State 26: South Dakota (2012 Run Crazy Horse Marathon)

When I first decided to take on the 50-states challenge, there was one question that kept popping up, both in my head and from the skeptics.

“You do realize that means you’ll have to do states like Nebraska, Delaware and South Dakota, right?”

At first, I would definitely groan in resignation, completely aware that while I could knock out fun states like California and Florida, I would also have to spend a weekend in less glamorous states with nondescript cities.  You inspire very little jealousy in others when you say you have a flight to catch to Rapid City, South Dakota, but eventually I would have to go there.  Around the same time, I started discovering very unique marathons.  There’s one that runs through the monuments in DC?  There’s one that ends in Niagara Falls?  There’s one that runs through the redwoods?  With all these fun races, there had to be at least one race in every state that was worth the trip and lactic buildup.  Inevitably, I would spit out a query to the interwebs, asking if there was one around Mount Rushmore.  Surely South Dakota would have already organized a long-distance race around one of the most famous and iconic sculptures in the world, right?

They had, but not since 2008.  Either that or my internet sleuthing was rusty.  But the results page did show that there was another race nearby that was themed around a horse with dementia.  Or a mentally unhinged, equine sociopath.  Regardless, I had never heard of it, but I clicked anyway and what I found was nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Crazy Horse Memorial, in progress — the white lines represent the outline of the horse’s head

In 1939, a sculptor from Boston named Korczak Ziolkowski was approached by Henry Standing Bear, a Native American of the Olgala Lakota tribe, who asked him to create a monument honoring his people and their heritage.  Standing Bear chose Crazy Horse to represent them, as he is known to have said “My lands are where my dead lie buried” after the United States government took back the Black Hills they had promised would forever belong to the Native American under the treaty of 1868.  At the time, Ziolkowski was working on Mount Rushmore, which was an artistic tribute to, for lack of a better term, the whiter pages of American history.  Standing Bear wanted a symbol of recognition for his people, to show the rest of the country and the world that “the red man has great heroes, too.”  Rather than add a fifth head to Mount Rushmore (an idea that I believe was suggested and soon rejected), Ziolkowski promised to make a new monument on an even grander scale.

A twenty-minute drive away from the four presidents is the site of his magnum opus, still in-progress and very, very far from completion.  Carved out of a mountain with explosives, drills and supersonic torches, when completed, the sculpture of a Native American on horseback will be the largest in the world.  To put things in perspective, Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln would all fit inside Crazy Horse’s head, and the “tiny” tunnel excavated from the middle involved moving more rock than all of Rushmore’s excavation.

I had never heard of this, not even in passing.  And here it was, being created bit by bit, the project moving at what appears to be a snail’s pace.  Being a huge proponent of the free market, Ziolkowski vowed that the entire project would be funded by public interest, meaning that private donations, admissions and gift shop sales are the lifeblood of this project.  Obviously, I had to not only run this race but also visit the monument and take a snapshot of history.  As someone who occasionally dips his toes in the arts, I can’t begin to comprehend how much patience it has taken the Ziolkowski family to stay dedicated to this effort.  Ziolkowski died in 1982, with his sculpture looking like a series of stepped plateaus, bearing only a geometric resemblance to the final product.  Upon his death, his family took over the operation and continues working on it to this day.

A 1/34 scale model of the work, the actual mountain in the background

A little over a year ago, I was in Barcelona, where I visited la Sagrada Familia and felt a similar sense of wonder upon beholding a massive work in progress.  At the same time, I couldn’t avoid a sense of frustration, a feeling that would revisit me as I stared upwards at the stone warrior from the Black Hills.  It’s a very real possibility that neither of these astounding feats of art and engineering will be finished in my lifetime.  A very selfish part of me demands that I see this finished work.  How is it possible that news can travel across the world in a microsecond and there’s currently a manmade robot on Mars, but this sculpture will still take decades to finish?  There is hope though.  Upon finishing the face in 1998, donations increased significantly.  The marathon is only in its third year and if it grows in popularity it will also contribute towards the acceleration of this project so that I may return one day to see the Olgala Lakota warrior in all his majestic glory.

The ultimate goal of the project is to provide a university for Native Americans. This model shows several planned structures, including a football stadium and a lake around the completed sculpture.

After touring the visitors’ center, watching the movie and taking the bus tour, I stopped briefly at Mount Rushmore to behold the famous monument on my way back to Rapid City, where I would stay for the night, preparing for the next day’s race.  On the way, I drove through Hill City and Keystone, which appear to be old mining towns, revamped into havens for bikers (not cyclists, mind you, but bikers) with leather goods stores and Harley Davidson retailers lining the one main road.  The quaintness aside, it was a beautiful drive, vindicating the endless sprawl of brown I saw when I flew into the state.

I returned to Crazy Horse the next morning at around 6:45 AM.  In the next hour, I would do my own pre-race rituals while watching a few unique ceremonies unseen at any other race.  Instead of playing the national anthem, runners were treated to Native American chantings, and organizers had replaced the usual megaphone with a rawhide drum.  It was a fun detail that kept the theme and spirit of Crazy Horse alive.  The first three miles ran a loop around the complex and took runners to the base of the monument.  After that, we were ushered into the Mickelson trail, which for the next ten miles would run parallel to the highway, all downhill, back towards Hill City.

The Mickelson trail was gorgeous.  On both sides of the path were trees dressed in autumn colors, from green to a bright yellow.  Several sections of the crushed limestone and gravel path were obscured by wispy layers of fallen leaves.  On more than one occasion, the path would change to a bridge, guiding us over brooks and on one occasion, the highway.  With the soft surface beneath me and a delightful downhill grade, I couldn’t help but cruise through the first 13.1 miles at under 8 minutes per mile.  I knew that the second half, whose uphill climb was very well advertised in the race’s promotional materials, would do its best to break me, but there was no way I was slowing down, not as long as we were heading downhill.

At the halfway mark runners left the soft, packed dirt of the Mickelson trail and entered downtown Hill City, where the highway had now turned into the town’s main street.  I could see the finishing banner and many runners eagerly sprinting their way to get their hands on a handmade clay medal.  But I had to wait.  It was the first time in any race that I physically run past the finish line and keep going.  In all other marathons that include a shorter option, the split happens somewhere in the middle.  But this time, I’ll be honest, it wasn’t easy knowing I was only halfway done, especially with the second half being much tougher.

The next six miles were a constant uphill.  There were maybe only two times where it went downhill and they were both short lived.  I locked my pace with a guy who had a red shirt with “See Ya!” written in the back, as if to try and defy him.  I kept up with him successfully until around mile 17, where I had to slow down.  Up until this point, the air at 5,000+ feet wasn’t hurting me too badly.  The cool temperatures and low humidity had made it so my shirt was already dry with a few strokes of salt added for detail.  But the combination of uphill running and relative altitude caught up with me.  I was thrilled to reach the turnaround at mile 19.5 because it meant, finally, I could start running fast again.  My 10-minute miles would now return to their original speed and I would leave a trail of fire in my wake.

Wrong.

Clay medal!  Leather strap!  Sixth and seventh iterations of the Crazy Horse Memorial in this post!

At first, yes, it was extremely easy to run again.  In fact, for the next two miles I was back in the mid 8s, every step through the fall foliage adding to my confidence.  But then something happened around mile 23.  In most races, I reach a point where breathing gets a little difficult.  Lucky for me, I’ve found the solution.  If I inhale through just my nose for about ten seconds, that does the trick.  Sure, I look like a zombie that just smelled the world’s worst fart, but it keeps me going.  This time, it didn’t work.  My throat felt like it was closing up and if I tried breathing at faster intervals, I got very lightheaded.  It was the first time during a race where everything adopted that shimmering glow that you get if you stand up too quickly.  I had to stop and walk.

And this is how those last 2 miles were run.  I would pick it up a bit only to have the air catch up to me and force me back to a walk.  The only cramp I got happened with a mile to go – at the top of a short climb, I felt like someone had stabbed two ice picks into my quads, slowing me again to a walk.  With this run/walk pattern, I made it back to Hill City, this time actually going under the finishing arch to end my ninth marathon and twenty-sixth state in just under 3:55.

News flash: locally raised buffalo burgers taste just like beef. My mistake for assuming it would also come with buffalo sauce.

Though I was ecstatic to finish my first marathon above 5,000 feet, it took me much longer than usual to collect myself.  I had a slight headache, I felt nauseous and didn’t want to eat or drink anything.  Ironically, it was like being hungover.  After the world’s best shower back in Rapid City and a delightful, but stiff nap, I went to a local pub called Thirsty’s for a brew and a burger.  My flight wasn’t until super early the next morning, so I decided to stay in for the night and watch a few sci-fi movies.

And so, with this first successful run, marathon season has begun.  A state that I had first thought would be a chore to complete turned out to provide a very remarkable weekend.  I can only hope that the rest of those so-called “boring” states will follow suit and deliver thrilling experiences (though if anyone can give me a road map to excitement in Delaware, I’m all ears).  In the meantime, I have five dates with the 26.2-mile monster in between now and mid-January, each one with its own twist on the distance.  I’ve learned over the last two years that I’m not invincible, so I’m moving forward cautiously.  Here’s to a speedy recovery!

Post-Race Update: It turns out I won 3rd in my age group!  While this may seem awesome on the surface, you have to look at the numbers.  There were only about 140 marathon finishers, 9 of which were males 25-29.  I’m guessing a lot of the younger runners opted for the half marathon instead.  Anyway, that means I won an age group award in a marathon!  I can’t say I ever had that as a goal, but lo and behold, I can cross that off my bucket list.  And I did it with an unorthodox training schedule due to a big life event.  Fancy that.

State 11: Colorado (2011 Horsetooth Half Marathon)

The cadence of my breathing is a great indicator of how hard I’m running, indicated by the rate at which I inhale and exhale a full breath.  At the beginning of every training run and most races (except the shorter ones), I run a 4/4, which means that I inhale during four strides or foot strikes and exhale during the following four.  I can usually carry this pattern for about four miles at race pace and then I switch to 3/4 (inhale for three strides, exhale for four), then to 3/3, and so on until I reach what I consider to be my last gear: 2/2 (though there have been some last-minute sprints where I breathe at 1/2).  In most half marathons, I hit the 2/2 breathing threshold between miles 8 and 10.  So far, the earliest I’ve reached 2/2 was at mile 5 at the 2010 ING Miami Half Marathon.
 
So why was I at 2/2 before even the first mile marker at this race?
 

The Westin at Avon - free thanks to Jason's love affair with Starwood hotels

There are two reasons for this: my activities prior to racing and the actual race course.  In order to properly explain the former, we’ll have to backtrack a bit to March 17, 2011.  A group of my friends and I went to eat dinner at Burger Bar and Jason brought up the topic of spring skiing.  Thanks to his bottomless trough of Starwood points, he suggested going to Colorado for a weekend of mid-April skiing on a budget.  A week later, he sent an email to a small group of us and in 24 hours, enthusiastically booked a free room and cheap flights.  Although the trip would be thirteen people shy of the excursion I organized in early January, excitement levels were up and the weather looked promising.  It definitely helped that we got lucky with the dates: we coincidentally booked flights for Beaver Creek’s closing weekend. 

This is what the majority of slopes looked like. Coming down the mountain are Nick, Steph and Jason (in that order).

We arrived at the Westin in Avon just past midnight on Thursday after the requisite Good Times food stop and narrowly avoiding a speeding ticket.  Friday was spent at Beaver Creek, enjoying a dramatic mix of perfectly groomed snow and sheets of unyielding ice.  But what impressed me the most wasn’t the range of snow conditions, but the paucity of visitors.  It felt like going to school on a Saturday and walking normally crowded hallways with an almost unsettling solitude.  But with the waits for lift lines reduced to near zero, how could I complain?  I asked a lift operator if this dearth of skiers was normal.  She said yes, because everyone is sick of winter by mid-April.  Well, Colorado’s impatience can be damned because the timing served us very well.

(Left to right): Jay, Brian, Jason, Steph, Me, Nick

But I personally got doubly lucky with timing by finding a half marathon for that Sunday.  By Friday’s end, I had logged about 20,000 vertical feet of skiing, which meant I would be taking it easy on Saturday at Vail if I was to survive a half marathon on the following day.  But perfect conditions, wide open bowls and tons of unexpected snowfall prevented us from skiing anything less than another 20,000 vertical feet (Jay put it best by saying it was “puking snow”).  But all that would have its price: by Saturday night, my calves were extremely tight and my quads were very sore.  In other words, that’s the first reason I was heaving every two steps at the first mile marker of my nineteenth half marathon.

Here is the second reason:

Ouch.

Those are some nasty hills.  However, I knew about them going into the race so I adjusted my expectations accordingly.  For those who are unfamiliar with Colorado geography, Fort Collins is about three hours away from Avon, where we were spending the weekend.  Similar to Denver, it sits in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, with elevation going from flat to jagged very quickly.  Any race in or around this area would be challenging, but given the chance to run a scenic, mile-high half marathon in cool, dry temperatures with the finish line at the New Belgium Brewery, who would say no?

A lot of people, apparently.  Jason, my trusty companion in half-marathons, was more focused on the slopes and our crazy Denver outdoorsman Jay Zeschin was also set on seeing the ski season to the very end.  This meant a 3-hour drive at 4 AM with nothing but the open road, an eclectic mix of rock/metal albums and the imminent sunrise.

The start line - in just over a mile we would be at the top of the dam

The Horsetooth Half Marathon started at Colorado State’s Hughes Stadium, 7 miles west of I-25 and just under one of the many rocky dams that surround the Horsetooth Reservoir.  I arrived over an hour early, so I grabbed my bib and dashed back to the car for a power nap.  Temperatures were perfect – in the upper 40’s with a cool breeze.  Once 8:30 AM arrived, I was on Dixon Canyon Road, facing the slope of the steep canyon that we would soon be scaling.  After a beautifully austere rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by a lone trumpeter, the race began its first ascent.  And now we’re back to me, hobbling upwards, gasping for air with twelve miles left to go.

The first half of the race runs north on Centennial Drive, along the rolling edge of the Horsetooth Reservoir, which is a thin recreational lake that unites the flat and mountainous parts of Fort Collins.  Right before climbing the second half of the first hill, appropriately titled “Monster Hill,” runners are treated to a spectacular view of the reservoir to the left and the vast sprawling plains of eastern Colorado to the right.  I had only a minute to take it all in before I was forced onto the tips of my toes for the most grueling climb of the day.  Even though I was only sixteen minutes into the race, by the time I reached Monster’s summit at just below 5,700 feet, I felt spent.

Monster Hill - the dam on the right is the same dam that can be seen from the starting line in the previous photo

Fortunately, I had two miles of downhill running to catch my breath and get my heart rate down to a level below life-threatening.  While doing so, I noticed something peculiar.  In most loud urban races, you get very few secluded moments where all you hear are running shoes plodding along the course.  In this case, running along the ridge of a manmade lake, I could hear not only everyone’s footsteps but also their breathing.  After all, we had all just scaled Monster Mountain together and we were all panting in unison.  It was a pretty fun moment of athletic communion.

But whatever transcendental feelings I felt were soon replaced by disorientation.  The second climb of the day, Dam Hill, looked almost exactly like Monster Hill – both preceded by a thin, flat stretch at the top of a dam and then a steep climb up the west face of a mountain.  It felt like being in a Twilight Zone episode, as if we were coming back to the same area despite running in a relatively straight line.  Once past this hill, I faced the longest, steepest downhill of any race I’ve ever done, switching involuntarily to some dangerous heel striking to avoid falling on my face.  Once past this sudden plummet, the course changes gears and cuts through bucolic pastures and the unmistakable odor of manure.

Halfway through, the race banks southeast through more farms right before the third, last and least of the day’s climbs, Bingham Hill.  It continues on Bingham Hill Road until detouring to cross over the Poudre River via a bike path.  As we crossed over the river on a wood and steel bridge, I suddenly felt awkward and a little dizzy.  My feet felt heavier than usual, as if gravity had increased its pull on me.  But then I realized it wasn’t me, it was the bridge.  The combined foot falls of hundreds of runners had caused it to wobble slightly up and down, which was confusing my stride.  It was an odd feeling and I was glad to get off it and back on terra firma.

At mile 11, the course meets the Poudre River on the left and more bovine bowel movements on the right, making its way towards the winding paths of Lee Martinez Park.  Once there, you could feel everyone’s pace pick up as they began to feel the finish line approaching.  After hugging Old Fort Collins Heritage Park, runners bank left over the Poudre River for the last 0.1-mile stretch.  I crossed the finish line in 1:51:52, grabbed my medal and souvenir New Belgium pint glass, and made my way to the food tent.  I wolfed down several orange slices, lost my water bottle, took a few pictures, and hopped on the buses to take me back to Hughes Stadium.

On the way back home, I stopped in Denver to get lunch and briefly catch up with a friend from high school, Melissa Mora.  I last saw her in the summer of 2004, right before she left San José to study at CU-Boulder.  During the delicious home-cooked meal, which was interrupted only by her dog Max begging for food by resting his jaw on my legs, we managed to sum up the last seven years of our lives in easily digestible nutshells (you can see Max’s tail in the picture on the left).  Not only was it great to meet up with her, it was a fun distraction from the second 3-hour drive before me.  I wish I could have stayed longer, but the rest of the day’s hours had been punctiliously planned and I had to get back to Avon in time for check-out … and the third 3-hour drive of the day.  Fortunately, Jason was behind the wheel this time, so armed with his blazing speed we got back to DIA with plenty of time.

Yes, I know, these race reports are getting a bit long.  But if you’ve made it this far into the entry then I thank you for the interest, and at the same time pat myself on the back for somehow keeping you sufficiently transfixed.  And now, with unnecessarily tight calves, I have two weeks until the Cincinnati Flying Pig and the definitive rematch between Otter and Laura.  Stay tuned!

Wisconsin (2013 Ice Age Trail 50k)

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The announcer took the microphone and began telling the 50k racers to line up on the wet grass.  I heard him from inside the cabin, where volunteers were managing packet pickup.  Almost comically, the sun burst through the clouds the instant I stepped outside.  Every runner, spectator and volunteer who had been tolerating several hours of intermittent rainfall began cheering for the warmth like angelic choirs.

You’re all welcome, I thought to myself as I scuttled past runners for a precautionary bathroom trip.  Almost ninety races done and I had yet to run in rain; my first ever 50k would not break the streak.

The Start / Finish / Aid Station of the Ice Age Trail 50

The Start / Finish / Aid Station of the Ice Age Trail 50

A few minutes later, I was toward the back of the pack, huddled with Otter, Jeff and Elizabeth.  Everyone was chattering nervously, eagerly anticipating the start of the Ice Age Trail 50k.  The truly unhinged group running the longer distance had been coming into the chute for about an hour, finishing nine miles out of fifty, the first part of a journey that, for most of them, would last between 11 and 14 hours.  Some looked extremely confident, as if they had just stepped out of their cars.  Others emerged from the path like they wanted it to be over, which was tragic considering they had forty-one miles left.

Those of us waiting by the start banner wouldn’t be running as far.  We weren’t many; the entire group could probably have fit in the small cabin where we had picked up our bibs earlier.  But the atmosphere was electric.  Nervous exchanges, loud laughter and shuffling feet came together for the ritualistic dance we were all performing.  But more to the point, the right people were there and their contributions to my exploits in long-distance running were perfectly summed up when I went to introduce my father in law Steve to Jeff.

“Hi,” Jeff said, extending a tattooed arm.  “I’m kind of responsible for getting these guys into running.”
“Wait a minute,” Steve said with a mix of skepticism and light indignation.
“Ultra!” Jeff spat out, immediately noticing his omission.  “For getting them into ultra running.”
“Much better,” Steve pointed with a smile.  “Because I’m pretty sure I got him into running.”

(left to right): Jeff, me, Otter

(left to right): Jeff, me, Otter

He was right about that.  Shortly after that comment, he amended the history to correctly reflect how he strong-armed me into running by signing me up for a distance I had hitherto never run.  When I ended up embracing the sport with an unexpected intensity, he became a mentor.  Then there was Otter, my only Chicago friend with the passion and endurance to run these events with me, whose reaction to reading about Jeff’s first 50-miler was enough to spin more than one twisted cog in his brain.  I’d be lying if I said Jeff’s ultra exploits hadn’t nudged me closer to the law firm of Jurek, Karnazes & Ulrich, but without Otter’s ironclad commitment, I might have tabled this adventure for another year.

Steve and I figuring out the drop bag situation

Steve and I figuring out the drop bag situation

These three gentlemen were instrumental in getting me to this start line, where we continued to quip anxiously.  It had been a long time since I had been overcome with such a profound feeling of uncertainty.  Every marathon I’ve run in the last three years I have started knowing I would finish.  Fast, slow, easily or with bleeding ears, I would eventually finish.  But today I wasn’t so certain.  I had never run that far before, trails tend to beat me up very quickly and my left knee had been pestering me all week.  But here we were, just minutes away from starting with the lush greens of the Kettle Moraine State Forest dripping all around us.  I barely had time to set up my GPS watch before we were off.

The 50k was divided into two sections.  The first consisted of a 13-mile out and back on the Ice Age Trail, a very narrow single-track path that at times was barely wide enough for two people.  With many ups and downs, it was by far the most technical section of the race.  I ran the first 5k with Otter and his friend Elizabeth, who kept the atmosphere light by exchanging funny and colorful stories.  It was nice to run and talk because it momentarily got my mind off what I was doing.

However, Otter and Elizabeth were executing a pretty conservative strategy with the downhills, which I approved for these first few miles.  After a while though, I wanted to do some flying.  So with limbs akimbo, I began my reliable pattern of darting down and slowly pattering back up.  I would see them later on the way back, all smiles.  Before, during and after, I left thousands of footprints on the Ice Age trail, which was anything but consistent.  Very rarely would I ever have time to look up and enjoy the breathtaking forest because it would mean risking a hidden root or a treacherous rock.

We are off (Jeff in the red singlet on the left, me in the blue / grey)

We are off (Jeff in the red singlet on the left, me in the blue / grey)

I locked in behind a group of runners who were matching my stride and up and down we went in a reliable pattern, screaming downhill with our arms waving like windmills and marching up in single-file.  Just when it felt like I could keep this mechanical pattern without trying, I kicked a root going downhill and snapped forward like a mousetrap.  I broke my fall with my hands and water bottle, but still scraped up my left side.  I went for a drink but the nozzle on my water bottle was caked in mud.  I had momentarily lost focus and the trail made sure I paid.  The worst part wasn’t the bruise I got on my palms or the occasional speck of dirt I’d feel in my mouth after a swig.  Instead, it was the fact that I was only at mile 8, with my legs still fresh.

How many times would I fall in the later miles, where it feels like cement has invaded my bloodstream?

My thoughts were quickly reverted to the trail as I stepped on a slick rock and almost lost balance.  I had to focus on every single step, trying hard to not get too close to the person in front of me, whose steps would prevent me from seeing places to put my own feet.

Two hours and ten minutes into the race, I was almost back at the start.  I could hear a furious cowbell ringing and nearby crowds.  One last turn revealed the white circus sheet of the medical tent.  There, in front of everyone else, was Steve.  Twelve hours earlier, we were in Chicago with the rest of the family, watching a production of Oklahoma! at the Lyric Opera.  Despite the show ending late, he drove me out to Wisconsin, where we would only get about four hours of sleep before our race-day alarm sirens would start shrieking.

13 miles down.

13 miles down.

He was likely tired and definitely hungry.  He should have been at a nearby Dog ‘n Suds, but instead stayed rooted at the start with his camera, clearly enjoying himself.  Before the race had even started, he had found people that he knew.  It made me happy knowing he wouldn’t spend the day sleeping in the passenger seat of his Jeep.  I flashed a quick thumbs-up and made my way to the blue tarp, where all of our drop bags were haphazardly strewn about, looking like a wreckage site or an evidence pileup.  Steve joined me seconds afterward and I gave him a brief rundown of how I was feeling.

I threw some Stinger waffles into one pocket, a CLIF bar into another.  Steve prepared a new water bottle and gave me a red bandana to wipe off the dirt and sweat the trail had left on me.  I was probably at the aid station for just a little over two minutes before heading toward the second section of the 50k race: the Nordic Loop.  This 9-mile trail circuit was wide enough for two-way traffic and for the first few miles looked like a meadow.  I couldn’t help but speed up a little, charging happily past slower runners and chewing on oat bars with absolutely no regard for etiquette.

If Steph could see me, I thought, she’d probably file for divorce.  That girl hates mouth noises.

Looking happy so far.

Looking happy so far.

But the peaceful and soothing Nordic loop soon deceived me.  We reached a point where the puffy soft grass spilled into the trees and became hard rocks, as if the trail were a stream that got suddenly rerouted and desiccated.  Once in the woods, I learned that the steepest and longest hills were all here, and not in the first section as I had originally thought.  Down I would go, leaning slightly back, flailing my arms at my side and stomping on the soil, then immediately slowing down and hiking up.

“I’m not looking forward to running these again,” said my temporary running friend with the yellow Camelbak.

Since the Nordic Loop was 9 miles long we’d be running it twice.  I was feeling great during this first attempt, keeping a very reliable pattern of speed spikes, eating my Stingers or oat bars every 30 minutes without much issue.  Though I began to tire around mile 18, I got a surprising burst of energy when we re-entered the tall pines.  Red straw and wet cones had softened the trail to the point where it felt like walking on clouds.  I once again heard the furious rattling of a cowbell and thanked the woman responsible.  I sped up a little and reached the Start in around 3:36, quickly finding Steve at the front of the crowd, checking on my progress.

22 miles down

22 miles down

I felt invigorated by how quickly it seemed like those last nine miles had passed.  I didn’t want to delude myself into thinking the next and final nine would be the same, but I was coasting happily on the endorphin high.  Once again, I found my drop bag, this time opting for just GU gels.  I must have looked like Gollum searching for his lost ring because I felt completely wired, like nothing could stop me.  Steve gave me the thumbs up, told me I had this, and I left the station for the last loop.

It didn’t take long to notice that something wasn’t right.  My legs were fine; turning over without much complaint.  My feet, after striking the uneven, rocky terrain tens of thousands of times, were also performing admirably.  I wasn’t sweating that much because the weather was cool with winds occasionally slicing through the trees.  Every system that matters for shorter runs was working like a champion at mile 24.  But the one that I needed the most for the long haul was beginning to fail me.

Two miles earlier I had eaten a Stinger waffle, a tiny sugar-filled disc that I had eaten several times already.  But this one felt like it didn’t have anywhere to go once I swallowed it.  Steph had once told me that when she was young, she thought food piled up in your stomach until one day it reached the back of your throat and you couldn’t eat anymore.  That’s exactly how I was starting to feel.  Even small drinks of my electrolyte solution felt like they were swishing in my throat above my chest.  This uncomfortable feeling soon turned into frequent burping and reflux, which made it so I couldn’t keep my head up.

At the end of a long stretch of pines I reached the Nordic Loop aid station.  As I approached it, I tried to keep my sight firmly fixed on the tent, but I couldn’t.  My head would stay up for two seconds and then drop, as if the strings holding it up were cut.  I laughed a little when this happened.  How it is possible that I couldn’t even keep a steady forward gaze?

I took a few orange slices, hoping they would help with my digestion issue.  If they did, I didn’t feel the effects.  I kept moving forward, slowly up and quickly down, but all the while with a rod in my throat that wouldn’t dislodge.  My esophagus was full, clogged beyond repair.  There were times when I thought vomiting might make me feel better.  It never came down to that, though I still don’t know if it was for the best.

Drop Bags Central

Drop Bags Central

During this struggle, I remember looking down at my watch to see that I was about to cross 26.2 miles.  That magic number where my pains and aches normally stop would mean nothing today.  My trusty watch, as if under the assumption that I was out here on another routine marathon, died 0.4 miles later.

It wasn’t long before I had returned to the tall pines and red straw path.  The trail was being shared by half marathoners now, many of whom were running faster than me.  I would speed up for short stretches at a time, slowed down by the frogs trying to escape my throat.  I kept up this seesaw pattern over the next mile, where I was soon overcome with many conflicting emotions.

Disappointment was there, with a scowl and slumped shoulders.  He wasn’t upset with me, but with my master plan to keep running on solid foods that didn’t pan out how I wanted.  Fear and concern showed up, wringing their hands under large billiard eyes, wondering how I’d be able to run longer distances in the summer if I was already losing it in perfect conditions.  But then elation and pride crashed through the walls in ATVs, a six-pack of beer in each hand, because they knew I had fewer than two miles to go and were ready to celebrate.

Up and down another hill, left and right around a new turn, my feet refused to stop moving.  I didn’t have the energy from the first Nordic Loop, but I was no less determined to see this race to the finish.  I was giving it all I had, running faster than I had in the last four miles, adrenaline magically fueling this last surge.  Two invisible pins were jabbing themselves into my quads with every lunge forward, but with the finish line so close, I didn’t care.  Up another up, down another down, some almost effortlessly, my central governor acting like a horse that caught sight of its stable.

I recognized the final turn.  The lady with the cowbell had left her post, but Steve had not.  Participating in the sport for over a decade had turned him into the perfect crewman and he didn’t miss a second of my final push.  I stepped over the red timing mats, my name was announced and skyward my hands went for that fleeting moment of victory.  After five hours and sixteen minutes on my feet, I had earned the title of ultramarathoner.

I walked over to my drop bag and pulled out a protein shake.  Finishing the race had given me a sudden headrush of excitement, but that would soon dissipate into a semi-nauseated state of discomfort.  I hadn’t felt this way since the Crazy Horse Marathon, so I knew it would just be a matter of waiting it out.  The organizers had set up a large buffet in the cabin with sausages, meat patties, potato salad and chips.  I served myself some, but couldn’t find the will to eat any of it.  Steve and I went back outside to a large tent where a cover band was crooning Tom Petty covers.  I managed to drink a beer but it wasn’t helping me get back to normal.  I saw Jeff and exchanged a congratulatory high-five with him.  We had very close finishing times, despite never really seeing each other on the Nordic loop.

2013 Ice Age Trail Run 50k Key Chain

2013 Ice Age Trail Run 50k Key Chain

I slumped down on a chair, my plate of food untouched.  I wasn’t dizzy or light-headed, but couldn’t seem to push any food down my system at all.  So I just sat there and watched people finish, some of whom were 50-milers and looked like they were barely hurt.  I got up when I saw Otter’s green singlet dashing up the path on his way to finishing.  He looked like a kid chasing an ice cream truck, the biggest smile on his face and not a single hint of pain or discomfort.  While I was in a strange haze of acceptance when I crossed the timing mats, Otter was in a beehive, bouncing off the walls.  He actually dropped down and did a few push-ups afterward as if to prove he wasn’t done.

In that moment, I realized how differently we tackled our races.  I knew on the course that it might be the only 50k I ever run.  So I was out for blood – to run aggressively and finish knowing I had nothing left to give.  Otter on the other hand, was there for the same reason most trail runners run in the first place: to have fun.  Though I didn’t run the race with him, I could tell that his goal had been to enjoy a prolonged communion with nature and experience the outdoors in the most direct way possible.  I actually felt a little envious seeing how great he felt and how eager he was to wolf down the post-race food spread.  Whether he had a mid-race epiphany is his story to tell, but the biggest lesson that I learned in LaGrange, Wisconsin, was that I have a lot to learn.

With Ice Age behind me, it’s back to the drawing board.  I need to retool my arsenal if I’m serious about running even longer distances in warmer weather.  Though Otter looked like he could have kept going, I was in no shape to continue.  But whatever happened in this race that seemed to stall my food intake (eating too much too soon, perhaps) should not happen later this summer with the right tweaks.  Until then, I need to massage my legs back to life, lest they atrophy too soon before the most intense summer they will ever endure.

After all, I merely joined the ultra club.  I don’t want my membership revoked.

Marathon_Map 041 (WI)

End of Year Recap (2012)

2012 was a huge year.  A complete game changer, no question.  If I were to never run again after this year, I would say I went out with a bang.  If I continue this “hobby” for decades to come, I will point to 2012 as the year in which I realized I was capable of more than I thought possible.  Not only did I get faster, I became more confident, at times almost recklessly so.  I broke through some significant barriers, pushed myself farther and reevaluated the idea of improvement.

It is for these reasons and several others that I will have to abandon any humility I may have as I write this post.  Seriously, if self-congratulatory fist-pumping gives you an allergic reaction, stop reading now or go find an EpiPen because your throat is about to close up.  In the words of a fellow blogger, I’m sorry I’m not sorry, but I am damn proud of what I have achieved this year.  I put in a ton of time and sweat into training every single week without fail, dealing with everything from heavy snow to blistering heat.  I cut back on beers (which is more than I can say for a close friend), kept the partying down at several birthdays, woke up too early over the summer and eliminated key staples of my diet like milk and peanut butter.  In other words, I’d better have something to show for these meaningful lifestyle changes.

While not every accomplishment can be represented with numbers or drawings, that’s where I will start.

Recap_2012

On geography alone, this was a crazy year.  Thanks to miles hoarding, road tripping, doubling-up and a few perfectly timed airline deals, I was able to complete twelve states, nine of which I had never visited in my life: Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Minnesota, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Iowa, Oklahoma and Nevada.

Race Stats

Half Marathons Run: 11
Fastest: 1:30:47 (Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon, PR)
Slowest: 2:08:32 (Madison Montana Half Marathon)*
Average: 1:39:55*

*1:37:04 is the average if we remove the lung-killing Montana race at 9,000+ feet.

Marathons Run: 6
Fastest: 3:25:12 (IMT Des Moines Marathon, PR)
Slowest: 3:54:38 (Run Crazy Horse Marathon)
Average: 3:37:54

Top 3 Half Marathon Medals:

Oak Barrel Half Marathon (#1)

Oak Barrel Half Marathon (#1)

Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon (#2)

Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon (#2)

Mercedes-Benz Half Marathon (#3)

Mercedes-Benz Half Marathon (#3)

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Top 3 Marathon Medals:

Williams Route 66 Marathon (#1)

Williams Route 66 Marathon (#1)

Run Crazy Horse Marathon (#2)

Run Crazy Horse Marathon (#2)

Little Rock Marathon (#3)

Little Rock Marathon (#3)

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Worst Medal of 2012: It was actually a great year for medals.  I can’t really find one that I truly dislike all that much.  However, if I had to pick one, it would be Idaho Falls, whose generic and rusty design I forgave because of its tiny field, excellent organization and post-race food spread.

Number of fellow runners: 142,971
Biggest race: 34,301 (Shamrock Shuffle 8K)
Smallest race: 69 (Madison Montana Half Marathon)

Mileage Stats:

Miles Run: 1,366.6 (new record, previously held by 2011: 1,195 miles)
Average Pace: 7:53 (new record, previously held by 2010: 7:55)
Race Miles Run: 329.4 (new record, previously held by 2011: 266.8 miles)
Average Pace: 7:50 (new record, previously held by 2010: 7:52 miles)

0129_miamihalf 01So there you have it.  I ran the most miles of any previous year, the most race miles, kept the fastest yearly pace and secured a PR at every single major race distance.  I broke 20 minutes at the 5K three times, broke 41 minutes at the 10K, ran under 1:33 three times at the half marathon and broke 3:30 twice at the full distance.  My average marathon finishing time of 3:37:54 was over three minutes faster than last year’s PR.  I ran a record number of races (24) and finished a record number of states (12).  I even managed two half marathons on consecutive days without serious consequences.

0407_1_oakbarrelhalf 25I also stopped being afraid of certain numbers.  I no longer doubt myself when I see a sub-7 pace in a half marathon split.  A sub-8 marathon split used to be a red flag, a sign that race myopia had taken over and that I’d soon regret it.  Not so much anymore.  Thanks to the lessons I learned in 2012, I have realized that it’s good to be aggressive sometimes, especially if the weather is perfect.  I feel I owe it to myself to go as hard as possible, even if I think I’m exhausting my limits.  Because of this attitude, I won my first age group award at the Oak Barrel Half Marathon.  And then I won three more.  I placed in the top 1% of finishers three times and earned a top 500 finisher in Indy.

0427_louisville 08But all these stats are meaningful only to one person: me.  I honestly don’t expect anyone to analyze and digest them or derive any sort of real conclusion from them.  Besides, everyone is different.  A sub-elite marathoner would see my results and pat my head with a mix of encouragement and pity, like a Bengal tiger staring down at a fat, Manx cat.  Similarly, there are those who consider me fast.  To them I say, you can definitely catch up to me.  It’s just a matter of gradual progress with a few spikes of reckless speed here and there.  But regardless of whether these “other” people are faster or slower, they really are what make the sport fun for me.

0505_mini 12Because I never run, I train.  I prepare.  Every single time I lace up and go outside or hit the treadmill, it’s in preparation for a race, which is like a training run except I die sooner, usually surrounded by others doing the same thing.  On occasion, I see familiar faces because I’ve coerced them into running with me.

mono-locoHere are 2012’s repeat offenders:

Otter (10 races, running hetero-lifemate status maintained)
Danielle / T-Rex (4)
Marla (4)
Greg (4)
Steve (3)
Nolan (2)
Regan (2)
Jeff (2)
Jim (2)

And therein lies the core of how awesome 2012 was.  While it’s true that I enjoy running and traveling by themselves, no race trip is ever made worse with company.  Not only did I get to run a ton of races with close friends, but I made new ones whose racing adventures will surely continue to overlap with mine.  finish-lineMuch like last year, I got the chance to hang out with friends from bygone times (college, high school and even middle school) both on and off the course.  I visited three enormous monuments (Crazy Horse, Mount Rushmore and the Hoover Dam), played spectator at the best race in the world, ran two races under 20°F, one above 9,000 feet and wolfed down amazing post-run burgers at Flip (AL), Bluegrass Brewing Company (KY), Blue Door (MN), Zombie (IA), Holsteins (NV) and more.

Did I also mention that I got married this year, a huge spike in my yearlong endorphin high?

0826_halfmadness 03But though 2012 was a year to remember fondly, it ended with a foot injury that I’m currently nursing.  Yes, I ran far too aggressively over the last three months without enough downtime or cross-training.  At least I think that explains it.  In fact, it shouldn’t surprise me at all that something happened, given how much additional work my feet and legs did this year, especially in the latter half.  But the optimist in me says that this is just another lesson that has to be learned.  Nobody’s invincible and even the meanest streak comes to an end.

In the words of a mighty wizard, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”  As I continue to move forward in life, keeping close ties with old friends and meeting new people, I’m thrilled that I can do it all by doing what the human body does best: run.  With every additional mile, I am reminded not only that I am fulfilling an evolutionary goal, but that happiness is a choice and not a consequence.  Some people run because they feel they have to – to maniac-dinnerlose weight or to mitigate the effects of a greasy meal.  I run because I want to, because I enjoy every step.

So can 2013 live up to these impossibly high standards?  I hope so.  I’m shifting focus away from speed and towards endurance, made most apparent by two races looming on the horizon: the Ice Age Trail 50k and the North Country Run 50-miler.  Though I certainly want to recover quickly and get back into a regular pattern of training, my left foot isn’t letting me just yet.  The Disney Marathon starts off 2013 in just under 3 weeks, which means I’m furiously rewriting my training regimen to keep 1215_1_hooverdammarathon 03fitness levels up without hurting myself further.  Tune in on January 14 to see if that happened.

And on that note, I bid ye all a Happy New Year.  May you achieve your goals, learn from your mistakes and keep pressing onwards with an insatiable desire to live.  Because we must always remember that whatever we do in this sport, we do ourselves.  Sometimes we receive encouragement from others and in certain instances we might get swept up in someone else’s training plan.  But at the end of the day, what you do and the choices you make are yours.  You plan, you prepare, you follow through and lastly, you learn.