State 8: Arizona (2010 Damascus Bakeries Tucson Half Marathon)

It doesn’t take much to convince Jason Velkavrh to race.  Over the last two years, we’ve run fourteen of the same races with the most recent of which, thanks to Velk’s increase in training, were actual competitive endeavors.  In early November of this year, we finished the Hot Chocolate 15k within 30 seconds of each other at a very fast pace.  Afterward, over some beers at Finn McCool’s, we decided that if we were to train hard in the winter and find a chilly half marathon, we’d destroy our PR’s for sure.  After some internet research, we found that the Tucson Half Marathon was not only run in 40’s temperatures and a dry, desert climate, but also on a mostly downhill course.  So we went for it.

Tom Hines, ladies and gentlemen

After getting into Tucson via Houston, we settled in at a Sheraton on Grant Road using his vast horde of Starwood points.  The next day, we went to the Hilton El Conquistador to pick up our race packets, which had a disappointing cotton shirt but a surprising pair of wicking socks, a few vendors and little else.  While Tom Hines drove down from Tempe, Jason and I ventured into an Italian restaurant and continued our extreme carbo-loading regimen by eating what felt like an entire loaf of garlic bread.  Shortly thereafter, we met up with a very bearded Tom a few blocks away and drove to Fantasy Island, which was not a sex motel as the name suggested.  Instead, it was a series of desert trails, perfect for off-road biking.  After a brief stroll through cactus fields, we hopped back into the car and drove 7,000 feet up the Catalina Mountains, which was spectacular.

This was my first time in any desert climate, so the rising mounts of orange and brown were truly breathtaking.  We eventually made it to Ski Valley, stepped outside into the chilly air, took very deep breaths, and drove back into town.  That night we went out for a sushi dinner before calling it a night.

We were up at 4 AM sharp and out the door by 4:40.  We parked at Canyon del Oro High School and boarded a bus to the start line.  Along the way, we noticed that the shoulder of the highway was lined with traffic cones and that’s when we realized we were driving on the actual race course.  The bus eventually dropped us off on Biosphere road, though you would never have known that because it was still pitch black outside and the only lights came from two spotlights powered by generators, a cluster of heat lamps and the stars above.  With temperatures in the low 40’s and a breeze cutting over the mountains, runners were huddled together like emperor penguins around the heatlamps, conserving as much heat as possible before darting down the desert highway.  Had the speakers not been blaring 80’s power anthems, I would have sworn we had boarded the wrong bus.  There were no large banners with the name of the race, no signage, no tents – just hundreds of shivering runners waiting for 7 AM.

After hearing an a cappella rendition of the national anthem, the race organizers began the event.  I don’t know how this happened, but I remember waiting in the tiny start corral in pitch darkness … and then running in daylight.  The change was that dramatic.  The first hundred yards would set the pace for the rest of the race and that pace was fast.  Given that my half marathon PR was a 7:31 pace, I decided earlier that I would run the first half at 7:30 and then kick it into overdrive in the second half at a 7:10 pace.  But there was one snag to that operation: Jason.  He started running fast, really fast.  I caught up to him and informed him that our first split was a 6:56, hoping he’d slow down.  But he didn’t.  At that point, much like it did at the Hot Chocolate 15k, hubris took over.  As we continued the gradual downhill run, our splits stayed consistent and fast – 6:50, 7:04, 6:44.  Jason wasn’t slowing down.  Since I stop to walk at water stations (he doesn’t) I started falling slightly behind.  I kept up an unhelpful mantra, telling myself that we were going much too fast and that this pace was far from sustainable.  I was running a 10k pace, so how could I possibly keep it up for over twice that distance?  I could feel it in my breathing, but fortunately not in my stride.

I kept running at that unreasonable pace and receding into the distance, so did Jason.  My ever mounting concern about an inevitable 9th mile bonk aside, I managed to take in the scenery around me.  The sun was rising slowly over the Santa Catalina Mountains to my left, giving me an impressive 30 foot shadow that stretched over the highway and into the cactus fields.  I was expecting the heat to climb at this point, but never did I feel remotely warm.  I was definitely sweating – but the morning chill stayed with me.  As I approached mile 9, the gap between Jason and me had narrowed to only a few seconds but with a split of 6:56, the pace had stayed the same.  We crossed mile 10 in just over 1:09 and continued downhill.  For the first time, I was leading and it was looking like finishing with a sub-7-minute pace was possible …

I didn't take pictures of the race course, but this is desert and downhill, so it's the closest I have.

… until we hit mile 11.  Up until this point, the majority of the race had been run on North Oracle Road, a thin desert highway that runs southwest towards the city.  At mile 11, runners turn left onto East Hawser Street, a mile from a residential neighborhood and two from the finish.  We had seen the elevation chart earlier and knew that there was a slight incline around this part but hadn’t expected the sudden rise that it really was.  Under normal conditions, it wasn’t much of a hill.  But since our legs had been doing less work for more speed for over an hour, it felt torturous.  After slogging up to the top, we picked it back up slightly and dashed past subdivisions towards Coronado Middle School and the finish line.  Crossing the finish line in 1:32:06 was a personal best by over six and a half minutes.  Jason, however, improved his record by over ten and a half minutes by finishing in 1:33:37.  We collected our medals, stocked up on free food and took a bus back to our car.

For the next hour we would incredulously reflect on our superhuman accomplishments.  We tried hard not to fool ourselves.  It was obvious that the 1,000-ft descent was 90% responsible for our blazing times, the remaining 10% due to absolutely perfect conditions.  Temperatures were in the upper 40’s, humidity in the low 50’s (surprisingly) and winds at our backs.  But still, our impressive times were now in the books and the trip’s overall goal accomplished – not just to secure a PR, but to obliterate our PR’s.  With a time that I would not consider remotely possible on a regular course, I came home happy and proud.

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Would You Watch This Show?

The running industry continues to boom with no signs of stopping.  According to Running USA’s yearly publications, 518,000 people finished a marathon and a staggering 1.6 million completed the half marathon distance in 2011, with that number growing to 1.85 million in 2012.  These numbers are record highs, continuing a pattern that has remained consistent for the past three decades.  Every day more and more people are lacing up their trainers, finding local races and dedicating themselves to improving their fitness and cardiovascular health.  Large, popular races like the Chicago Marathon and Big Sur sell out faster each year, new races are being created at exponential rates and a quick search will yield countless blogs documenting race reviews.

Flip Burger after the Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham, AL

Flip Burger after the Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham, AL

And that’s not even counting shorter distances.  Running USA’s yearly “State of the Sport” report shows that almost 14 million people ran a race of any distance in 2011, a record number that still does not count fun runs and organized training runs that don’t require registration.  With the half marathon growing fastest at 16%, it is clear that a huge swath of runners are challenging themselves beyond the typical neighborhood 10K.

Given the sport’s explosion in popularity over the last thirty years, we can safely say this is far from a fad.  Long-distance running is here to stay, a staple of our time.  But there are virtually no shows on mainstream television about endurance racing.  Either that, or I have all the wrong channels (and a Google search for “tv shows running” or “tv show marathon” will yield all the wrong results).  So isn’t it time that we have a show that treats our sport with as much love and care as we display our race medals?  There are popular shows out there about storage lockers, meter maids and bearded dudes who hunt ducks.  Surely there has to be an audience for a show about distance running.  I can’t be the only loser who DVRs big-city races.

But let’s assume that a show strictly about running might not reach enough people.  After all, despite the growing number of marathon finishers, we’re still very much a tiny percentage of the population.  So let’s add a little something extra to the premise.  Let’s include a unique component that any person who exercises holds in especially high regard: the post-exercise meal.  But not just any meal.  Let’s eat a thick, juicy burger.

0613_2_kumasThis is “The Great Burger Race.”

Each episode will have three components.  One will deal with the many different and unique long-distance races in the United States and how they contribute to the sport of endurance running.  The race itself will function as a filter and a frame for the city in which the event is held, its history, its landmarks of particular importance, the people, famous and otherwise, who live in it and the businesses it hosts.  The second component includes the physiology of long distance running, both from a physical and nutritional standpoint.  The host will talk about what it means to carbo-load, why fats are good to have in your arsenal, and how much protein to eat after hard efforts.  The third and last component will happen after the race, where the host visits a local restaurant and eats its signature burger, showing that in order to earn the calories you have to burn them first.

A typical episode may look like this:

Zombie Burger's "Planet Terror" after the IMT Des Moines Marathon

Zombie Burger’s “Planet Terror” after the IMT Des Moines Marathon

The host is in Des Moines, Iowa, sitting at Zombie Burger & Drink Lab with their signature sandwich front and center.  (S)he stares at the camera and describes its ingredients, what makes it stand out, and how badly (s)he wants to eat it.  But that can’t happen yet, because we have yet to run the IMT Des Moines Marathon; hasn’t yet burned to earn.

At this point, the host will talk briefly about the race, when it is usually held, and its history.  (S)he may interview the race director and get insight on what makes this race special or how it reflects the unique charm of the city, attempting to describe the je ne sais quoi that separates the race from others.  In order to profile the race course, the host will talk about the city – who lives there, what kinds of businesses thrive, how fast or slowly it has grown in recent decades.  Perhaps there’s a famous local who is vying for the top spot, or a charity runner with a touching story.  Locals – runners or otherwise – will chime in with their own takes on the city and why they have chosen to live there.

The Rising Sun at Holstein's Las Vegas after the Hoover Dam Marathon

The Rising Sun at Holstein’s Las Vegas after the Hoover Dam Marathon

The host can then transition into a relevant component of long-distance running and its effect on the body.  For example, if the race has a big hill in the middle, the show can talk about what an incline can do to the buildup of lactic acid in a runner’s legs and how it affects perceived effort.  There are no shortage of topics that can affect race performance, such as climate, surface type, elevation, altitude, apparel, nutrition and training strategies.  From there, he/she can give advice on how to best deal with hilly courses by talking to experts and demonstrating specific exercises.

On race day, the host will introduce the race to the viewers, showing them a glimpse of the course map and what they can expect for the next 13.1 or 26.2 miles.  Cameras will follow the host as (s)he attempts to finish the race, giving insight at key points that deserve them.  The show can also splice in the lessons learned in the previous segment as they are tackled on race day.  In the current example, as the host reaches the hill, we can recapitulate the lessons learned about hill training and how they would contribute to successfully climbing and descending rolling terrain.

Central BBQ's Burger in Memphis after the Tupelo Marathon

Central BBQ’s Burger in Memphis after the Tupelo Marathon

As the host finishes the race, we get brief, spontaneous insights on what it felt like to run this race versus others.  It is the segment of the show where the race director’s statements from the previous day are evaluated.  But there is little time to devote to this, because any long-distance runner becomes ravenous very quickly after such a hard effort.  At this point, it’s time to eat.

We return to Zombie Burger, where it’s time to consume a hearty sandwich as a much-deserved prize.  At this point, we can discuss the value proposition of this particular restaurant.  What makes this establishment stand out?  Is it their interior design, designed by a horror enthusiast?  Is it their menu, which draws on classic horror movies for its burger names?  Maybe it’s the eponymous “zombie sauce.”  All of these are potential subjects to discuss as the host wolfs down the meal.

Shrimp Po' Boy (doesn't have to always be a beef burger) at New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood after the RNR NOLA Marathon

Shrimp Po’ Boy (doesn’t have to always be a beef burger) at New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood after the RNR NOLA Marathon

“The Great Burger Race” ends with a brief summary.  We came to Des Moines, ran a hilly marathon and ate a horrifically good burger.  We learned about what hills do to perceived effort, learned how to deal with it, and conquered the challenges.  Finally, we treated ourselves to a delicious burger because we just burned upwards of 1,500 calories for a half marathon or 3,000 for the full distance.  The host thanks everyone for watching “The Great Burger Race,” the race director for a job well done, the restaurant owner for a worthy meal and the citizens of Des Moines for welcoming us to their city.

The overall point of the concept is to showcase unique races throughout the United States and show that earning the meal can be just as fun as eating it.  After all, despite the increase in participants at these events, obesity indices in the United States, despite leveling off for the first time in decades, are still deleteriously high.  This allows for the possibility to teach viewers that you can have a healthy relationship with otherwise fatty and heavy indulgences as long as you are willing to put the time and training necessary to counterbalance them.

Bluegrass Brewing's Kentucky Bison Smokehouse Burger after the Kentucky Derby Half Marathon

Bluegrass Brewing’s Kentucky Bison Smokehouse Burger after the Kentucky Derby miniMarathon

Suggestions for themes may include the following: sustainability and green initiatives (Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa, Oklahoma and the Austin Marathon in Austin, Texas); picturesque scenery (Madison Montana Marathon in the Gravelly Mountains of Montana, Big Sur International Marathon in California); technical difficulty (XTERRA Trail Races nationwide, the Leadville Heavy Half Marathon in Leadville, Colorado, the all-downhill Tucson Marathon in Arizona), etc.  As there is no shortage of races, the show would have great flexibility in its scheduling and content.

For future seasons, viewers can vote online for which burger they deem the best in their own cities, in addition to voicing their opinions on which races should be covered in future installments.

Philly Cheesesteak from Steve's Prince of Steaks after the Philadelphia Marathon

Philly Cheesesteak from Steve’s Prince of Steaks after the Philadelphia Marathon

But no show would happen unless there are people watching it.  So the titular question remains: would you watch this show?  This idea is basically a pipedream that I decided to carefully flesh out but I want to know what you think.  Even though the majority of my regular readers are diehard runners and I want to assume they would, it’s possible that I’m wrong.  Is this concept is too scatterbrained?  Do you think the logistical handlings of each episode would be too expensive for a show that ultimately caters to a niche crowd?  Are you angry that this isn’t already on TV?

Could I be onto something here?

The Marathon Bucket List

When you set out on a journey to run a (half) marathon in all fifty states, you inevitably end up knowing about far too many races.  Be it through chatter in a running group, seeing t-shirts from other events or after a frenetic series of Google searches, you realize that there are just too many out there.  This is not altogether a bad thing, but the panoply of races can be overwhelming, leaving you feeling a bit spoiled for choice.  With so many options out there, it’s impossible to run them all.  So I’ve decided to compile a short list of ten races that I want to run before I lose interest in the sport.  Since none of these get me any closer to my ultimate goal, I will be running them purely for the experience they provide (also known as “fun”).  Were I to suddenly become wealthy beyond my wildest dreams, I would sign up for all of these in one calendar year.  In the absence of a giant, golden vault full of bullion minted with my name, I’ll have to settle for the distant gaze of “someday” …

United States

1. Miami Marathon Completed (2/3/2014)

imagesI’ve run the more popular half marathon distance in sunny Miami three times and each time it’s been an extremely fun run, despite some years pairing the 13,000 runners with crushing humidity.  In recent years, as I’ve gotten better at running in adversarial conditions, I’ve begun flirting with the idea of returning to Miami for the full marathon.  It wouldn’t be easy, but I want to run it to prove that I can.  When I dragged myself across the finish line in 2010 I was wondering out loud, in between stifled gasps, how anyone could run twice this distance under such conditions.  One day I will see how it’s not only possible, but hopefully fun.  If I’m lucky, I wouldn’t have to deal with terrible heat, allowing me to enjoy the glitzy beachfront properties, the seemingly endless rows of palm trees and the opulent turquoise condos that jut from the shoreline as if made of coral.

2. Colorado Marathon

colorad-marathonI have had a love affair with the Centennial State that has lasted decades.  It seems that every time I go, I have an amazing time without fail.  When I started running, the idea of going out west to tackle the miles at altitude seemed too daunting to consider.  But after churning out the Horsetooth Half Marathon, a challenging race in Fort Collins, I knew I would someday return for the full beast.  Although the largest marathon in Colorado is the Rock ‘n Roll Denver race, I have always been drawn to the state’s eponymous marathon, run along the Poudre river in Fort Collins.  When I think of Colorado, I think of the outdoors, rising slabs of earth, dirt and trees.  Though I’m sure there are far more rugged marathons in the state, this one has been calling my name for a while.  The fact that the entire race is downhill certainly helps.

3. Boston Marathon

baa-logoNo serious marathoner’s medal display or trophy mantle is complete without the blue and yellow unicorn.  The Boston Athletic Association’s flagship race is a rite of passage for anyone who has put in more than their share of pain and sweat into training, running their fastest possible, grinding their teeth and sapping their lungs.  And that’s just to qualify.  Just being in Hopkington waiting for the race to start, surrounded by twenty thousand other runners who pushed themselves to similar limits, would be reward enough.  But then you’d actually run the race, with Boylston Street 26.2 miles away, and the coveted title of “Boston Finisher” pulling you all the way.  I am several marathon seasons away from even considering a BQ, but with enough diligence and the perfect day, it can happen.

4. Big Sur International Marathon

imagesThe previous three races all involved cities that I have frequently visited.  I was drawn to them because they took place in cities that I hold dear for one reason or another.  Big Sur is the opposite.  I have never been to Monterey County or the Bay Area but have been drawn to it for quite some time now.  In addition, I read somewhere that this is “the race you have to run before you die” which is the literal definition of a bucket list race.  Every story about this race has been inspiring and the breathtaking descriptions of scenery make the decision to someday run it easy.  Even stories where the entire day was covered in fog haven’t lessened my interest in making the trip.  In fact, I’ve been meaning to fly out to California to run a marathon for years now but the surfeit of races is intimidating.  But even as I discover new, exciting courses to conquer, Big Sur has remained at the very top of that list.

International

5. Paris Marathon

logo_newParis, the city of love, high culture and delicious food.  In my head, I find it impossible to separate thoughts of Paris and that playful yet seductive accordion music that you hear in movies like Amèlie or in the closing credits of Ratatouille.  And that’s while not on the course.  What better way to get to know one of the most iconic and renowned cities in the world than by running on the historic Champs-Élysées, around le Place de la Concorde, past Notre-Dame and finishing just shy of L’Arc de Triomphe?  I can’t think of any other race (or city) that would inspire more nostalgia in me than Paris.  After all, it’s the closest major city to Fontainebleau, where I was born.  So now you know that.

6. London Marathon

vlm-logo-baseLondon comes in a close second to Paris’ nostalgia and sheer weight of history.  As a World Marathon Major, it is known for superb organization, a star-studded international field, and a fast course.  On paper alone, it is enough to get me to sign up (or add my name to the lottery and cross my fingers, as I’ve done the last two years).  But it’s more than that.  I lived in London for a little over two months as a child, which was more than enough time to develop an intense liking for castles and all things medieval.  The chance to run past the Tower of London, Westminster Palace, the Tower Bridge and various other structures of the highest regality is enough to make me and my inner child salivate.  That said, if there were a relay race in the United Kingdom whose legs connected castles to each other, then I would sign up in a heartbeat.

7. Berlin Marathon Completed (9/27/2015)

logo-2013-header-enThe chance to run the world’s fastest marathon is another no-brainer.  Sure, there are downhill marathons like Wineglass, Colorado and Tucson, but those events don’t have a torrential river of humanity 40,000 strong pushing you along the way.  This is the city where the great Emperor himself Haile Gebrselassie became the first person ever to run a marathon under 2 hours and 4 minutes, a feat broken in 2011 by Kenyan Patrick Makau.  Though Berlin is also a city with a very complex and fascinating history, it doesn’t have the same resonant, personal associations as the previous two European cities have had (despite living in Bonn for 3 months before college).  Running the Berlin Marathon would certainly help my ties to the city grow stronger, especially if it allows me to earn a new PR on its perfectly flat course.

8. Midnight Sun Marathon

LogoMSM_122x64All of the previous races have been in large cities with sprawling, international airports.  This one breaks that mold.  The Midnight Sun Marathon takes place in Tromsø, Norway, an island in the northernmost part of the Scandinavian Peninsula, and it starts at 8:30 PM in summer, when the sun shines all night long.  I would race this exclusively for the celestial novelty, but it doesn’t hurt that the course rarely leaves the coast and is hosted by a city surrounded by the Nordic wild.  It would be an adventure just getting there and not knowing the language will add to the experience … but I have no doubt that it would be worth the effort.  Marathons push you far beyond your comfort zone, so why not make the trip do the same?

9. Niagara Falls International Marathon

imagesThough technically an international race, it would require a domestic flight shorter than two hours from Chicago.  I have wanted to run this for two years now, but it seems like every weekend in October has ten different marathons, all of which I want to run including Chicago.  Since Canada isn’t part of my 50-states goal, the Niagara Falls Marathon keeps getting pushed to next year as I decide to knock out another domestic race.  But one day I’ll make the trek to Buffalo, New York, cross into Canada and finish to the sound of thundering cascades of foaming water.  It’s also the only marathon, perhaps even race, in the world that starts in one country and ends in another, requiring a valid passport at packet pick-up and check-in.

10. Two Oceans Ultramarathon

logoDespite my love of travel and discovering new places, I readily admit that I have very little desire to visit the African continent.  I used to find Egypt intriguing but the recent political situation there keeps me from taking any steps in that direction.  However, I have several friends who have lived in Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania, and they all have, in one way or another, tried to convince me that I should run an African race.  They certainly know me well because that is the most surefire way to lure me.  Though a race in Kenya or Ethiopia would be fitting given the sport, I’ve settled on the Two Oceans Ultramarathon in Capetown, South Africa.  There’s a half marathon option but if I’m going to make that excruciatingly long series of flights, I’d do myself a disservice by running anything less than the full distance of 56 kilometers (34.8 miles).  Adding to the intrigue is its non-exclusive billing as “the world’s most beautiful marathon.”

So there it is, my official bucket list.  Though I’m always finding new races and occasionally removing some, I am confident that these ten will remain stalwart ambitions on my radar.  It will be many, many years before I will have completed these, which is fine by me.  Despite gung-ho carpe diem attitudes towards life, not everything should be done all at once.  There’s something to be said about having long-term plans and knowing that you can tackle them at your own pace.  Besides, I have yet to become perilously wealthy, so all of these adventures will take careful planning and too many hours of daydreaming.

But surely I must have missed something.  Please let me know.  Have I forgotten any iconic races?  Do you have a race bucket list?  Are these races all “so annoyingly popular” that they betray my knowledge of the running world?  More importantly, should I replace Paris with Medoc?  Big Sur with Avenue of the Giants?

State 21: Kentucky (2012 Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon)

The Setup

At some point in the snow-heavy winter of 2011, I had an idea.  Why don’t I run two half marathons in one weekend?  I could drive down to Louisville and run the Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon on Saturday, and then drive 90 minutes to Cincinnati for the Flying Pig on Sunday.  I’d knock out two states at once and save myself some money in the long run.  But more importantly, it would be a great achievement and though I wouldn’t cross the finish with fast times, I’d have bragging rights for a while.

If the dream is to run the fifty states, then yes, Louisville, you tell a great truth.

“Don’t do it,” a co-worker with a 2:57 marathon PR said to me when I giddily told him this plan.

“Well, I haven’t signed up yet, but-”

“Don’t do it,” he said again with a solemn and sagacious expression.

“I mean, I wouldn’t race both, just-”

With a slow shake of his head, he repeated the cautionary mantra, pausing the broken record routine to tell me it’s hell on the body.  Under normal circumstances, I would take this as a challenge – who cares what others think, I’m doing it anyway!  But the Bayshore Marathon would be just four weeks after this crazy idea, and I had already decided that was the most important race of the season.  So I chose to run just the Flying Pig Half Marathon and ended up feeling great about the decision.  Not only did I get to bring along three friends on the trip, but I ran a PR in both Cincinnati and Traverse City four weeks later.  However, by opting out of the Derby, I had automatically slated it for 2012, which brings us to this weekend’s race.

The Company

As many of you might know, I love reading about fellow runners’ adventures.  I have a decent list of running blogs that I follow on a regular basis and I like to chime in now and then with my two cents.  On occasion, there will be some blogger overlap, but usually I find this out post-race, so the opportunity to meet new people face-to-face is gone.  However, this time, I knew ahead of time that three different fellow bloggers (five if you include Otter and myself) would be making their way to Louisville for the 11th annual Derby Marathon and miniMarathon.  There was Jeff, a Chicago road runner turned ultramarathon fanatic; Glenn, the local who would run his first half marathon; Aurora, who set out this year to run a half marathon every weekend; Otter, my trusty running hetero-lifemate, and lastly, me.

Otter, me, Glenn, beers for luck

Start Line

When you only have a night and some frenetic moments before and after a race to meet up, logistics can get complicated.  Fortunately, I was able to get together with Glenn Friday night at the Bluegrass Brewing Company for an APA.  I was pretty surprised that he agreed to get beers with us ten hours before his first half marathon.  I feel like I was on nutritional lockdown the week leading up to mine.  After he dropped some local knowledge on us, it was time to get some shut-eye.

We were up at 5 AM, skies troubled and winds cutting across the parking lot of the Jameson Inn, where we were staying.  The chance of rain had been fluctuating between 30% and 70% over the past few days and we (Glenn included) were expecting the worst.  Only twice have I run in rain, both times it was practically inconsequential.  With the amount of races I run, my lucky streak was bound to end, most likely in the shape of a date with torrential downpour.  But as we arrived at the start between the Yum! Center and Louisville Slugger Field, the rainclouds looked to be heading elsewhere.  Finding parking near the start was amazingly easy at 6 AM and we managed to snag a spot a block away from both the start and finish lines.  Right before the race was to begin, we met up with Jeff by the Pee Wee Reese statue outside the Louisville Sluggers stadium.  He was in Louisville from Chicago to run the full marathon as a training run, a lead-up to the Ice Age Trail 50-Miler in Wisconsin just two weeks down the line.  We wished him luck and made our way to the start.  We weren’t able to see Aurora, but wished her well in spirit.

Me with Jeff just before he went on a 26.2-mile training run.

The Race

“What time are you guys aiming for?” Glenn asked the night before.

Always a good question.  I try to run every race as well as I can, hoping to leave it all on the finish line.  But with the Indy 500 Mini-Marathon the next weekend, I wasn’t sure if going hard was the right thing to do.  But to answer his question, I told him that if the weather was ideal, I’d try and kill it.  I have a well-documented history of sandbagging and publicly setting up low expectations for myself, but if we get a cool day with little wind, I will always do everything possible to run a fast time.

Minutes before starting, we were in our corral, with the course spread out before us, blue skies and a calm breeze nudging us from the east.  The rain had avoided the city, meaning that the completely flat course was now accompanied by perfect conditions.  It was time to make it happen.

Fourth Street Live

The first four miles of the course were run through the wide streets of downtown Louisville.  Like all big races, I spent the first ten minutes cutting sharp turns around slower runners.  But even with the mandatory sidestepping, I was fast and unapologetic.  The first mile down Main Street was a 7:14, just a few seconds shy of my PR pace.  My last two half marathons have imbued me with a confidence that will catch up with me one day, but in the words of Aragorn, today was not that day.  At the risk of sounding too pompous, I’m calling it my Wanjiru breakthrough.  The late Sammy Wanjiru took the marathon by storm in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, defying the rules and proving that you can surge hard from the start without dying at the end.  Since then, Kenyans have uncontestedly assaulted all major marathons with reckless abandon.  It’s as if they all saw what was possible and downloaded Wanjiru’s tactics into their brains.

This is what was happening to me, except on a much slower scale, as I rounded mile 3 in 6:59.  Though the sight of a 6 in the minutes position of my pace still made me a little nervous this early in the race, it was no longer a siren warning me of impending doom.  I felt good at this pace … but as I approached the 7:14 pace group, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to stick with them for a few miles to keep my ambitions in check.

That lasted for two thirds of a mile.  When the course turned south on Broadway and onto 4th Street, I took off, hoping I wouldn’t see those guys again.  The course very quickly changed from drab urban grays to more scenic greens.  At mile 5.5 we wrapped around Central Park, where all memories of running through wide city streets were erased.  A large group of spectators had gathered at the end of this wraparound, just before the 10k mark.  My watch told me I was four seconds under PR pace, with a little over halfway to go.  The big question now was, would I be able to keep it up?

That task would be made easier by the miniMarathon’s course.  Glenn hadn’t lied to us when he said it would be amazingly flat.  It wouldn’t be until mile 8, where we entered the famous Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby horserace, that we would slide down, under the racetrack and back up into the concourse, briefly testing our climbing abilities for the first time.  I was pleasantly surprised when I wasn’t kicked in the nose by the smell of horse droppings.  Once inside the renowned and historical site, I began to run faster.  Part of it was the desire to negative split.  Another part stemmed from the sheer enormity of the venue, which put an extra kick in my stride.  But the biggest reason had to do with the 11-year old girl that was passing me.  I knew her exact age because her dad was running with her and everyone around them was fawning over how much of a badass she was.  I concurred.  But I wasn’t going to let an 11-year old girl beat me, so it was time to turn on the afterburners.  Later that day, Otter would ask me if I had seen the horses like a kid leaving the theater after seeing Star Wars for the first time.  I had more important matters at hand.

I cruised out of the Churchill Downs at a 6:52, shooting out of a dark tunnel and north onto 3rd Street, where we would run back to the finish line in a 3-mile straight line.  The beautification of the course would now be slowly undone as we ran from tree-heavy neighborhoods back into the heart of the city.  Because there were only two more turns in the race, it was very easy to get in a zone, focusing on nearby competitors and casting a line to reel them in.  The sun was out but temperatures were standing still at 55.  Thanks to all the trees, the road to the finish was covered in shade and there would be no mid-morning heat wave or fashionably late rainstorm to slow me down.

Finish Line, taken from the car on the highway

It was around then, just before mile 10 that I began to consciously ask myself: what can possibly stop me?  The last three miles were all run under 7 minutes and I wasn’t feeling signs of fatigue from my legs or lungs.  Some people might say that I was taunting the universe, presenting it with a potential teaching moment, the impudent youth biting off more than he can chew.  But I was being both bullheaded and completely honest when I considered it: what can go wrong in the next three miles to stop me from running the fastest race of my life?  Though the options were many, and I could produce a good list right now, nothing occurred to me at the time.  So I kept it up, running mile 11 in 6:49.

Quality. Bonus points for minimizing the Walmart sponsorship.

It was at that point that I realized my rivalries with 11-year olds weren’t over.  There were two young kids, easily under 13, running side by side ahead of me as we entered downtown Louisville for the last few miles.  These future Dathan Ritzenheims were also completely dry, because apparently you don’t sweat when you’re a middle school running prodigy.  I quietly wished them a rewarding athletic career, one in which running makes you cool in school, and left them to eat my dust.

As I reached mile 12 in 6:54, I took my first look at my overall time.  The clock read 1:24 and change.

Holy #%&$, I thought.  I’m actually doing this.  If I keep this up, I’ll earn a pretty big PR.  Or …

And “or” is what happened.  I started turning my feet over more quickly, practically springing off my toes with every step.  I had been trailing several runners for miles and it was time to put them behind me.  A guy with a white shirt that said “BEEF” on the back; another runner dressed in mostly pink with a shirt that said “Big or Small, We Save ‘Em All” (presumably running with a breast cancer charity); a female runner with a “Train Hard, Breathe Easy” shirt — all of them became targets.  One by one, I passed them all and never looked back.  Some were, in fact, breathing easy.  Others looked like they wanted the race to have ended miles ago.

I could see the right turn ahead onto Main Street, knowing that I was within striking distance of the finish line.  I reached mile 13 in 6:16, my fastest half marathon mile ever and by a huge margin.  The last 0.1 had a slight but delightful downgrade, which made it easy to begin a sprint.  I was happy, as I always am when I surpass my time goals.  But it wasn’t until I saw the clock that I actually felt a little short of breath.  I saw it and did something I haven’t done in the final moments of a race: I laughed.  In a state where I need every last rush of air to push me forwards, I was actually laughing.  I don’t remember if they said my name or if music was playing because I was in another world as I crossed the finish line, my arms shooting up above me like fireworks.

I finished in 1:30:47, a time that I would have considered impossible the night before.  Not only was it a PR by over three minutes, but it was faster than my all-downhill Tucson Half Marathon, which up until that morning, was the equivalent of playing video games with cheat codes or bowling with bumpers.  But best of all, it forever buried my fear of the 7-minute pace.  The last seven miles of the race were all under 7 and I felt like dancing.  Because of this, the race was more than just my 21st state – it was a genuine game changer.

A Kentucky Bison Smokehouse Burger with a “Pillar of Spuds” Celtic Ale

With my colorful medal beating proudly against my chest, I went to hoard some post-race snacks.  The organizers really went all-out, providing fruits, bagels, granola bars and even Sun Chips.  I took a few and ran to the car to get my camera.  Back at the finish line, I managed to get some quality shots of Otter obliterating his PR by an even bigger margin than me.  The rest of the day was spent eating delicious burgers at the Bluegrass Brewing Company, driving back to Chicago and reminiscing over our accomplishments.  All in all we loved the race – our only complaint, if we had to name one, was that not all water stations had Powerade.  It sounds petty, but if we had been running the full marathon, I’d be more than a little miffed.  Then again, if that’s my only criticism about a race that has to cater to almost 18,000 runners, then someone’s doing something right.

And so I notch one more Southern state onto my racing belt.  The region has been very kind to me, not just in providing me with quality, well-run races, but allowing me to scorch their courses to fast times.  As summer approaches, my opportunities for such performances diminish, so I’ll enjoy these glorious mad dashes while I still can.  For other perspectives and completely different stories about this race, check out the following blogs over the next few days: Otter‘s, Glenn‘s, Jeff‘s and Aurora‘s.

Onwards!