Post Race: Media Maratón Correcaminos 2015 (Costa Rica)

Most people – Americans mostly – have a hard time fathoming that addresses don’t exist in Costa Rica.

It’s true. The traditional concept of addresses that most people understand and learn at a very young age – a unit number, building name, street name, city and zip code – does not exist there. This singular realization drops more jaws and raises infinitely more eyebrows than the awe-inspiring fact that the country has 5% of the world’s biodiversity in spite of having only 0.03% of the surface. Or that the country abolished its army in 1949. Or that over a quarter of its land is protected national parks and sanctuaries.

Those astounding figures seem to pale against the incredulous notion that if you want to mail something by post, you have to literally write out long-form descriptors of where the letter is going. In other words, instead of writing “123 Main Street” on an envelope, you would pen “400 meters west of the Santo Domingo Supermarket, House with Green Fence.” On the surface, this sounds insane (and some news outlets have written hilarious articles on the topic). But think about it: before the awesome power of GPS was breathed into our phones, the average address wouldn’t really get you anywhere unless you already had a detailed understanding of an area.

Without the omniscient power of Google Maps, “5170 Forest Avenue, Eugene, OR 97405” wouldn’t mean anything to you. Sure, it’s a place in Oregon, but without a map or an atlas, you’ll have some trouble finding it. But remember what it was like when your parents had to drive you to your friend’s house for the first time? The conversation they had, where they mapped out where each road was and shared common knowledge of major landmarks, is exactly what the addresses are still like in Costa Rica. So, in a way, an address is just a code that you have to decipher. Costa Ricans just choose to write out the answer and if you want to know where anything is, just ask the post office.

So, it is with reverence for my native country’s silly quirk that I will describe the 2015 Media Maratón Correcaminos experience.

From la Plaza de Deportes in Tres Ríos, 6.4 km west, towards Curridabat.

Km 0: Over three thousand runners line up in Tres Ríos

Zero-k: Over three thousand runners line up in Tres Ríos

Although the race begins at 6 am, it’s already very bright in Cartago. The sun typically rises even before 5 am in the Central Valley’s damp and chilly morning, which means the cool air won’t last for much longer. Though the temperature is perfect for me, I can see most everyone else in thin jackets and tights, some even shivering as the humid chill slithers into the eager crowd’s bright orange race shirts. I can’t help but smirk – many of these runners don’t know true cold.

A few minutes after 6, the race hasn’t started yet, which prompts many runners to begin whistling and taunting the organizers. In the US, runners merely glance at their watches with the occasional eyeroll or scoff. Here, it was a party, replete with yells of “demole!” I fondly remember this part of the race from the last time I ran it three years ago because it is a humorous showcase of the Costa Rican culture of pura vida. Not longer after, we are released into the curved roads of Tres Ríos, beginning our 21-kilometer journey to the heart of San José.

5k: The first four miles feature a lot of elevation loss

5k: The first four miles feature a lot of elevation loss

The first four miles are all downhill. There are a few spectators out, lining the chipped sidewalks, but for the most part it’s a sleepy morning punctuated by the bright orange rush of runners. I scream through those opening miles at a 10k pace, lunging past dogs barking in small front yards, knowing that it’s going to get much tougher in a half hour. We will head west for almost the entire race, which means the brisk winds at our back won’t provide much of a cooling effect. My shirt clings to my chest; I can already tell it’s going to be a sweaty day.

6.5k: Curri is in the distance, with most of the downhill behind me

6.5k: Curri is in the distance, with most of the downhill behind me

I pass the first aid station during a particularly steep descent and grab a boli. Instead of water cups, races in Costa Rica tend to have sealed plastic bags full of water about the size of a small baton. Although they’re not the most environmentally friendly feature of the race, they are convenient for runners who want to hydrate, but not at that particular point. It takes some getting used to – especially since you are very likely to spill most of it into your nose the first time you try to bite into one.

From POPS Curridabat, 1 km south until you reach Multi Plaza del Este and Zapote

0705_correcaminos 07Curridabat is a neighborhood of San José that I used to cross often to see friends. It was also briefly where I would go to the dentist, so I have deep feelings about the area that stir my subconscious in occasionally unpleasant ways. But today, it is the site of the first flat stretch of running, along with the first climb. The sun has just burnt through the morning cloud cover and I can feel it singeing my neck. I’m already dripping sweat with every step and with the wind as an escort, I don’t feel any of it evaporating.

Once at the top, runners turn south and descend towards the least scenic part of the race. Most of the next three miles cut through urban commercial strips and highways, which are complete eyesores when compared to the majestic cerros de Escazú squeezing out of the Earth in the distance. The course makes up for these grey tones with another three miles of a nearly constant downhill grade. Thick clouds crawl over the mountains to the northeast and I immediately feel strong again.

After you pass la Clínica Santa Rita, go through la Asamblea Legislativa and around el Parque Nacional to reach Avenida Primera.

14k: Running through la Asamblea Legislativa in the heart of San José

14k: Running through la Asamblea Legislativa in the heart of San José

My confidence is tested as the course slowly bends upward. We are in the heart of San José, staring at a gradual uphill that passes many cultural landmarks. Were this not the most grueling part of the race, I would stop to enjoy the palm trees lining the plaza of the historic Asamblea Legislativa or the Museo Nacional. Everyone around me, despite having far more experience with the heat, altitude and humidity, is also gassed. I keep yo-yoing with many runners around me as I stop to take pictures. A group of percussionists plays at the edge of the Parque Nacional and their punchy, tribal rhythms drive me forward.

15k: Paseo Colón points a straight line toward La Sabana and the finish line

15k: Paseo Colón points a straight line toward La Sabana and the finish line

Once on Avenida Primera, it’s almost a straight line toward la Sabana, where the race ends. The road is not only ever so imperceptibly downhill, but it is as uneven as lumpy mashed potatoes. Each step is a surprise and I find myself raising my sunglasses to keep a very close eye on the asphalt to avoid rolling an ankle. Block after block of concrete buildings pass as if on a conveyor belt until we reach el Hospital Nacional de Niños in the historic Paseo Colón. I reach the four lane road, which during December is an explosion of festive lights, and feel the pull of the finish line.

Upon reaching the end of Paseo Colón, go once around La Sabana metropolitan park.

17k: Runners round La Sabana, with el Museo de Arte being the first landmark.

17k: Runners round La Sabana, with el Museo de Arte being the first landmark.

La Sabana is like San José’s Central Park, a large, sylvan park in the middle of a bustling city. I am greeted by the Museo de Arte Costarricense, a Spanish-style landmark that used to be the country’s main airport. The 2.5-mile perimeter features a gym, a track, pools, a lagoon, various running paths, baseball diamonds and soccer pitches. Inaugurated in 2011 and located in the northwest corner is el Estadio Nacional, which looks like a combination of clamshell and Stegosaurus. As I round the stadium around 19.3 kilometers, I face east for the first time in the race and feel the wind push against me like a river. Everyone around me hits a wall as we try and wade through the current. With just over a kilometer left, crowds emerge on the street and the edge of the park becomes a party. Once back at el Museo de Arte, I follow the runners ahead of me into the park itself.

Deliver medal to exhausted runner with Bib 188.

20k: Not even el Estadio Nacional could hold the winds back

20k: Not even el Estadio Nacional could hold the winds back

The final stretch is tricky because the road is a sort of cobblestone path, which makes sprinting a risky feat. I unleash my last energy stores and skip toward the finish line almost on my toes, stopping the clock at 1:34:37. I look like I opted for a detour into La Sabana’s lagoon, my feet squishing in my shoes with every step. But in spite of the humidity and altitude, I managed a significant improvement from three years ago. Just a few strides away from the finish line, I wolf down my post-race gallo pinto and fruit before walking back to the finish line to see my friends finish. José improves his PR at his second half marathon by a few minutes and Gabriel reaches the finish line of the longest footrace he’s ever completed. If I keep converting my friends to the sport, I’ll soon have a real following.

21.1k: La meta!

21.1k: La meta!

In recent years, Costa Rica has made some real efforts at instituting a system of addresses. The concern is real: in emergencies, it’s much easier to say three quick words (“123 Main Street”) than guide an ambulance or a squad car to your exact location. The untold amounts of undelivered parcels also add up to lost business, missed opportunities and an overall lack of efficiency. However, if you ask the average tico/a, you’ll find that they’re perfectly happy with how they get around, even if it means referring to landmarks or businesses that no longer exist.

You might laugh at the notion of saying “By the old higuerón tree” but it’s not too far from referring to the Willis Tower as the Sears Tower or saying “Comiskey Park” when today it’s US Cellular Field. In both cases, you’re finding common cultural and historical ground to map out a city, tapping into your brain’s ability to translate a 2D concept into the real world, which is increasingly becoming a rare talent as more people rely on smart phones.

(left to right): Me, José, Gabriel

(left to right): Me, José, Gabriel

Directions in Costa Rica are a charming vestige of the past, much like record players and encyclopedias. They remind us of a time when places had a greater sense of community and gathering. Music was localized, as record players didn’t exist in cars or phones. Encyclopedias and libraries weren’t crammed into every digital machine and required travel and intent. An address was a journey, a sort of mini-puzzle that involved active listening, perception and awareness. Reaching your destination felt rewarding because navigating a byzantine grid of unnamed streets could actually challenge you.

So it’s nice to know some echoes of bygone times still exist, often resistant to change. They may not be very helpful or logical in today’s fast-paced society, but they provide opportunities to see the world around us, engage with people and remember a time when we couldn’t know every answer with a casual swipe of a finger.

These days, if something isn’t on Google Maps, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist. But if you ask around and want to explore, you’ll soon find your way.

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Heat Down, Speed Up: 2015 Lifetime Miami Half Marathon

Vamos por el chifrijo! … Mae, dejastes tirado a tu compa! … Hay que ganarse los frijoles molidos!

20,000+ strong at the starting line

Mile 0: 20,000+ strong at the starting line

Every time I passed a Costa Rican runner, I’d blurt out some random tico chatter, usually about food.  At first, they’d respond and even ask me a question or two.  Towards the end, they’d simply smile and continue punching the air in front of them, battling the demons of pain and fatigue.

But though I was getting tired, demanding more of each lungful and feeling the harsh shock of pavement shoot through my legs and into my hips, I was giddy on the inside.  I hadn’t run farther than ten miles in the last three months and was far from peak condition.  Despite this deterioration, I was still committed to running the Miami Half Marathon for the fourth time, and there I was, cruising through the city at mile 12, feeling grateful that I wasn’t wincing with every forward leap.

left to right: José, me

left to right: José, me

If you’ve been following my running adventures for more than three years, then you’re probably tired of my Miami posts.  In fact, you probably didn’t even make it to this sentence without groaning, wondering why I can’t seem to avoid running this race year after year.  Miami is ostentatious, the traffic is often unbearable and the heat can be the worst if you don’t count Rick Scott, Marco Rubio or the state’s relentless push to disenfranchise minority voters.

But goddamn if the yearly Miami Marathon and Half Marathon isn’t one of my all-time favorite races.

There’s two levels to Miami’s allure.  The first is purely physical and will appeal to pretty much anyone.  The course, organization and production are all reflective of the city itself: beautiful, over the top, and infused with an indelible Latin flare that makes you want to dance.  There’s no denying the sound of thousands of jaws dropping as they crest the MacArthur Causeway to see purple cruise ships resting quietly on the ocean.  Fast forward a few miles and you’re zooming north on Ocean Drive past restaurants and classic hotels.  If you keep going, you’ll wind up returning to the mainland on the Venetian Causeway, where many bridges connect the thin islands that play host to some of the most gorgeous homes you’ll ever see.

Mile 5: Ocean Drive

Mile 5: Ocean Drive

Along the way, aid stations are packed with friendly volunteers, eager spectators and every single Latin American flag coloring your periphery.  Turquoise and terra cotta high-rise condos watch haughtily from the beachfront, reflecting the morning sun, and every manner of Spanish is heard from the sidewalk: vamos, vamos! … Dele, ya casi! … Eso campeones! …

Mile 8: Golf courses and palm trees

Mile 8: Golf courses and palm trees

But what really keeps me returning is that every year I’ve managed to use the race as a backdrop to strengthen my friendships.  I didn’t know my cousin was a diehard runner until she earned her first medal under urban palm trees.  The next year I visited a good college friend and met her husband, catching up on years of growing up.  Otter joined in 2012 and lived through a race experience better left unwritten, yet somehow fondly remembered.  Last year I ran an emotional race with my in-laws and raised money in memory of my uncle, taken too soon from us by brain cancer.

And this year I finally managed to run a half marathon with a friend from high school.  Though I’ve been lacing up for over six years now, it has mostly been interpreted as lunacy by my Costa Rican friends.  I’ve been totally fine with that, and have taken every single usted está enfermo as a compliment and point of pride.  But this year, my buddy José signed up for the half, either inspired by personal initiative or to silence the nagging voice of his good friend Solera, who had been pestering him for years to run the distance.  Back in high school, he was hands down the most athletic of my friends, having been a lifelong fútbol player.  Over the years, he had run several races from 5 to 10ks, including the backbreaking Cerros de Escazú trail run from 2013.  And though I had been joined by my friends Javier, Gabriel and Ricardo on the race circuit, they’d never run 13.1 miles.

Mile 10: Venetian Causeway

Mile 10: Venetian Causeway

“You’d better run under two hours,” I told José as we logged a short run along the Rickenbacker Causeway.  “I don’t want to hear that it was easy or that you finished relaxed.  Kill yourself out there.”

Mile 11: Toll Booth

Mile 11: Toll Booth

“No way, dude,” he chortled, knowing I was only half kidding.   “I’m going to take it easy and enjoy myself.”  He has a history of running races for fun, oblivious of his time, crossing the finish line happy and ready to eat.  But I decided to egg him on a bit and light the competitive fires that he harnesses when he works, plays fut or dukes it out on Smash Brothers.

“That’s actually smart,” I said, picking up the pace.  “You’ll definitely want to run another one if you have fun.  But honestly, if you wanted to, you could run under two hours easily.”

Two days later, I was standing by the American Airlines Arena, listening to the music booming off the speakers of the starting line, doing something I never thought I would do in Miami.  I was shivering.  The hordes of runners around me were joining the frenetic dance, especially the Latin Americans.  Truth be told, it was merely 53 degrees, a temperature also known as Running Perfection of Elysian Proportions, Climate Divine and Let’s Kill This Bitch.  But if you asked any of the thousands of Caribbean, Central and South Americans shaking in their corrals, for this party in the city, someone forgot to turn the heat on.

Mile 11.5: Cheer Zone

Mile 11.5: Cheer Zone

Normally I would have been ecstatic – 53 degrees, a flat half marathon and homemade meatballs in my stomach?  This course wouldn’t stand a chance.  But after last year’s injury (and this is the last time I will mention it, I swear), I slid far from my fighting condition.  So I figured, screw it, let’s do a fitness test.  Let’s run this thing without checking the Garmin.

Mile 13.1: Finish Line

Mile 13.1: Finish Line

As I reached the finish line, I picked up the pace, passing runners who began their sprint too early.  I crossed the familiar orange and blue finish line for the fifth time.  I stopped my Garmin and looked at it for the first time all day and saw 1:34:36, a Miami course record by almost six minutes.  Not too bad.

After grabbing my post-race goodies, I found a patch of sunlit grass by the charity tents.  I sat down and happily munched on a cookie while drinking a protein shake and waiting for José to finish.  Regardless of what his finishing time was, I really just wanted him to enjoy the experience.  I knew that nothing today would necessarily inspire him to embrace the sport like I have.  It’s been a long time since I came to terms with the rarity of my passion (though the blogging community does make me question whether we’re truly a rare bunch).  But if he at least had fun, maybe he could join me elsewhere and add himself to my select cadre of running friends.

0125_mediamiami 15I saw him emerge from the crowds, slightly dazed with a wan smile and his arms drooping at his side.  I went to congratulate him on his first half marathon and for killing expectations by running a 1:54 debut.  He was definitely tired, blistered and spent, but most importantly, he was happy.  We spent the next hour or so talking about the race, what he thought about it, funny or interesting moments that happened between start and finish.  He sounded like a kid after his first roller coaster, detailing every loop and corkscrew.  Perhaps I could convince him to run others, I thought.

“Dude, I realized that this is an excellent reason to travel and visit new places,” he said, with that curious timbre of someone realizing something meaningful and profound.  “But I don’t think I’ll ever run the full thing ever.”

I’ve heard that before.  Maybe I’ll see him join the ward sooner than I thought.

Qué bien que la paso con ustedes.  Nos vemos en Boston!

Qué bien que la paso con ustedes. Nos vemos en Boston!

State 42: Maine (2014 Maine “Half” Marathon)

I awoke on Sunday with a serious, credible issue in my right knee. My IT band was extremely tight and would complain loudly every time I raised it off the ground. It could bear weight, but the minute I sprung forward, it tingled with pain. The hilly and challenging New Hampshire Marathon had pulled something out of alignment and I had hoped against hope that a good night’s rest would somehow nudge all the pieces back to their original positions.

It hadn’t, and I was due to run another marathon in just two hours.

This marked the first time I saw the sun all weekend

This marked the first time I saw the sun all weekend

My friend Javier dropped me off at the start line about an hour before the race was to begin. I made use of that time by walking in circles, hoping to somehow shake off the pain, as if it were a pesky bug that had gotten caught in my leg hairs. As more runners arrived, I felt like I was doing something right. Lifting my leg so that my knee was almost touching my chest, I felt better. I even dashed for a hundred feet and the discomfort felt manageable.  Perhaps I would be able to survive this marathon after all.

It took just one tenth of a mile to crush my optimism like a mallet to an egg.

If I felt any sort of relief, it was gone by the time the smoke from the cannon had faded from the starting line. With hundreds of runners zipping by me, I stopped to walk just a minute into the race. The pain in my right knee was unbearable, sending acidic stings with every step, each one worse than the previous. In that moment, I knew that 26.1 more miles of this would be impossible, if not absolutely excruciating. In my hand I clenched my phone, which I had sealed in a ziploc bag, and every slow, stumbling step I took, I gripped it harder. It was my way out, my lifeline. I could use it to call Javier and this whole thing would be over. I had that power to drop out.  I just worried that I didn’t have the maturity.

Mile 4, by the sea

Mile 4, by the sea

I sent him a text message instead.  “This is not working out.”  It was like mental insurance, an early warning sign of things to come.  But I stopped just shy of using it to call for a rescue.

That first agonizing mile was slow.  Every time I broke into a run, pain would singe into my knee and I would be forced back to a walk.  In that time, the one thing I managed to do very quickly was burn through the five stages of grief.

Denial

This can’t be happening. This is my thing, running is MY thing, and I’ve proven to be pretty good at it. There’s no way that this pain is really such a big deal. I just need to keep running on it so it loosens up my knee.  After that, everything will just click. All pains eventually go away, so it’s just a matter of ignoring this little hiccup, steel yourself, use mind over matter, and pretend it doesn’t exist. Just keep going.

Anger

Ow, ow, ow, this is bullshit and not working. I absolutely killed my training for this without a single issue. There’s no reason why my knee should be hurting this much. It hasn’t ever been this bad. In fact, my right knee has NEVER hurt, so why start now? I didn’t even push myself yesterday and suddenly it’s punking out like it’s never experienced a race before? Unbelievable. Ow, ow, ow …

Bargaining

You know, if I switch my gait to my old, maligned heel-strike, then I can actually pick it up a little. Maybe I can stay with this run/walk business until the end. Can I hobble the full distance?  But then we’d miss our hotel check-out and Javier and his family would end up waiting far too long for me. I wouldn’t be able to shower either – is that such a bad thing though? Is it too much to ask a family of four to wait for five hours and then endure the mephitic odor of an unwashed runner in the car for another two? 

Depression

This sucks. This really sucks. I came all the way here and now I might have to bail. There’s a reason that many runners re-brand DNS from “Did Not Start” to “Did Nothing Stupid” and I’m about to discover just what Stupid is. Man, each step hurts; this is the worst. People are going to give me that smirk and tell me SEE? They KNEW running was bad for your knees, and the proof was in my pudding-like pace. I wish people would stop staring at me.  I know, I’m walking at the first mile, thanks for your concern, but please move along.  And on top of all that, I now have to come back to Maine eventually to re-do this state.

Acceptance

… or do I? This slower pace and awkward stride is actually working pretty well. In fact, check it out, I’m at mile 4. I can probably keep this up for another 9 miles, cut my losses, run a half marathon instead and stay on track for all fifty states. It wasn’t my original plan, but if I stop running and go home now, I’ll be very upset at myself. Am I alright with doing “just” a half marathon?  Yeah … yeah I’m okay with that.

(left to right at Sebago): Diego, me, Javier, Erin

(left to right at Sebago): Diego, me, Javier, Erin

I would love to say that a smile burst from my visage from that moment onward and I waltzed happily for the next nine miles. Instead, I was locked in a grimace, a vestigial emotion leftover from the Anger phase. Denial was quickly overcome – there was no getting past the obvious pain. I bargained with my goals and ultimately accepted that I would rather not crawl for five hours, kill my enjoyment of the event and ruin everyone’s plans. But anger would stick around for several thousand strides.

It wouldn’t be until mile 10 that I began to run fast again. I wasn’t in the clear, as my IT band was still pretty tight. But it was no longer feeling like it was getting squeezed. I even sped up to a 6:47 pace toward the end and only then did I let myself smile. Maybe I hadn’t really accepted what I was doing until this point, as if the last two hours had only existed to get my mind off what felt like cheating or giving up.

Lobster Roll at Sebago Brewpub

Lobster Roll at Sebago Brewpub

It took me a while to get over it. I thought of people like Steve, Danielle and Otter, who have gone on to finish long races with terrible, probably worse pains, crossing the timing mats often smiling and with absolutely no regrets. It made me wonder if they know something I don’t, or if their worldview is somehow more mature than mine. Maybe they’re just better actors.  A childish part of me believes that accomplishments are only worthy or important if someone else thinks they’re impressive. I know that’s not true, but I can’t help but think on it from time to time.

I wish I had been able to fully enjoy the friendly volunteers, the flanks of cheerful spectators who assured me that I was “looking good” and encouraged me by name to “keep it up.” I’m sure they had seen my scowl because I had never gotten that much dedicated attention before. It would have been nice to enjoy the picturesque neighborhoods that came alive to witness the stream of people flowing through them. I would have taken more time to breathe in the beautiful seaside vistas and wispy cirrus clouds vanishing into the horizon.  Because the race really was quite scenic and very well organized.

The Maine Marathon gives out enough swag to fill a Doomsday Prepper bunker

The Maine Marathon gives out enough swag to fill a Doomsday Prepper bunker.  And yes, that IS a can of baked beans.

But I did finish smiling. Oddly enough, part of me did have fun at this race, even if the majority of it was spent wincing and facing the possibility of dropping out. If the physical act of running weren’t fun by itself, then I wouldn’t have come all the way here in the first place. Though they were emotionally charged and far from graceful, the miles I ran in Portland were still miles run. And of course, beyond the race itself, there was plenty to enjoy. When I wasn’t running, I was spending a fun weekend with a good friend and his family, happily noshing on local seafood during a gorgeous time of year.

It’s a strange thing, dropping to half the distance.  As the day went on, I quickly forgot about the race, almost as if it had happened weeks ago.  Despite how much those early miles hurt, they didn’t seem to register in my mind.  Maybe my subconscious is already quite aware that I will come back to Maine for the distance I originally wanted to run.  But that comeback will have to wait, and for now, I’m happy with my memories of the Pine Tree State.  Though I will certainly look back on this trip as “the time I dropped to the half,” I will also remember Maine for many other reasons.  There was the lobster, the chance to reconnect with friends and the realization that these events can bring out more than just the strength in your legs and the sweat from your pores.

Onwards.

Marathon_Map 053 (ME)

Coach Dan (2014 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon)

It was a beautiful morning in Chicago, whose moniker as the Windy City was not living up to the hype. A breeze would float by on occasion and move the slightly muggy air, making its way past over 20,000 runners waiting to start the 2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon. Temperatures were in the mid 60s, sitting comfortably with almost every other day of this beautifully mild summer, encouraging each runner to earn a fast time.

0720_rockrollhalfmarathon 01For almost three months, I had been the official coach for the Jackson Chance Foundation’s Rock and Roll Chicago Half Marathon Charity Team. I led weekly training runs, offered helpful running tips and generally made myself available for the group as it logs the necessary miles to conquer Chicago’s largest half marathon. Along the way, runners raised funds to help families with infants in the neonatal intensive care unit, providing them with parking, train and subway passes, which can help alleviate the financial burden of staying in the hospital.  For more information, please check out their official site, Facebook and Twitter.  For donations, click here.

Before the start of the race, I sat under our tent, meeting new runners and the organizers of the charity. In the middle of the gathering, I glanced away from our tent and past the trees that line Columbus drive to see a spritely young woman with platinum blond hair scorch down the sidewalk, her knees practically touching her chin with every powerful stride.

“Holy hell,” I said, my head trailing her as if hypnotized. “That’s Shalane Flanagan!”
“Who?” asked a nearby volunteer.
“Shalane Flanagan,” I repeated, knowing full well that I’d have to explain. “The top female American marathoner? Finished first American in Boston the last two years? 2:22 PR? Really, nobody?”

It’s moments like this that make you realize that running is still a niche sport. Nevermind that the marathon is currently booming; that it’s impossible to get into the world’s largest races, or that American Meb Keflezighi outright won the most recent and emotionally charged Boston Marathon – if the average person can’t recognize or even know the name of the country’s top superstar, then the sport still has plenty of room to grow.

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering (First Half)

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering (First Half)

A few more strides later, Shalane was back in the VIP tent, preparing for the longest race she’s run since this year’s Boston Marathon. I made my way to the start line, which was shockingly un-policed and unregulated. The actual entrances to each Corral weren’t readily visible, so runners were squeezing in between barricades with no one to stop them. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it wasn’t the chaos it could have been. Four years ago, when I ran this race, volunteers were extremely strict about runners staying in their assigned corrals. I’m guessing that many years’ worth of frustrated finishers’ surveys led to a more lax policy.

Minutes before the start, I recognized someone. Athlinks had listed him as one of my top rivals, and my friend Brian used to run with him as part of a Saturday morning bRUNch club. He had just squeezed through the fence and was wearing a neon green running cap and a red singlet, completely unaware of my approach.

“Excuse me, are you Ji?” I asked.
“Yeah, hi,” he replied, shaking my hand.
“I’m Dan, I’m friends with Brian.” He nodded with a smile, but before he could say anything, I chimed in: “You’re my nemesis.”
“Is that right?” he asked, laughing.
“Yeah. You’ve beaten me at every Shamrock Shuffle, even when I’ve trained like an idiot.”
“I think I remember Brian mentioning you now,” he said as if recognizing me from a crime alert or a police lineup.
“Every. Single. Year.”

I’m not sure if you can be someone’s nemesis if they never knew you existed in the first place. I admit that it’s a little strange to compare your times to someone you’ve never met, but it seemed like we were both improving at the same pace and he was always slightly faster. But now he knows who I am and I will be prepared for the 2015 Shamrock Shuffle.  In all likelihood, so will he, and by just that much more.  It’s on.

The race started on time, unleashing a torrent of runners onto Columbus Drive, the same starting line as a handful of races, the most prominent of which is the Chicago Marathon itself. The city’s towering skyscrapers formed a wall ahead of us, and we’d be running right underneath them. I like to knock on the Rock & Roll race series – and I have in several posts for more than one reason – but for this race, I need to reevaluate my stance. When I started running five years ago, there were only two half marathons in Chicago. Today that number is closer to fifteen. But only one (so far) goes through the streets of downtown Chicago, cuts directly through the Loop, runs on Michigan Avenue and finishes on Columbus Drive.

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering

Most half marathons in Chicago take place in Lincoln Park or the Lakefront Path, both of which are free, public areas that never close. Their paths are also about four shoulder widths wide, which can pose a challenge for large events, especially if runners have to share the course with cyclists, walkers and runners not affiliated with the race. So to run on closed city streets four lanes wide for the first seven miles was a treat. I didn’t mind that there weren’t many spectators in the Loop, or that we didn’t hear the distorted crunch of the first band until well past mile six. Say what you will about these races being expensive, as I ran, I could see where a lot of that fat payment went.

Runners left the bustle of the city and turned south onto Michigan Avenue, a 2.5-mile straight shot down to Dunbar Park, where we’d turn east toward the lake. The organizers had mercifully avoided Mount Roosevelt, the tiny hill that Chicago Marathon runners have to scale before finishing, which meant that the course had thus far been almost completely flat. I was running comfortably at a 7-minute pace, pulling runners ahead of me and slowly passing them. It wasn’t a warm day, but the air was thicker than it was during my last half marathon in Chicago.

Onwards I continued through the urban jungle, keeping a steady pace with the runners around me. There had been only one band so far, which I found odd. If you’re going to call yourselves the Rock & Roll series, then you have an obligation to your runners to deliver on your title. By mile 10, I had passed only about four musical outfits, and I remembered that even the music at the Expo leaned closer to Top 20 than true rock. Perhaps there are strict laws in downtown Chicago that prevent bands from setting up a stage, or local noise ordinances discouraging the organizers from peppering the course with loud rock bands. I was just about to give up on the musical element of this race when the organizers turned it all around.

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering (Second Half)

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering (Second Half)

By mile 10, we were at the lakefront path, winding in and out of my familiar training grounds. The tree-lined path provided plenty of shade and for the first time the narrow course felt just a little congested. I was also starting to fade. Though I was still keeping a fast pace, I could no longer do it elegantly. Runners that had shared the course with me for the last five miles were starting to pull ahead and my legs were starting to drag. Up ahead, I could hear loudspeakers blaring Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” with his wails threatening to short out the sound system.

Right as I passed these speakers, the song changed to Metallica’s “Sad But True.”

Aw hell yeah.

The sign behind me says "No Stopping, No Standing, No Parking, ANYTIME" -- a new personal mantra, perhaps?

The sign behind me says “No Stopping, No Standing, No Parking, ANYTIME” — a new personal mantra, perhaps?

I began playing the intro, flicking invisible drum sticks in the air, hopping off the toms, smashing the snare and sneering at the sky as if I were Lars Ulrich. The explosive opening riff kicked in and I sped up, keeping beat by hitting phantom high-hats, pumping my fist in the air with every “HEY” and gasping out the lyrics. The song and my cadence became one and I surged back to top form, leaving runners behind to watch me run and drum as if possessed. Just like that, running was suddenly easy, and I was cruising. Metallica were leading me over the sun-soaked path like a muscular Pied Piper.

The song stayed with me for a good half mile thanks to an act of brilliance. The organizers had set up speakers all along the lakefront path, spaced about five hundred feet from each other, all playing the same song at a thundering volume. It was such a simple idea, yet in this case it was flawlessly executed. Think about it – most people run with their own music already playing through snug headphones, so for the rest of us, any band on a course will only get about forty seconds of our attention. The most they can hope for is that the fleeting verse they played for us will become an earworm a few strides down the road.

So why not stretch out that music-driven exhilaration by stringing together a group of speakers and playing the same song for a meaningful distance? For me, it was like magic. My upper body was tingling with each drum break and I felt light as papyrus. I was reacquainted with the powerful effects of music and why so many people would rather forget their shoes instead of their MP3 player before heading out for a run.  Of course, it could have gone completely wrong. The DJ could have chosen to play Neon Trees or Imagine Dragons or Fun (ugh), and I would have been obligated to bash the speakers in with a nailbat. But from their dark, sepulchral lairs, the metal gods looked up to me and judged me worthy of power. In that half-mile, the entire Rock & Roll series was vindicated.

You know it’s sad, but true.

This is what the McCormick Tunnel feels like.  It kills me in every race in which it is featured.

This is what the McCormick Tunnel feels like. It kills me in every race in which it is featured.

Unfortunately, Metallica didn’t last for 21 more minutes. The song ended and was quickly replaced by a boppy, techno offering, which meant that the extra jolt of energy vanished from my bloodstream and I buckled cold turkey. To make matters worse, up ahead was the McCormick Center’s West Tunnel, also known as the Soul-Sucking Maw of Hell. There were psychedelic lights installed on the inside to add some much-needed zazz to this particular section, but it wasn’t enough to keep the energy up. Once out of the tunnel, I dragged myself under the crotch of the ubiquitous Rock & Roll inflatable guitar hero before reaching mile 12.

The last mile was a straight line on Lake Shore Drive, followed by the final stretch on Columbus. The second I spotted the finish line, I picked it up, squeezing every last bit of energy out of my legs. I proudly wore a red “COACH” bib pinned above my normal racing number, and I felt a duty to finish strong.  Coaches need to practice what they preach, so I rummaged through my racing arsenal for that secret, extra gear and began kicking.  I inched closer to a flat 7-minute pace, passing fatigued runners and 5K walkers eager to finish the race. The finishers chute was packed with spectators – finally – making each kick feel easier. With the city open before me, I crossed the finish line in 1:32:33, about 23 minutes behind Shalane Flanagan, and made my way back to the charity tent.

Excellent hardware.  See below for the real-life image.

Excellent hardware. See below for the real-life image.

Though the Rock & Roll Marathon series are an easy target, I have to say that I had very few gripes about this event.  I even tried to forget that I lived in Chicago, to wonder what I would think if the city were brand new to me. I’m confident that I would have loved the race all the same. It began in the heart of a beautiful, architecturally rich city, escorting runners past the Marina and Sears Towers, the Chicago Theater, over the river, under the CTA tracks, alongside Grant Park, through the South Loop and into the Lakefront Path. The last 3 miles gave us a pristine view of the skyline as it crept ever closer, with blue skies reflecting off towers of steel, stone and glass. In terms of showcasing Chicago, this race is second to the city’s October marathon.

All of this leads me to one last observation. The southernmost point of this course was about a quarter of a mile away from the northernmost point of the 13.1 Marathon, usually held in the first week of June. If someone could combine the two courses, there would be another marathon in Chicago. With the only 26.2-mile race in town soon to be a luxury for the super lucky or the fabulously wealthy, it’d be nice to have another option.

Chicago's Cloud Gate (more affectionately known as the Bean), the inspiration for this year's medal

Chicago’s Cloud Gate (more affectionately known as the Bean), the inspiration for this year’s medal

I want to thank the Jackson Chance Foundation for giving me the opportunity to use my love of the sport to help others achieve their goals and contribute to a very special cause (an extra special shout-out to Missy, who recommended me in the first place and practically one-woman-show’d the day’s events). It dawned on me during the weekly Tuesday evening runs that I wasn’t just another runner – somewhere between my first 5K and today, I’ve learned enough to be able to help others in making it to the start line. I loved the experience and hope to keep the privilege should the Foundation sign up for next year’s race.

jackson-chance-rock-roll-half-marathon-chicago

Onwards!