State 28: Oklahoma (2012 Williams Route 66 Marathon)

1. Injury Paranoia

A normal person would say that there are many things wrong with signing up for five marathons in five months.  However, my biggest problem with it is the constant danger of injury.  One slip and it can jeopardize your training and throw your peak fitness into a tailspin, ruining good performances at all of your races.  It wouldn’t be such a big deal if injuring yourself meant falling down an elevator shaft or getting hit in the face with a wrecking ball.  If that were the case, few people would ever hobble their way to the starting line.  Instead, injuries happen from tiny changes, like putting just 1% more power into your left foot when you run or tilting your hips by a miniscule amount because new shorts make you chafe in odd places.

But this fall season, I was doing alright.  I was lucky to be churning through my training while avoiding all injuries, serious or trivial.  But not everyone was blessed with such providential good fortune a statistical outlier.  In fact, a lot of my running compatriots were getting injured.  Glenn started feeling pains in his foot right before the Marine Corps Marathon; Otter became acquainted with some dastardly IT issues after Chicago; even ultrarunner Jeff, an otherwise fast, sturdy and prolific runner, was sidelined with pains.  It was like walking down your street and seeing everyone’s house randomly catching fire, knowing it was just a matter of time before yours ignited.

Though I haven’t had a real, painful detour in my training regimen since after last year’s Chicago Marathon, I have spent most of this year battling tiny, nagging discomforts.  In late spring, my left arch was acting up, but that eventually went away.  A few months later, it was my second toe that was giving me grief.  But once I switched over to the lightweight Saucony Kinvaras, it all seemed to magically go away.  I don’t like believing in magic bullets, but for the time, it seemed like I had found one.  No matter how far or how fast I ran in those shoes, I always felt completely invincible.  Crazy Horse could have crippled me, but it didn’t.  Three weeks later, I ran a huge PR in Des Moines and kept going without a single issue.  I felt like nothing could stop me.

So it was clearly frustrating when I strained my lower back painting our apartment the weekend before the Williams Route 66 Marathon.

Painting the apartment.  Standing against a wall, rolling up, rolling down.  Maybe if I had done this while parkouring a jagged cliff face or street fighting a drug cartel, I’d be a little less upset.  Or not.  But the point is, I got injured doing an activity that nobody would call exercise (except maybe for your palms).

It’s not the first time this has happened.  I first strained it during the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon in 2010 and most recently five days before this year’s Grandma’s Marathon.  It’s a perpetual tightness in my lumbars that makes every waking moment uncomfortable.  Straight leg lifts cause intense pain, lying down involves constant fidgeting, never quite comfortable, and if sitting for 9 hours a day at a workstation is bad, then standing up afterward is the worst.  And that’s how I found myself the week before this race.

2. A Sneaky Compatriot

Sometime in September I received an email from Nolan, my friend from middle school with whom I ran the 2011 Georgia Half Marathon and the 2012 Mercedes-Benz Half Marathon, telling me he was “trying to decide if running a marathon a week before Thanksgiving is a good idea.”  I obviously told him it was a great idea and that I was running the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa.  Given that Tulsa isn’t exactly the most exotic city, I was shocked when he signed up.  To date I’m not entirely sure what motivated him (because in the interest of full disclosure, what drew me to the race was the medal), but I’m glad he decided to tag along.

We both landed at the exact same time on Saturday and hopped into our rental car, which was a beige Ford Crown Victoria straight from an 80s cop movie.  Easily the most old-fashioned rental I’ve ever been given.  It tilted slightly when I turned the key, the CD player was definitely twenty years old and you could smell the grandfather in the leather seats.  We were about to leave the parking lot when my phone rang.  It was Otter.

“Hey buddy, where are you?” he asked.
“In Tulsa, pulling out of the rental lot.”
“Stop.”
I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a car behind me, a much nicer one.
“Uh, I can’t.  There’s a car behind me.”
“Dude, I’m in Tulsa.”
“What?” I said looking at Nolan, who was not entire sure what was going on.  “No you’re not.”
“That’s a nice striped sweater you’re wearing.”

I instantly burst into laughter.  At first I thought he was in the car behind me, trailing me like a spy.  He wasn’t.  He had been sitting near the terminal exit, waiting for me to come out.  However, his espionage skills were as rusty as my rental’s exhaust, so he lost me very quickly.  He had planned several different ways of surprising me but instead was relegated to a phone call.  All those times he had told me how jealous he was that I was running Route 66 were all lies.  Lies!

“So,” he started, sheepishly, “can you come pick me up?”

I turned the car around and circled the airport.  He was at the departures dropoff with two bags.  After the requisite introductions and general what-the-hell questions, I asked him where he was staying.

“With you guys.”

I guess I was the only tool who didn’t write anything clever on his bib.

Very sneaky, Otter.  So what was once a solo trip out to Oklahoma to tackle a quirky marathon had become a dudes weekend.  I say “quirky” because there were several components to this race that stood out from the hundreds of other marathons out there.  For one, they give extra perks to serial marathoners – the Marathon Maniacs, the Half Fanatics and 50-States Club.  Second, they have an official, race-sanctioned 0.3-mile optional detour to an underwhelming architectural landmark called the “Center of the Universe.”  It’s basically a circular plaza where you can hear your echo if you stand right in the middle.  Lastly, this race gives out amazing medals, all inspired by American vintage cars.  There’s a website hosted by a serial marathoner named Paul Gentry called “26.2 Medals” that puts out a yearly list of the best marathon medals, selected by a committee of running veterans.  Route 66 has made the top 3 spots in the last three years.  This year’s medals, in the organizers’ words, “honor the strength and beauty of the 1936 Dodge pickup truck.”

As someone who runs for the hardware, I had no choice but to run this one.

(left to right): Otter, Danielle (T-Rex), Me, Amanda, Nolan

After getting lunch at Café Elote and hitting up the Expo, we checked into our hotel, which was right next to the starting line.  Later that night we went to Olive Garden for a dinner that had been co-organized by the one and only T-Rex Runner.  Once there we met several Marathon Maniacs and like-minded long-distance enthusiasts.  It was a fun gathering because it gave us a glimpse into the Maniacs culture, even for just a couple of hours.  Most everyone was wearing a SWAG shirt of some kind, showing off the races they’ve finished and talking about their most recent exploit.  Some members stood up and gave short speeches, others detailed the rest of the year’s race schedule, inside jokes were said, people called out.  It was like bearing witness to the “minutes” of a secret club.  All in all, it was a very fun night and I’m glad we decided to be part of it.

3.  Race Day

We were in our corrals by 7:50, ready to make it happen.  Nolan had just one marathon under his belt and despite a great training season, came down with congestion and a headcold the week before.  This wasn’t helping his confidence, so he said he’d play it safe.  Otter was still battling a knee injury, so he decided to run with T-Rex at a slower pace.  I however, was feeling awesome.  My back was at around 80%, I was feeling fresh, and it was in the low 40s much to my delight.  After a Native American prayer and the National Anthem, we were off, released into downtown Tulsa.

Nolan has three poses. This is one of them.

But not for long.  The course started south on Main Street before making a left onto 15th and taking us away from the downtown area.  Only a mile into the race, we were already climbing the first of many hills.  Slow up, fast down.  That’s always been my strategy and I started using it from the very beginning.  I had to focus on my legs, breathing and back because the course wasn’t giving me much else to admire for those first miles.  There was a nice detour around a residential pond, but it wasn’t until mile 3 that we entered Cascia Hall’s campus (go Commandos!).  This Catholic preparatory institution, as it turns out, is where my friend Jayne went to school.  However, when I first saw the multistory building, which looked like a Mediterranean Luxury Hotel or a Tuscan Fortress, I would have never guessed that it was a high school.

A trip through Cascia’s Campus, aka, a vacation in Italy

Regardless, for the next four miles we would run through gorgeous neighborhoods with enormous houses made of stone.  I was keeping a steady pace, just under 8 minutes per mile, enjoying the pristine lawns and occasional pockets of spectators.  This beautiful strip of race ended as we hit the Arkansas River around mile 7.  The next six consisted of an out-and-back with a slight detour into a commercial strip, which I did not like at all.  I love running through downtown urban centers and neighborhoods – but hate strip malls for some reason.  I was happy to be back alongside the river, despite the insistent headwinds we were facing.  After the U-turn, the wind was at my back and the half marathoners could feel the end approaching.

I thought it was going to sting to see the half marathoners jut out and gleefully finish their race, right as we marathon warriors come to the realization that we are only halfway done.  But fueled by my success four weeks ago in Des Moines, I told myself that the true race had just begun.  I crossed the half mat in 1:44:33, the fastest first half I’ve ever run.  That could have frightened me a little – I wasn’t running as conservatively as I had planned.  But instead, I saw it as a sign that I’m just faster now.  Something happened in the last four months to turn me into a faster marathoner (that “something” by the way, was summer ending).  So I pressed on, speeding up and passing runners.

Otter at the Center of the Universe. Nolan is unimpressed.

Though it was easy to keep up a fast pace in the second half of the race in Des Moines, Tulsa was proving much harder.  Not only were some significant winds pushing me back, but the worst of the hills were all in the second 13.1 miles.  On more than one occasion, I found myself analyzing my energy levels pessimistically and I had to repress them, convincing myself that anyone would be tired after running 16 miles.  Right?

After passing several domes, hospitals and parking lots, we were in a depressed area of town that we had seen the day before when we visited the Center of the Universe.  I recognized Archer Street, where the detour takes place, and saw a banner up ahead for it.  However, I messed up.  A volunteer told the runner ahead of me to “just go ahead” in a dismissive tone, which I interpreted to mean “if you go this way, you’ll avoid the detour.”  So I turned left onto a bridge on Cincinnati Avenue.  At the top, I looked right and saw the rusty tower that overlooks the Center of the Universe one street down, knowing I had goofed.  I guess that meant I wasn’t running “the world’s shortest ultra marathon” anymore.  For some reason, I felt determined to PR now.  I hadn’t skipped that gimmicky detour for nothing – it was my obligation to run my fastest marathon now.

But goddamn these hills weren’t going to make that easy.  And the worst was yet to come.

A stroll through the University of Tulsa

After rounding Centennial Park at mile 18, the course heads south on Peoria Avenue, where for the next two miles we would climb with the winds pushing down against us, as if sliding down the road.  To make matters worse, we were running through more commercial strips, devoid of any scenery.  In fact, it wouldn’t be until around mile 21 that we would enter the University of Tulsa’s campus for a nice break from the monotony.  By that point, keeping a 7:40 pace was a chore.  I wanted to slow down but my PR was quite literally at my heels.  Slowing down wasn’t an option, so the kick continued, my feet slipping into prickly numbness for minutes at a time only to come back to life at the next turn.  I thought of Jeff “RunFactory” Lung’s advice about pushing through the pain, almost embracing it, and kept moving forward.

Finish Line!  Is … is that building sinking?

But I soon learned that the mantra only works on flat terrain.  By mile 24, even the downhills were killing me, so you can imagine how bad it was to climb.  More than one cruel hill at mile 25 made me slow down back into the 8s.  It was then that I did the sad math: I wouldn’t be PRing today, but not by a large margin.

The last two miles were one straight shot down 21st street, heading west towards the river, where the finish line and post-race party were waiting for me.  “Straight” doesn’t mean “flat” so my pace was erratic.  Although my PR ghost had passed me, I was still feeling relatively good.  My legs were tired and my feet felt like ground beef, but my lungs were doing alright and my back hadn’t made a single complaint.  Plus, I was practically replicating my PR time from four weeks ago on a considerably tougher course.  By any measurable standard, I was thrilled.  So when I turned into Veteran’s Park for the last 0.2 miles, I couldn’t help but be happy.  I churned out a hard effort with very little recovery time and still managed to stop the clock at just over 3:27.  While I had suspected that Des Moines could have been a fluke, this race seemed to suggest that this was my new normal.  Awesome.

However, not everyone would share my enthusiasm.  Nolan was doing well until mile 19.8, where he went through a devastating bonk that kept him from running more than a third of a mile at a time.  Otter’s knee didn’t cooperate either, but he still managed to get through the entire course without being dragged away on a stretcher.  The good news for him is that his race schedule has ended for the year (or so he says) so he can dedicate more time to recovery and less to eeking out respectable times on a gimp knee.  As for Nolan, he has future dates set with the marathon, so his redemptive run is also on the horizon.  But we all finished the same race, climbed the same hills, and earned the beautiful 2012 medal (which Otter described appropriately as “a flying guitar pick”).

Regular chump medal (left), Special Marathon Maniacs medal (right)

After a few celebratory beers in the post-race party, we hopped on the shuttles and went back to shower at the hotel.  Not long after, we were at McNellie’s, where we stuffed our faces with hefty burgers and craft brews.  I opted for an open-faced chili cheeseburger and a sampler of dark ales, all of which hit the spot quite perfectly.  We paid the tab and made our way to the airport, where we dropped off our “casket on wheels” as the Budget attendant so eloquently put it.  Otter and I were on the same flight back to Chicago and Nolan would share his flight with T-Rex and her friend Amanda.

CRAMP

All in all, a very successful weekend (for me anyway).  I ran my 300th race mile for the year, finished my 11th marathon, 9th marathon state and 28th overall state towards my half marathon goal.  And I confirmed that yes, the Route 66 Marathon is unique.  The organizers go beyond the typical expectations for a large race and give serial marathoners extra perks to really stand out.  In addition to the unique medals for Maniacs, Fanatics and 50-Staters, first time finishers get a “My First Marathon” medal to proudly hang on their wall.  Because as long as we’re being honest, it’s a hard sell to get anyone to run Tulsa specifically.  No offense to locals, but it’s not exactly the most cosmopolitan city (though I can’t say you won’t be offended if you asked Nolan for his opinion).  But despite that, I had fun and hope I can say the same for my friends.

Now it’s time to recover and slowly build back up for the Hoover Dam Marathon in four weeks.  Maybe Otter will show up unannounced to that one too.

Reflections on the Chicago Marathon (2006 – 2012)

I went for a quick run yesterday around 5 PM.  It was intended as a recovery from the previous day’s long effort, but it ended up tainted by frustration and resulted in a speedy dash, a way to purge the morning’s anxious energy.  Though the title of this entry might suggest it, I did not run this year’s Chicago Marathon.  It was never my intention to do so.  I watched as registration opened and I didn’t throw my name in the ring.  Registration closed and the race was run without me.  Yesterday’s run happened strictly because it was in my training log.  So I stepped outside and did a large lap around Grant Park on the shores of Lake Michigan, the spires of Chicago’s iconic skyline keeping watch over the setting sun.  As I ran past stuffed garbage bins, empty charity tents and barricades splashed with corporate logos, I saw the remnants of one giant party, one that I had in some capacity attended for the last seven years.

2009 Chicago Marathon w/ Mama

It definitely got me thinking of what the race has meant to me over that time period.  In college, my only exposure to what was then called the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon was anecdotal.  Friends of friends had trained for months and had finished it, and that’s all I had heard.  At that point in my life, “running a marathon” was almost a talking point.  It wasn’t an actual feat, but a rhetorical device that you would use in conversation to suggest something difficult to the point of insanity, like “scaling Everest” or “circumnavigating the globe.”  So when someone would say that they ran a marathon, the magnitude of their accomplishment never actually effervesced from its conceptual pot.

It was like someone telling me they got a 1600 on their SAT or bench pressed 400 pounds.  I couldn’t ever wrap my head around that, so I’d nod courteously, say the requisite “wow” and move on with my life.

2010 Chicago Marathon w/ Papa, Steph & Mama

And then in 2006, I was dating a girl whose dad was a pretty intense endurance athlete.  His name was Steve and his athletic résumé was padded with enough rides, triathlons and marathons to make casual runners envious, and he was running Chicago.  Having graduated from college about five months prior, I had gotten a sense for the city and its neighborhoods.  I learned to navigate the bus and train system and had managed to translate distances into commute times.  So with this mental map of Chicago in my mind, I suddenly understood the true scope of the marathon.  I traced a line from the city center to Wrigley Field, then all the way over to United Center, back to the city, down to Sox Field, and back up.

2011 Chicago Marathon w/ Paula

I could see this course reproduced in my brain and it was then that I had a sort of epiphany of just how insanely far 26.2 miles really is.  Surely only a tiny amount of physically gifted demigods would be able to do this.  Anachronistically, I would have thought the entire cast of Thor would be the only people up to the task.  But as I stood in the cold (2006 was very cold), watching a bouncing sea of people brave the elements, I realized that I hadn’t given enough credit to those I already knew had finished a marathon.

We were surprised to see a good friend of ours mid-crowd.  We yelled her name and she spasmodically threw her arms in the air as if in the front row of a concert.  I remember thinking at the time, how good must it feel to see the finish line of a marathon?  It seemed to me a mythical moment, like a blind man suddenly being able to see (though after I read An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks, where he details that exact situation actually happening, I changed my mind about the wonder of such an occurrence).  At the time I never dreamt that I’d ever experience such a moment, and if someone had told me otherwise, I would have laughed at them, shrugged off such a ludicrous suggestion and returned to my chips and dip.

The 2006 race was won by Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, but only after a famous finish: he slipped backwards on the race decal just inches before the tape and ended up with a concussion.  Daniel Njenga was right behind him and finished thinking he might have taken the lead at the very last second.  After reviewing the footage though, organizers verified that Cheruiyot had crossed, adding to Njenga’s frustrating series of runner-up finishes.

The following year, I was still dating the same girl and her dad was back for another stab at the marathon.  I was not a single step closer to becoming a runner myself, but I was still intrigued by the idea of people running for such a long period of time, the “how” and the “why” being equal components of my curiosity.  But this year was a much different story.  In 2006 we had to seek refuge in a Starbucks because our fingers were about to snap off.  Not this time.  This was the fated year, the Chicago Marathon that lurks in the back of every runner’s head like one of those giant, blind Japanese salamanders.  I remember sitting under a tree in Grant Park, waiting for Steve to finish, sweating.  All I had done was walk and sit down and I was perspiring.  It was bad.  A lean, twig of a runner who had already finished was sprawled on the grass next to me, a small puddle of vomit bubbling on the grass next to him.  Obviously, if I was sweating just sitting in the shade, what were runners feeling?  I would later find out that they had black flagged (cancelled) the race, urging everyone still on the course to find a way home or walk to the finish line.  Steve managed to convince kind strangers into letting him use their cell phone so he could let us know the event was done.  Patrick Ivuti would go on to win the race in 2:11, much slower than the times the world had come to expect from Kenyans.

The year before, though cold, everyone at the finish line was walking proud with medals resting on their chests.  For a while, running a marathon seemed possible.  But those ambitions, flimsy at best, evaporated with the famous 2007 race.  So it wasn’t altogether surprising that when that same date came in 2008, I was sitting on a couch.  I was still with the same girl, watching TV at her apartment, which was on LaSalle drive, overlooking the race.  I remember glancing briefly out the window and seeing the steady river of hopeful runners, suddenly realizing that it was marathon day.  I stared at them for a few beats and then turned back to the couch.  Later in that week, I congratulated a friend of ours who had run and asked for his finishing time, which I did largely as a courtesy, almost a reflex.  He gave me a number that didn’t mean much to me (is that fast? what’s that per mile? what percentage is that?).  Though I had started running by that point, I hadn’t joined the cult of marathon, so his impressive finishing time might as well have been a string of 0s and 1s.  Had someone told me that Evans Cheruiyot won the race in 2:06:25, I would have probably looked upon that number with similar confusion.

But a year later, I was a different person.  A series of impulses led me to sign up for the 2009 Chicago Marathon, an act that, all hyperbole aside, would change my life.  I would write about it now, but I think the words I wrote in my personal journal the day after I finished my first marathon accurately capture the wonder I felt:

“Yesterday was, without a doubt, one of the best days of my life.  … the Open corral behind me was teeming with eager runners, hats and sweaters flying in the air towards the sidelines.  It was at that point, as the sun crept over the horizon, obscured by thin clouds, that it started hitting me.  This is happening, I said aloud.  This is really happening.  Seven months of training, racing, logging and daydreaming all lead to today.  Every athlete in this corral, all the others ahead and behind me, have worked very hard to get here, and will all strive to do their best.  I was so caught in the majesty of the moment that I forgot to start my stopwatch until about nine seconds into the race. “

2012 Elite Breakaway Group, featuring eventual winner, Tsegaye Kebede

My mom had come to Chicago to cheer for me.  A few months prior, I had sent her a copy of Spirit of the Marathon because I felt she had to truly know what I was about to do.  I suspected that she, like me three years before, would use the phrase “run a marathon” as a means to win an argument or a simile to make a point.  I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable to say the documentary heavily influenced her decision to fly out to Chicago to yell encouraging words at me during my maiden run.  I handed her off to the same girl I had been dating for over three years now, who had become an expert spectator (this was also the trip where my mom first met my future parents-in-law).  After wrapping themselves in several layers to survive the cold, they stepped outside with noisemakers, signs and balloons.  Four hours after starting, I was just shy of the finish line, and my long-standing suspicion was confirmed.  Seeing the bright red banner just a few minutes away was a truly Homeric experience.  I felt like Odysseus beholding Ithaca after his stormy voyage.  It was the cathartic experience I had anticipated and I spent the rest of the day with a stupid smile stretched across my salty face.

The late Sammy Wanjiru won that year after a mindblowing race in the Beijing Olympics.  Proving that his performance in August was no fluke, he ran Chicago to a course record of 2:05:41 and established himself as one of the greats at the young age of 22.

3-time Chicago Marathon winner Liliya Shobukhova (in green) zooms by the Fleet Feet aid station on her way to a 4th place finish, picture courtesy of Marla Brizel

Crossing that finish line was a game changer.  Despite not being able to sit or even think about sitting without inviting a muscle cramp, I was convinced that my marathon career had just begun.  A year later, I would be back on Columbus Drive at the 2010 race, with much more mileage in my legs, scores of PRs under my belt and a ravenous hunger to dip under four hours.  But 2010 was a warm year, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t qualify for the club.  But that didn’t stop defending champion Wanjiru from running the race of his life against Ethiopian rival Tsegaye Kebede, both vying for the World Marathon Majors title worth $500,000.  The two traded first and second several times in the race’s last miles, giving spectators a historic race that is still talked about today.  But it was Wanjiru who took the title after surging on the Roosevelt Bridge to win the 2010 race in 2:06:23.

This year, my dad came along and we bought a few Costa Rican flags to add to the cheering experience.  We thought, why spend all that time waiting for just one person when you can have runners yell enthusiastically at you instead?  Just like the year before, that trusty girlfriend of mine, with whom I now shared an apartment, was practically handcuffed to my parents for the day, dragging them to different lookout points in the city (this was also the year where my dad met my future parents-in-law and we thus had our first “family” dinner).  Frustrated by my 4:05 finish but no less determined, I knew I’d be back.  It was the first marathon that I ran where I try to improve, and in the absence of said improvement, I practically had no choice but to continue.  And best of all, I’d only have to wait a year.

But it seems like for every cold year we get, we need two warm ones.  2011 was, for all practical purposes, a repeat of the last year but only in terms of weather.  Moses Mosop would go on to win the race in a new course record of 2:05:37, showing that the heat couldn’t stop the Kenyan dominance of the sport.  Equally used to training in warm temperatures, my cousin Paula had chosen Chicago to be her first marathon and brought her family in tow.  It was another weekend of fine dining, sightseeing and covering the entire city on foot.  It was the first time I would finish the race in under four hours, but only barely.  Paula’s family was with my former-girlfriend-now-fiancée at the usual spots, enjoying the warm weather and taking unusually long bathroom breaks.  It was once again a very fun race, but the third time around I felt like part of the magic was gone.  Maybe it was that the marathon was no longer the merciless behemoth of years past, or that it was once again a hot year and my spirits weren’t as high as the mercury.  Perhaps it was time to start seeing other races.

So when it came time to sign up for the 35th running of the Chicago Marathon, I didn’t.  The reasoning was simple: I was getting married just two weeks prior!  With all the insanity that inevitably surrounds preparing and executing a wedding, I knew I wouldn’t want to escalate the stress by adding high-mileage weeks.  So I made plans instead to run the IMT Des Moines Marathon on October 21 … and I also ended up running the Crazy Horse Marathon on September 30, just a week after saying my vows.  What can I say?  It’s an affliction.

The point is, I had set up my schedule in such a way that running Chicago would be, to put it as scholarly as possible, bad.  That doesn’t mean that the Friday before the event, I wasn’t on Craig’s List on a purely investigative mission to find out what a last-minute bib would cost.  With the city slowly preparing for the race, I couldn’t help but feel extremely jealous.  During all of my training runs in the last week I had to watch as city organizers built stages, set up tents and put up signs in Grant Park, all the while knowing I wouldn’t be participating.  To make matters worse, the weather was going to give all runners the VIP treatment.  Just my luck to sit out on the year where the start and finish are both in the 40s.  But I didn’t let my seething envy take over and instead, I returned to the Chicago Marathon as a spectator for the first time in five years.

Triumph!

I was at the Randolph Street Bridge at 7:30, watching the pace car and official motorcade lead the elites through the first mile of the race.  Javier, a close friend of mine’s brother, was running his first marathon and I had gladly volunteered to escort his girlfriend Andrea to the different spectator points for the day, with a few additions of my own.  We saw runners exit the Wacker Drive tunnel and cross the river just before the first mile marker; we walked to State/Lake and saw them enter the heart of the city and past the Chicago Theater’s famous sign; we hopped on the Brown Line and cruised over the course, getting a few shots of the field going up LaSalle Drive, crossing the river again.  We joined the crowds at the Fleet Feet aid station on Wells street and saw the elites fly by us as if on a conveyor belt.  I yelled every name I could find on people’s shirts and gave a shout-out to any countries proudly decorating the same space.  With a Costa Rican flag tied to my chest like a large bib, I got just as many shout-outs from the many ticos running.

Although I definitely felt like I was missing out on a perfect race day, I was having a great time.  I got to repay the favor that Chicago has done for me the last three years by encouraging as many runners as I could to “keep it up” and that they were “lookin’ good” and “gettin’ it done.”  I loved how everyone’s reactions would become less emphatic as the miles added up.  Ebullient responses turned to simple thumbs up and by the end of the race, as we stood in the bleachers lining Columbus Drive, no amount of cheering could elicit even a head turn from the exhausted masses.  I saw a few familiar faces, but largely I was there to see everyone turn south from Mount Roosevelt onto Columbus Drive and behold the Finish Line.  Every year, a large chunk of the field is made up by first time runners, all of whom round that final bend towards the final stretch of an epic journey.  We saw calm and collected strides, sprint finishes, hands thrown up in the air and a few unfortunate runners who had to stop completely to massage tight hamstrings.

What we didn’t see because it happened hours earlier was Tsegaye Kebede overtaking his countryman Feyisa Lilesa to take first place in the race with a time of 2:04:38.  That was not only a Chicago Marathon course record by almost a minute, but the fastest marathon ever run in the US.  It also made Kebede the 9th fastest marathoner of all time.  Though I’d need a translator to verify this, I’m pretty sure his 2010 duel with Wanjiru played more than once in his mind as he scorched those last miles up Michigan Avenue.

Javier (blue, center) on his way to a smoking fast 3:34 finish

Not running this race made me realize how much I love the sport and the fanatical culture that surrounds it.  Despite not participating in the running, I had just as much fun being part of the aura, the glow that comes with attending an event like this.  Kathrine Switzer, the famous woman who snuck into and finished the Boston Marathon in 1967 before women were allowed to participate once said, “If you are losing faith in humanity, go out and watch a marathon.”  It’s like watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, except it happens every weekend all over the world.  But in large races like Chicago, it truly becomes a gathering of humanity, both participants and spectators alike.  Everyone comes together with one purpose: to support the thousands out there who decided to do something great.  With the booming voices of a million fans, nobody is too slow or not fit enough to put one foot in front of the other and make that greatness happen.

2012 Chicago Marathon Medal

For me, it was additionally special because it allowed me to give back, albeit in a small way, to an event that has accompanied me through many meaningful moments in my life.  In 2006, Steph and I were spectators who had only been together a few months, and this year I was doing the same but fiddling with a wedding ring that I still haven’t quite gotten used to.  And yes, you could frame anyone’s story with any recurring event – Christmas, birthdays, 4th of July.  But the Chicago Marathon, besides simply occurring every year, has demanded a lot of me and in turn has become an essential part of who I am.  Not only does it hug an amazing city, but it winds in and out of many places that practically explode with memories.  I could never run it again and still look back on it with nothing but fondness and an eager desire to be out there with everyone, either as a runner or a fan.

But if this message from a close friend in Costa Rica is any indication – “Maes, corramos la maratón de Chicago el próximo año” – then I will be at the starting line next year, ready to run through the beating heart of the vibrant city I call home.  Lucky for me, it’s just a year away.

Congratulations to all runners, but particularly those whose recaps I will soon enjoy reading, namely Otter, T-Rex, Jeff and one (or more?) of the Bad Angels.

Race Medals

(Click to enlarge)

Alabama (#18)

2012 Mercedes-Benz Half Marathon (Birmingham, AL)

2012 Mercedes-Benz Half Marathon – This medal, like the Flying Pig, changes little year-to-year and for good reason: it’s a huge draw for its participants.  The iconic logo is an instant eye catcher and it’s a very classy prize for any participant.  My only gripe is that it’s the same across all three races (full, half and relay), the only changes being the ribbon and the distance written on the backside.
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Alaska

Arizona (#8)

2010 Tucson Half Marathon (Tucson, AZ)

2010 Damascus Bakeries Tucson Half Marathon – This is one of my favorite medals.  Its brown, copper color matches the race’s desert course, the design is more than just a simple drawing and the ribbon makes up for the actual medal’s monochromatic palette.  Plus, I ran this race in 1:32, so that helps.
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2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon (Gold Canyon, AZ)

2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon (Gold Canyon, AZ)

2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon – It’s fitting that a race that runs through the burnt reds and oranges of the southwestern desert under a perfect blue sky should have a colorful medal. Organizers ditched their usual subdued approach and went for a full explosion of color, from the ribbon down to the medal itself. As a novelty bonus, the sun’s heat rays rotate.
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Arkansas (#19)

2012 Little Rock Marathon (Little Rock, AR)

2012 Little Rock Marathon – This race prides itself on the size of its medals.  As other races sprout up around the country offering large prizes, Arkansas has to up the ante.  This year they went all out for their 10th anniversary in what can only be described as a huge, tacky, but loveable mess.  The medal design changes considerably every year, but it’s always enormous (the center 0, for example, is roughly the size of most normal medals).  The corresponding half marathon medal is much smaller.
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California (#7)

2010 Disneyland Half Marathon (Anaheim, CA)

2010 Disneyland Half Marathon – The Disneyland Half Marathon medal was usually a huge golden silhouette of Sleeping Beauty’s iconic castle.  For the 5th anniversary, race organizers took the castle and wrapped it in a large 5 and slapped Mickey in front to commemorate the milestone running.  It’s not as large as the older medals, but still heavy and worth the hefty registration fee.  Who knows if they’ll return to the classic silhouette, given that they created a completely new medal for the 6th running in 2011.
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2011 Holiday Half Marathon (Pomona, CA)

2011 Holiday Half Marathon – I very much enjoy this holiday-themed race and the ironically designed medal (there are no snowflakes in southern California in December).  The ribbon is also a colorful light blue with red lettering with snowflakes throughout.  A great race for just its third year.
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Colorado (#11)

2011 Horsetooth Half Marathon (Fort Collins, CO)

2011 Horsetooth Half Marathon – The Horsetooth Half Marathon and its accompanying t-shirt do the same thing: intimidate runners with its intimidating elevation chart.  Though it’s only for the first two miles that runners truly suffer through a 9% grade climb, the organizers make sure you don’t ever forget Monster Mountain.
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Connecticut (#14)

2011 Stratton Faxon Fairfield Half Marathon (Fairfield, CT)

2011 Stratton Faxon Fairfield Half Marathon – This is one of my least favorite medals and the reasons should be obvious.  The color palette is pretty ghastly, I have no idea what the lines on the left are supposed to be (though if I had to guess, I’d say waves) and the ribbon doesn’t make up for it.
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Delaware (#39)

2014 Delaware Running Festival Marathon (Wilmington, DE)

2014 Delaware Running Festival Marathon (Wilmington, DE)

2014 Delaware Running Festival Marathon – This double-loop course offered a square medal to its half marathon finishers and an oval-shaped prize to the marathoners.  The ribbons are also different colors depending on the distance and that downward arrow spins for marathoners only.  However, it’s not perfectly cut out, so the spin is a little awkward.
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Florida (#1)

2010 ING Miami Half Marathon (Miami, FL)

2010 ING Miami Half Marathon – Miami’s flashy, colorful medal has become a must-have for long-distance fanatics.  The 2010 medal is the same as the 2009 make except with a slightly different color palette and the roman numeral “VIII” written in palm trees over the top.  It’s a pretty large medal with two spinning components and a tiny diamond in the middle — definitely worth the warm, humid weather.
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2011 ING Miami Half Marathon (Miami, FL)

2011 ING Miami Half Marathon – The 2011 version of the half marathon medal added a few extra design elements.  Instead of a solid backdrop for the palm tree, organizers added the Miami skyline on one side and “Miami Famous” on the back and the ribbon changed colors from orange to blue.  Everything else runners had come to love about the design stayed the same.
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2012 ING Miami Half Marathon (Miami, FL)

2012 ING Miami Half MarathonFor the 10th anniversary of the race, organizers decided to stick with the popular spinning palm.  Though previous medals have had two separately spinning layers, this one has just one circle.  However, it definitely makes up for the fewer moving parts by being enormous.  The skyline was also moved from the inset to the top, which was a nice touch, despite Miami not having particularly recognizable buildings.  It’s a huge medal worthy of the 10-year honor.
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2013 Walt Disney World Marathon (Lake Buena Vista, FL)

2013 Walt Disney World Marathon (Lake Buena Vista, FL)

2013 Walt Disney World Marathon – With the exception of their 15th anniversary, the Disney World Marathon medal is usually a large hunk of gold, usually with Mickey ears or with the mouse mid-run.  However, for the commemorative 20th anniversary, they put together a truly elegant medal that pays tribute to Walt Disney and his most famous creation.  Similar to the 2011 ING Miami Marathon medal, it features two spinning layers, with an old-school black and white Mickey on the back and laurels gracing the sides.  It’s going to be tough to top this medal.
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2014 Lifetime Fitness Miami Marathon (Miami, FL)

2014 Lifetime Fitness Miami Marathon (Miami, FL)

2014 Lifetime Fitness Miami Marathon – Organizers abandoned their spinning palm idea for the first time in years, but the result is breathtakingly beautiful.  Not only did they retain the gold, blue and orange color palette, but they changed the axis of several spinning rings, giving this medal the look of a perpetual motion machine.  I thought they would phone it in after losing their long-standing titular sponsor, ING.  Fortunately, that did not happen and both medal and ribbon delivered on wow factor.
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2015 Lifetime Fitness Miami Half Marathon Medal (Miami, FL)

2015 Lifetime Fitness Miami Half Marathon (Miami, FL)

2015 Lifetime Fitness Miami Half Marathon – Are you starting to see a pattern? It seems like the organizers of this race pick a mold, and then add something to it every year until it becomes a bloated hodgepodge of elements. The medal is basically the 2014 design but with the tacky “MIAMI” and “FAMOUS” block letters on the side and more palm trees. Unless they “reset” their design again (like they did in 2009 and 2014), I’m a little worried for 2016.
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Georgia (#10)

2011 Publix Georgia Half Marathon (Atlanta, GA)

2011 Publix Georgia Half Marathon – It was the first year that Publix acted as title sponsor to this race.  Prior to 2011, ING was the main sponsor and the medal was either the shape of the state of Georgia or a peach.  This year, organizers decided to combine the state fruit with the capital skyline.
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Hawaii

Idaho (#24)

2012 Idaho Falls Half Marathon (Idaho Falls, ID)

2012 Idaho Falls Half Marathon – You always have to give races a pass if it’s their first year.  Though the organization and execution of the race was very impressive given the tiny field (under 200 runners) and point-to-point course, the medal is obviously lacking in design and wow factor.  Give it a few more years and they’ll probably up their zazz but for now, very forgettable.
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Illinois (#6)

2009 Spring Half Marathon (Chicago, IL)

2009 Spring Half Marathon – This was my first half marathon ever and it wasn’t until I crossed the finish line that I realized all finishers got medals.  In other words, when your expectations are nil, anything you receive satisfies you.  It’s a good thing too, because this medal is tiny, very abstract and difficult to read.  Had this been my third, fourth, or twenty-eighth half marathon, I would have been very irate.
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2009 13.1 Marathon (Chicago, IL)

2009 13.1 Marathon Chicago – This medal is the definition of race bling.  It’s heavy, it’s shiny, it’s almost ostentatious, and that’s why it’s awesome.  The only downside is that all other 13.1 races had that same design in 2009 with only the ribbon changing.  In fact, I believe the 13.1 series of races does the same medal for every race, but changes it yearly.
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2009 Chicago Half Marathon (Chicago, IL)

2009 Chicago Half Marathon – The Chicago skyline is a popular theme for most races.  The Sears Tower, Hancock Center and the Smurfit-Stone Building make up the bulk of this medal, which is actually quite heavy.
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2009 Bank of America Chicago Marathon (Chicago, IL)

2009 Bank of America Chicago Marathon – I was lucky to receive this medal for my first marathon.  In the regal shape of a shield and emblazoned with a large footprint, it was the perfect token to commemorate a year’s worth of training and nervous anticipation.  Plus, the 2008 medal was ugly.
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2010 North Shore Half Marathon (Highland Park, IL)

2010 North Shore Half Marathon – While the race course is very pretty, this medal is obviously not.  However, this can be forgiven because all runners received flip flops, a towel and a backpack, which I use all the time as a gym bag.  In the absence of this amazing swag, I would have been much  more disappointed with this boring black circle.
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2010 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon (Chicago, IL)

2010 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon – As a race with only three runnings so far, this has been the best medal of the three.  2009‘s was decent but clunky and 2011‘s was also a bit uneven (for lack of a better word).  The 2010 medal, though, was an effective use of space, neatly set in a classic circle.
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2010 Chicago Half Marathon (Chicago, IL)

2010 Chicago Half Marathon – The design changed somewhat from the year before, but veterans will recognize that it is mostly the same.  A starry arch covers the same skyline and the ribbon changed from a simple blue sash to a white and green one with the race name and logo printed on it.  A definite improvement over a safe concept (though I’m not too crazy about the 2011 design).
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2010 Bank of America Chicago Marathon (Chicago, IL)

2010 Bank of America Chicago Marathon – You’re never truly disappointed in a marathon medal upon finishing.  They could give you a wad of gum tied to human hair and you’d cherish it for that moment.  That’s how I felt about this medal.  After the post-race high, I looked at it again and thought, they had so much potential with the 10-10-10 date and this is what they did with it?
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2011 Bank of America Chicago Marathon (Chicago, IL)

2011 Bank of America Chicago Marathon – The race organizers kept the same simple gray circle design from the past year but added the theme of the year (“Let’s Run Together”) and a field of runners, a bit reminiscent of the 2006 New York City Marathon medal.  I liked the look, despite the fact that it didn’t trump 2009’s design.  2012’s medal came with even more detail, this time showing off the Hancock Tower instead of the more famous Sears.
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2012 Chicago Polar Dash Medal (Chicago, IL)

2012 Polar Dash Half Marathon – This is part of a series of races that was created by Team Ortho, originally in Minneapolis.  Each medal from that series was 1/4 of a larger circle, with the same basic design on each.  It’s a large, yet thin slab with stained glass pieces surrounding the center image.  It’s nice, except that this one doesn’t say “Chicago” or “Half Marathon” anywhere on it, meaning it’s probably exactly the same as the Minneapolis race (and it was also given to all 10k finishers).
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2012 HalfMadness Half Marathon (Batavia, IL)

2012 HalfMadness Half Marathon – It’s becoming popular to tack on a bottle opener to finishers medals.  As someone who prefers to proudly display his medals than actually use them (and therefore keep them in a kitchen drawer), this gimmick does nothing for me.  But I do appreciate how they minimized the sponsors and went for bright colors.
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2013 Paleozoic Trail Run 25k (Willow Springs, IL)

2013 Paleozoic Trail Run 25k (Willow Springs, IL)

2013 Paleozoic Trail Run 25k – I was very pleasantly surprised by this medal.  Given that it was an inaugural trail run of just about 200 people, this hefty, distance-specific and detailed medal comes with a colorful ribbon.  I was expecting a generic decal, so the engraved dinosaur skeleton was a huge step up.  The event was not without many flaws, but this was not one of them.
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2014 13.1 Marathon Chicago Medal (Chicago, IL)

2014 13.1 Marathon Chicago Medal (Chicago, IL)

2014 13.1 Marathon Chicago – Although the event itself hasn’t changed much since its inaugural race in 2009, the medals and sponsorships certainly have.  The original design was a giant 13.1 with a sphere serving as the point, with little else.  In the years since, Allstate took over as the title sponsor, followed by Michelob Ultra, which feature a little too prominently in the otherwise elegant, circular design.  I believe every race in the country has the same design, with only the city changing.
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2014 Rock 'n Roll Chicago Half Marathon Medal (Chicago, IL)

2014 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon Medal (Chicago, IL)

2014 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon – Some people love the medals for RNR races, some people find them too generic and uninspired.  I tend to find that at least for Chicago, the organizers go out of their way to find buildings or landmarks that aren’t the expected Sears and Hancock Towers, which I appreciate as a local.  This year features the crowd favorite Cloud Gate (more commonly known as the Bean) and a few architecturally appealing (yet otherwise commonplace) buildings.  It’s colorful, shiny, and that’s good enough for me.
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Indiana (#4)

2010 OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon (Indianapolis, IN)

2010 OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon – Worst medal ever.  Proves that even running a PR can’t distract you enough to notice you were just given a thin, dull knickknack that you can barely recognize.
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2012 OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon (Indianapolis, IN)

2012 OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon – Much better.  Organizers must have either received many complaints or noticed themselves that a race billed as the largest in the country should have a decent medal at the very least.  The design is very similar to 2011‘s, which was awesome, so no complaints from me.
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2012 OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon 500 Club Medal (Indianapolis, IN)

2012 OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon 500 Club Medal – This medal is given to the first 500 finishers of the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon.  The cutoff is usually in the 1:29 range, but high humidity slowed the field down by three minutes in 2012, allowing me to weasel my way into the exclusive club.  It’s exactly the same as the finisher’s medal except smaller, “golden” and says “500 Club” in the upper right corner.
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2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon (Indianapolis, IN)

2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon (Indianapolis, IN)

2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon – This race for years had given out a detailed medal with its signature logo. In 2014, they started a 4-year concept meant to entice repeat runners where each year’s medal is a different corner of a larger square. Presumably if you run the races from 2014 to 2017 you’ll be given the center circle as a bonus gift. It’s almost enough to get me to do it …
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Iowa (#27)

2012 IMT Des Moines Marathon (Des Moines, IA)

2012 IMT Des Moines Marathon – It seemed like this medal didn’t change from year to year.  It was usually a simple dark grey oval with the race logo and date beneath.  I was surprised this year to receive this golden medallion with little confetti-like bits of color.  It’s nothing special, but you can tell there was some love put into the design.  Then again, I’m biased because I scorched my old PR before earning this.
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Kansas #(32)

2013 Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz (Olathe, KS)

2013 Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz (Olathe, KS)

2013 Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz – No marathon in Kansas would be complete without reference to L. Frank Baum’s iconic  novel.  This year’s medal features the Tin Man and the one thing he seeks: a heart.  It is large, cute and sharp around the edges.  The 2012 medal was yellow and featured the Scarecrow, so it’s likely that next year will be the Cowardly Lion’s debut, though I don’t know what color would represent courage.
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Kentucky (#21)

2012 Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon (Louisville, KY)

2012 Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon – This medal features a winged horse atop a fleur de lys, attached to a very colorful blue/orange ribbon.  Although it’s not as in-your-face as 2011’s medal, it was appropriately regal for its historic namesake.  I was worried that the “Presented by Walmart” would encroach too much on the design, but fortunately it’s tucked away appropriately.
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Louisiana (#30)

2013 Rock 'n Roll New Orleans Marathon (New Orleans, LA)

2013 Rock ‘n Roll New Orleans Marathon (New Orleans, LA)

2013 Rock ‘n Roll New Orleans Marathon – Some people criticize the Rock ‘n Roll medals as being all the same, but in this case I have to disagree.  Every year they warmly embrace New Orleans’ culture and try to infuse their finisher’s hunk with as much Mardis Gras as possible.  This year’s was no exception, with designers showcasing the city’s hallmark elements of jazz and masqueraded frivolity.  But what really sells it is the beaded necklace from which it hangs.
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Maine (#42)

2014 Maine Half Marathon (Portland, ME)

2014 Maine Half Marathon (Portland, ME)

2014 Maine Half Marathon – This race hands out a heavy and colorful finisher’s medal with a spinning component featuring the silhouette of a moose. Though the race itself isn’t as rugged as the medal suggests, it’s a nice addition to anyone’s medal rack. The half marathon medal is no different though, so it’s up to you to explain that to your friends and family.
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Maryland

2014 Maryland Half Marathon (Fulton, MD)

2014 Maryland Half Marathon (Fulton, MD)

2014 Maryland Half Marathon – I always downplay my expectations for small races in rural areas, so I was pleasantly surprised by this medal.  It bears the logo of the race, displays the date, uses negative space, and has a matching, colorful ribbon.  Truthfully though, I was already pleasantly surprised by the UnderArmour t-shirt that all participants get.  I guess that’s what Maryland does (in addition to crabcakes).
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Massachusetts (#5)

2010 Boston’s Run to Remember (Boston, MA)

2010 Boston’s Run to Remember – This medal is tiny.  But it is shaped like a badge, which fits the race theme of paying tribute to Massachusetts Law Enforcement Officers who have lost their lives while on duty.  In addition, it has the Boston skyline in the middle, thus serving as a nice example of big things in small packages.  The 2011 medal was similar, but in silver.
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Michigan (#13)

2011 Traverse City State Bank Bayshore Marathon (Traverse City, MI)

2011 Traverse City State Bank Bayshore Marathon – There’s nothing particularly noteworthy or outstanding about this medal, but it’s thick, robust, has all the necessary information on it, comes with a colorful ribbon and changes little year to year.  Then again, most runners go for the serene course, the picturesque Grand Traverse Bay and the small-town comfort.
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Minnesota (#23)

2012 Grandma’s Marathon (Two Harbors to Duluth, MN)

2012 Grandma’s Marathon – Every year,this race puts out a very detailed, monochromatic medal with a landmark of the surrounding area.  Recently, they’ve showcased a lighthouse, the large steel structure by the harbor, and a bridge.  This year they stepped away from more traditional designs and adopted a modern look.  I wasn’t thrilled with the aesthetic change, but I’m sure over time I’ll come to enjoy it more.
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Mississippi (#16)

2011 Tupelo Marathon (Tupelo, MI)

2011 Tupelo Marathon -The skull & crossbones medal has become a staple of this tiny, 250-person marathon in rural Mississippi.  The accessories change, but there’s always a skull.  This year they adopted a Grateful Dead theme and used a shiny, gold metal instead of their more grimy materials of years past.  It ends up looking a bit like pirate’s gold, which is great, but the font choice was less than ideal.
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Missouri (#2)

2010 Go! St. Louis Half Marathon (St. Louis, MO)

2010 Go! St. Louis Half Marathon – St. Louis is doomed to have its Gateway Arch forever represent its city … and that’s just fine because it’s a pretty awesome structure.  This medal does just that, but adds a strange, additional loop for the ribbon – I guess if the Arch had served that purpose, you wouldn’t notice it as much.  Regardless, a great medal.
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2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon Medal (St. Louis, MO)

2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon Medal (St. Louis, MO)

2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon – This is a medal that is completely different every year, but will always feature the city’s signature Gateway Arch.  It’s so iconic and instantly recognizable, so who can blame them?  This year they opted for a retro-style look, which first struck me as a play on the famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign.  The ribbon is equally colorful, making this a delightful prize for a hilly course.
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Montana (#25)

2012 Madison Half Marathon (Gravelly Mountains, MT)

2012 Madison Half Marathon – Given that the race was in the middle of nowhere, fields just under 200 runners and tries its hardest to minimize its impact on the environment, I was pleasantly surprised with this medal.  I was expecting a generic circle with Hermes sandals or an American flag and instead got this nice decal with the race’s logo and altitude proudly stamped on it.  Nitpicky complaint: there’s no unique medal for the half marathon finishers.
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Nebraska

Nevada (#29)

2012 Hoover Dam Marathon (Boulder City, NV)

2012 Hoover Dam Marathon (Boulder City, NV)

2012 Hoover Dam Marathon – Calico Racing, despite putting together relatively small races, always delivers a medal befitting of the event.  This one features both the Hoover Dam and the new bypass in a square frame, along with their cat logo.  I wish they had added a date and even specified which distance was run but I suppose an event as spartanly run as this one needs to cut some corners.  Nice medal for a great race.
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New Hampshire (#41)

2014 New Hampshire Marathon (Bristol, NH)

2014 New Hampshire Marathon (Bristol, NH)

2014 New Hampshire Marathon – This is, thus far, the smallest medal I have ever received. But after the stunning views of Bristol’s autumn foliage, serene mirror-like lakes and friendly community, I would have welcomed a piece of park with a ribbon made of dental floss. But as a warning to anyone wanting a sizable medal: you won’t get one.
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New Jersey

New Mexico (#37)

2014 Shiprock Marathon (Shiprock, NM)

2014 Shiprock Marathon (Shiprock, NM)

2014 Shiprock Marathon – I tend to lower my expectations for small races such as this one, which takes place in Northwest New Mexico.  So when I finished and they handed me this colorful medal, with the outline of the titular formation cut out of the middle, I was quite happy.  Not only does it pay tribute to the giant towering Shiprock, but it doesn’t hide whatever medal you might have hanging behind it!
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New York (#17)

2011 ING New York City Marathon (New York, NY)

2011 ING New York City Marathon – New York Road Runners don’t need to hand out a flashy medal as an incentive to fill 47,000 slots, though they usually put together a nice, classy medal.  This one is pretty austere, with the skyline barely noticeable behind the year.  If this were any other marathon, I’d have a complaint or two, but given the prestige, I hang it proudly.
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North Carolina (#31)

2013 NC Half Marathon Medal (Concord, NC)

2013 NC Half Marathon Medal (Concord, NC)

2013 NC Half Marathon – This race started in 2012 with a medal email blast.  I saw it and came extremely close to signing up just to earn the racetrack-themed medal with moving parts and LED lights.  This year the organizers did away with the moving cars and changed the race backdrop to a waving checkered flag but keeping the flashing lights.  The middle is a spinning component, but both sides are the same.
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North Dakota (#43)

2015 Fargo Marathon (Fargo, ND)

2015 Fargo Marathon (Fargo, ND)

2015 Fargo Marathon – This is a race that typically gives out very wacky, colorful and gaudy medals. For 2015, they decided to fashion a medal out of a local landmark. Runners pass the art-deco theater sign about two miles from the finish, which means fatigue will probably prevent you from seeing it. The half marathoners receive the same medal in a smaller version.
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Ohio (#12)

2011 Cincinnati Flying Pig Half Marathon (Cincinnati, OH)

2011 Cincinnati Flying Pig Half Marathon – This is a perfect example of a medal that gets people out to a race.  It changes very little from year to year, often in the form of an accessory such as pilot goggles, or in the catchphrase.  But you can always count on a detailed flying pig and its haunches on the back.  I’m actually considering running the full marathon just as an excuse to get another one of these.
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2014 Air Force Marathon (WPAFB, Dayton, OH)

2014 Air Force Marathon (WPAFB, Dayton, OH)

2014 Air Force Marathon – Nothing says raw power like a fighter jet. Every year, the Air Force Marathon features a different military plane on its medal and promotional materials, and every year the medal is a crowd favorite. Each distance (from the 5k to the marathon) features the same plane, but the medals are bigger according to distance.
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Oklahoma (#28)

2012 Williams Route 66 Marathon (Tulsa, OK)

2012 Williams Route 66 Marathon – This is a race that, like the Tupelo Marathon, has developed a following for two reasons: lots of 50-staters use it to knock out Oklahoma off their list and it gives all finishers a gorgeous medal.  It changes every year, but is always inspired by vintage American automobiles and has made 26point2medals.com‘s top 3 for the last three years.  This year’s is an homage to the 1936 Dodge pickup truck and it looks fantastic.  Very colorful and with an equally bright ribbon, it will definitely stand out in anyone’s medal rack.
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Oregon (#34)

2013 Portland Marathon Medal Front (Portland, OR)

2013 Portland Marathon Medal Front (Portland, OR)

2013 Portland Marathon – This is a race that has made the Top 25 at 26point2medals.com’s yearly medal rankings every year since they started the list in 2009.  The event always gives its finishers a medal that looks like a gold coin, detailed with a place or event of local historical significance.  Routinely compared to works of art, these medals look like they belong in a fine coin collection.  After winning the top spot in the 2012 list of the nation’s best marathon medals, organizers set out to try and outdo themselves from the previous year by infusing a bit of color to the otherwise completely gold palette.  A colleague of mine compared it to a French military officer’s medal of commendation, which I suppose is an

2013 Portland Marathon Medal Back (Portland, OR)

2013 Portland Marathon Medal Back (Portland, OR)

appropriate comparison.  It does have a touch of royalty on both sides, making it for an instant eye-catcher in anyone’s medal rack.  While it is a bit small, the detail pops out once you take a close look.  The organizers also heavily emphasized their commitment to aiding and paying tribute to the 2013 Boston Marathon, which is likely why they added blue and yellow.
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Pennsylvania

2013 Philadelphia Marathon Medal (Philadelphia, PA)

2013 Philadelphia Marathon Medal (Philadelphia, PA)

2013 Philadelphia Marathon – What this medal lacks in original design or color, it makes up for it in size.  Though not the biggest medal out there, it’s much larger than it looks.  It also sports the Liberty Bell on the back with an embossed square should racers decide to engrave their official finishing time.  I wasn’t too thrilled with this classic look, as previous years have added some color to the design.
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Rhode Island

South Carolina (#15)

2011 XTERRA Trail Run Harbison (Columbia, SC)

2011 XTERRA Trail Run – I was too dehydrated and exhausted to look at this medal.  Sure, it’s pretty generic and doesn’t give you much aside from the XTERRA logo.  But then again, it fits the race’s threadbare organization and course.  I wouldn’t expect a shiny, colorful medallion for such a brutal, savage race.
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South Dakota (#26)

2012 Run Crazy Horse Marathon (Hill City, SD)

2012 Run Crazy Horse Marathon – This is one of several races that makes their finishers medallions out of clay.  I’m not entirely sure if they are individually handmade or if they’ve managed to churn them out in a more mechanical, efficient way.  Regardless, it’s a beautiful medal and shows the Crazy Horse Memorial as it will look in a few decades once it’s finished.  The leather strap and brightly colored race title also help in making this an awesome trophy.
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Tennessee (#20)

2012 Oak Barrel Half Marathon (Lynchburg, TN)

2012 Oak Barrel Half Marathon – I picked this race for the medal.  Each finisher receives this elegant, wooden prize, which displays the race logo in incredible detail.  The medal changes every year, but retains the same basic design and charm.  It’s one of my favorite medals so far.
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Texas (#9)

2011 LIVESTRONG Austin Half Marathon (Austin, TX)

2011 LIVESTRONG Austin Half Marathon – This is another one of my favorites.  Each section of the stylized Austin skyline is stained glass, matching the color palette of its titular sponsor, LIVESTRONG.  It’s elegant, classy, and the black/yellow ribbon is a delightful bonus.
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Utah

2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon Medal (Moab, UT)

2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon Medal (Moab, UT)

2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon – Finishers of this otherwordly adventure race receive a generic Project Athena Race & Adventure Series medal, regardless of the distance completed.  This is the kind of medal that disappoints me because it has absolutely none of the race components in it.  No beautiful arches, sandstone cliffs, no date, no year, not even the name of the race itself.  Though the race was amazing, I wish they would siphon money from somewhere else (offer cotton t-shirts, perhaps not offer every finisher a coffee mug) and add some zazz to their medal instead.
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Vermont

Virginia (#22)

2012 Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon (Fredericksburg, VA)

2012 Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon – This medal is large, colorful and has a different design on both sides.  The ribbon is equally patriotic and colorful, which is perfect given the race’s theme and organization.  While it doesn’t have the same epic quality as its bigger brother, the Marine Corps marathon, its a great addition to the collection.
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Washington (#33)

2013 Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon (Leavenworth, WA)

2013 Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon (Leavenworth, WA)

2013 Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon – Finding a previous version of this medal proved difficult, so I had no expectations of what to receive.  Plus, given how remote the race was, the course’s scenic beauty was enough of a payoff.  But this elegant bottle-opener was a big surprise.  Heavy and very tastefully designed, it’s definitely worth the trek into the mountains of central Washington.
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West Virginia

Wisconsin (#3)

2010 Wisconsin Half Marathon (Kenosha, WI)

2010 Wisconsin Half Marathon – It was the 2009 medal for this race that made me realize that not all finisher’s prizes were simple medallions, but instead could be quirky or funny.  Wanting a slice of that Wisconsin cheese, I signed up and earned this bad boy.  As far as I’ve seen, the medal always has cheese on it, with the design changing only slightly from year to year.  However, the medals for the half and full marathon are the same (both say “Wisconsin Marathon”), which can annoy some runners.
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2010 Madison Mini-Marathon (Madison, WI)

2010 Madison Mini-Marathon – The year before was the race’s inaugural year and it sported a nice, standard medal.  2010 improved on that design by incorporating the Wisconsin State Capitol and making it larger.  I approve.
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2013 Ice Age Trail Run 50k Key Chain (LaGrange, Wisconsin)

2013 Ice Age Trail Run 50k Key Chain (LaGrange, WI)

2013 Ice Age Trail 50k – I was a bit blindsided by this trinket.  After finishing my first ever 50k in a dizzying fit of exhaustion, I paid little heed to this when it was handed to me.  It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized nobody had given me a medal.  Instead, I had this tiny, albeit impressively detailed keychain which was the size of those pennies that they flatten at museums as souvenirs.  I won’t complain because it has already grown on me (har).  But still, they should tell you beforehand so you can manage your expectations.
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Wyoming

Illinois (2011 Bank of America Chicago Marathon)

Paula, Me, Tía Ale and Tío Daniel

The Chicago Marathon is a special one for me.  Not only was it my first marathon ever in 2009, but it’s the hometown race.  It’s a race that doesn’t just cut through one of the greatest cities in the world, it takes me to many places of personal significance.  It runs past apartments in which I’ve lived, in front of many restaurants where I’ve dined, under train tracks that became very familiar through daily commutes, and in between hundreds of thousands of spectators, some of whom are familiar faces.  It’s a race that almost effortlessly reminds me of the vibrant life of the city, with runners flowing through the streets like blood through its arteries.  So it wasn’t at all surprising to find that after last year’s discouragingly hot race, I didn’t need much convincing to sign up for the 34th annual marathon.  And, just like last year, runners basked in ideal conditions in the weeks leading up to the race only to watch the mercury creep up in the days prior.  As more weather forecasters predicted unseasonably warm temperatures, I could hear a collective sigh echoing through the city.

It seems like all runners of this race, both newcomers and veterans, sign up, train for and run the city’s largest race with a nagging fear.  As if the idea of training all summer to run 26.2 uninterrupted miles were not intimidating enough, there’s an additional source of trepidation for these runners and it is the memory of the 2007 Chicago Marathon.  Organizers were caught off guard that year by spiking temperatures and high humidity, sending hundreds of runners to emergency rooms.  Aid stations were reported to have run out of water with thousands of runners still to arrive, forcing organizers to cancel the event just over three hours into it.  Everyone else still on the course was told to walk either to public transportation or to the finish line, which unnerved the more experienced runners who were used to the brutal conditions.  The short-term effects were typical: dehydration, nausea, dejection and regret, especially for those runners who sought to run a marathon as a one-time only accomplishment.  Over the years though, the heat had long-lasting effects.  On the positive side, Bank of America improved its organization, provided more water and medical stations and instituted their flag system to notify runners of degrading conditions.  On the flipside, Chicago has quickly developed a reputation for having unpredictable weather, often in the extremes, during marathon week.  For this reason, runners are now much more cautious in the days prior to the race and during the event itself.

Actually, Paula, I run alone.

Rocking out with Ultramarathon Man Dean Karnazes

2008 was another hot one, though not quite as brutal.  2009 was the polar opposite, with start temperatures in the low 30’s.  Last year I was hoping for a repeat but was woefully disappointed with another 80-degree day.  And this year, as we all know, was another unusually hot day.  But I stepped to the starting line with a hint of optimism, sparked by low dew points and a cool lake breeze.

Earlier that weekend though, I was giving my family a tour of the city.  My cousin Paula, who ran her first half marathon at the 2010 ING Miami Half Marathon, was in Chicago for her first attempt at the full distance with friends from her running club in Costa Rica.  Her parents and her sister were also here to support her on this monumental task, so I gladly played the role of tour guide during the weekend.  They got to see the enormous Health and Fitness Expo, the intricacies of Millennium Park, the changing autumn leaves in Lincoln Park, the resplendent waters of Lake Michigan and dined at just a few of Chicago’s plentiful culinary gems.  If this is starting to sound like an advertisement, my apologies, but I just really love the race and its host city and was hoping that Paula would cross the finish line thinking similar thoughts.

But if anything was going to hinder those efforts at selling Chicago, it was going to be the weather.  The first eight miles of the course are mostly northward, so the lake breeze coming from the south wasn’t being felt too much.  I was already covered in sweat and I hadn’t even reached the 15K mark, which isn’t the best indicator of long-term performance.  Fortunately, once the race turns around at Addison and Broadway, ushering runners straight into the loudest and zaniest part of the race (Boystown, whose theme this year was Lady Gaga), we faced those cool winds directly.  From that point until the halfway mark, where the course stops its southward trek and juts west, running felt effortless.  I ran an easy 1:52 (8:35 pace) half marathon, almost exactly the same as my Bayshore time, which I felt was a reasonable compromise between ambition and hesitance … though perhaps I erred on the side of too fast.

The expert spectator and this year's clients

I kept comparing my pace and the weather to the year before.  In 2010 I started to slow down at mile 16 and hit the wall hard with several muscle cramps at 20.  This time, I was cruising past 16 with no problem.  But that’s the thing with the Chicago Marathon – up until mile 16, there have been plenty of buildings or trees to protect you from the sun.  Once past Little Italy at mile 18, the course goes south on Ashland towards Pilsen, one of Chicago’s most famous Latino neighborhoods.  At that point, there isn’t much shade and today the sun was out without a single cloud to obscure it.  And so begins the story of this marathon’s slow decline into lassitude.

At mile 20 I registered my first 9:00+ minute mile and didn’t speed up back into the 8’s for the rest of the race.  With the sun beating down on me, my legs were starting to drag.  I was still running, but my walk breaks at the aid stations were getting longer and that urge to keep going was getting harder to muster.  I was encouraged by the fact that I hadn’t gotten any cramps or spasms and that it seemed like running under 4 hours was in the bag.  But as any marathoner will attest, forward motion doesn’t get any easier and that elusive second (or third) wind is a myth.  Chinatown does its job in energizing me for about a half mile, but the worst part of the entire race comes immediately afterward.  The southward slog down Wentworth Avenue has very few spectators and runs alongside the Dan Ryan Expressway, where no buildings or trees can help you hide from the sun.   It’s basically the grayest and bleakest part of the course.

Nati's artsy picture of Paula at mile 21.5 (Chinatown)

With my body continuing to wear down, I started doing the math: how slow would I have to run to not break four hours?  When my quads tightened up at the same time at mile 24 and walking became more painful than running, how slow would I have to go?  When a walking break became a sudden spasm in my left hamstring at mile 25, as if my muscles had snapped like guitar strings, how long would I have to wait to not hit that threshold?  When I climbed up the Roosevelt Street Bridge at mile 26, doing everything possible to just keep going … but by then I was at 3:56 and my first sub-4 hour Chicago Marathon was finally secured.

My official finishing time was 3:57:16, almost eight minutes faster than last year under very similar conditions.  I took my medal, went to my gear check tent, laid out a towel and slept under the delightful cover of trees.  Steph, my aunt, uncle and cousin were in Chinatown, waiting for Paula to run by on her maiden voyage through the 29 neighborhoods of the iconic city’s signature race.  It wouldn’t be another hour until she would cross the finish line with an encouraging mix of elation and delirium.  She didn’t suffer as much as most first-timers do because she trains in San José, Costa Rica, nestled at around 4,000 feet with crazy humidity and ubiquitous hills – Chicago’s dry, mild heat and pancake flat course offered no serious challenges.  I’m sure her experience has led her one step closer to that second marathon – the one where most of the magic is gone and you don’t run to finish but to improve.

Victory

So now I’m thinking ahead to next year.  There’s a very good chance that I won’t be running Chicago for many, many reasons.  None of them have to do with the race itself, but rather with the other races that happen in October that I forego to focus on Chicago.  There’s the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, the Crazy Horse Run in South Dakota, the Portland Marathon, and the famous Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC.  October is a prime month for big, fun races and it seems like even experienced runners can only pick one to avoid getting injured or overwhelmed.  Doubling-up is possible but you’d have to be careful with your training and your performance at one of the two events might suffer at the expense of the other.

And that’s exactly what might happen to me this year as I battle against muscular atrophy while training for the world’s largest marathon, the ING New York City Marathon on November 6.