year. Alas.

      I will proceed with any tweaks to my training program with some trepidation. Although I was thrilled at how my changes panned out this year, every change could throw the system out of sync. In order to stay strong like I did this year, I’ll have to gradually add new drills and see how I respond. Plus, I was able to run 3:16 and 3:17 this year on an average of about 35 miles per week. I’ve found that breaching 40 as an average can lead to burnout, which I want to avoid. But … but adding mileage is crucial to getting faster. So maybe I just have to suck it up. Time will tell.

      All I know is that I’ve slated January 14 as the start of my 2016, as that will be 4 months away from Ice Age. Until then, I’ll be happy to put on some wintry holiday weight and simply enjoy the recovery period. Or not. Knowing me and my predilection for impulse racing, who knows.

      Thanks for reading, Mike.

      • Mike says:

        What’s that you say? The Polar Dash Half in early January? You’re a runner, you can’t let a little ice and – what’s that fluffy white stuff called? SNOW – get the better of you! (I say, writing from The Land that Weather Forgot…)

  6. John says:

    Good job on the race – it’s a good way to end 2015, and I always enjoy your recaps. It’s the mind games that play with everyone that seem to be the biggest barriers. I’m sure you’ll conquer yours, and I look forward to reading about it.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks, as always, for the support John. It’s always a pleasure to share running adventures with you and I’m grateful that you take the time to read about mine. Here’s to hoping 2016 is another success for the both of us 🙂

  7. Jen says:

    Congrats! Savor the redemption. Sounds like you just need to find a similar race (small-ish except with a few more participants to chase), and a course that doesn’t have multiple loops and you’re set!

    • Dan says:

      My thoughts exactly, Jen. I went from one extreme (45,000+ people) to the other, and need to find another race in that sweet spot of about 1,000 people. That, and it has to be flatter and faster. The whole “keeping peak fitness” thing is important too … alas …

      Thanks for reading and happy Thanksgiving!

  8. Pingback: End of Year Recap (2015) | Dan's Marathon

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