State 32: Kansas (2013 Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz)

04-GARMIN

I stayed true to my rules for racing by arriving at Garmin Headquarters, the start of the 2013 Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz around 5:15 AM, almost two hours before it was to begin.  I sat in my Hyundai Sonata, listening to the local rock station blare the same chunky macho riffs over and over but with different band names.  It’s been a long time since I dipped my toes into modern rock, and now it’s all become the same chugging blasts of 80s throwback distortion under an angry alpha male drawl.  The selections they played by Seether, Stone Sour and even Nickelback all sounded exactly the same.  The only song they played that I actually enjoyed was “Hats Off to the Bull” by Chevelle.  But I had no other options because I forgot to bring CDs or a USB cable.

0420_1_garminmarathon 00 0So I reclined in my seat and let the outside chill slowly seep into the car.  The goose bumps I quickly developed made me question my choice of clothing.  I made the mistake of only seeing the daytime Hi of 60 and not the overnight Lo of 30, which was a total rookie mistake.  The race would be cold from start to finish, but I hadn’t dressed for it.  I looked out my window and thought I saw a Walgreen’s across the highway where I could buy a $5 sweater.  But when I got out and started walking toward it I realized it was an auto body shop.  Was it possible to see mirages in the cold?

I dashed to the Packet Pickup tent and retrieved my bib and t-shirt, hoping that it would be a long-sleeve technical shirt that would serve as an additional layer.  I was chagrined to learn it was a regular cotton shirt.  I guess I was stuck with what I had.

I would have done the packet pickup boogie the night before like a normal person but my flight from Chicago to Kansas City was delayed.  I not only missed whatever Expo had been prepared for this race, but a chance to see famed ultrarunner Scott Jurek along with US marathoner and 2:22 Boston finisher Desiree Davila and 50K American record holder Josh Cox.  It wasn’t surprising to learn that Garmin sponsors top athletes, but I didn’t expect them to be at this small, rural race.  None of that mattered because I ended up driving straight from the airport to the home of my gracious hosts, Jimena and Chris.

Leo

Leo

Jimena was one of the first people from my grade that I met when I moved to Costa Rica in 1997.  I was invited to a get-together near the school where six or seven of my future classmates were hanging out. From what I remember, the event was put together exclusively because they knew there was a new kid in school and he shouldn’t go into the first day knowing absolutely no one.  While Jime and I didn’t become close friends, like many people in our grade level, we saw each other often at parties, in between classes or simply because Costa Rica is a tiny country and you’re bound to interact with everyone in unexpected ways.  For example, her cousin Anita is one of my closest friends and her dad is my dentist.  But we didn’t spend much time together one-on-one – in fact, I’ve seen her dad more in the last ten years, though our conversations are mostly a one-way exchange of indecipherable vowel sounds.

So it was just a little unexpected when, after running the Georgia Half Marathon two years ago, I received a comment from her telling me she’d be happy to help with Kansas or Missouri when the time came.  It was a surprise in that I never know who reads these stories and usually assume my audience is mostly internet lunatics with a pinch of family and a hint of local friends.  But I soon realized that the kind offer was the very embodiment of the unconditional generosity that ticos are known for.  I didn’t forget her invitation, so when I signed up for my first Kansas race, I reached out to her.  When I arrived Friday night, I was first greeted by Leo, a charming, sandy brown Pug with perfectly spherical eyes that seemed to sit balanced on top of his button nose.  I also met her husband Chris, a local Kansas boy who over the years has developed an impressive command of Spanish and all things Costa Rica.  We spent the night catching up over Jime’s delicious arroz con pollo, gabbing endlessly with a fun blend of English and Spanish, neither language completely taking over.  The warm dinner and warmer welcome allowed for an easy night’s sleep.

Camelbak & Boston Bib

Camelbak & Boston Bib

The next morning, as the temperature in the Sonata dropped, that warmth was quickly replaced by chills.  Soon the parking lot was full of cars, runners buzzing back and forth between tents and portapotties, hands shoved in their pockets and shoulders hunched.  I spotted a few in shorts and t-shirts not looking as regretful as me, which perked my spirits.  The sun was rising quickly.  With very few hills to cast long shadows, it wouldn’t be long before the entire state was bathed in gold.  Just a few minutes shy of the start, I put myself together and left the car.

It was soon clear that this would be a relatively small race.  In most cases, you have to strain your eyes to find the flags being carried by the different pacers among the sea of people.  But just ten minutes prior to the start, it almost looked like pacers were the only people running the race.  It took me just a few steps to hear a familiar voice, a loud, boisterous howl that I last saw in October in Iowa.  There she was, with her trademark giraffe ears and banshee call, Abby the pacer.

I went up to her and re-introduced myself, thanking her for pacing me the first 8 miles of the IMT Des Moines Marathon.

Abby the Pacer

Abby the Pacer

“However, I’m not running with your group today,” I told her.  “I’m going to take it easy with the 3:50 guys.”
“That’s alright,” she said with an electric smile.  “You’ll probably still hear me!”

After asking her how her “shithead dogs” were, I walked past her pace group and toward the next one, spearheaded by Adam and Margo.  I would be running with this group and not with Abby or an even faster group because of the Ice Age 50k in three weeks.  Several months ago, I decided that instead of doing a ritualistic 20-miler before tapering for my first ever ultra, I would instead run a marathon as a training run.  Rather than try and PR or go for an aggressive run where I could risk injury or overuse, I would run as if at home, knocking out the necessary miles.  That’s why I was here, in Olathe, Kansas: to run 26.2 miles at a sustainable pace and take it easy.

Sort of.

Though I had chosen a pace that was suitably easy for me, I had brought with me a Camelbak and filled it with oat bars, energy waffles and a water bottle filled with an electrolyte solution called ZYM.  In recent long training runs, I’ve stayed away from using GUs and Gatorade, replacing those with CLIF bars and ZYM.  The latter is a local Chicago version of the popular Nuun electrolyte drink, which cuts out the sugar and calories, leaving that job to solid foods.  Looking ahead to my first attempt at the 50-mile distance, I decided it would be good to start training my stomach to eat real foods mid-run and not rely on synthetic gels, which can nauseate me as early as mile 15.  How would I be able to run over thrice that distance without wanting to throw up?

The Start of the Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz

The Start of the Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz

So I was also here to see if I could run a marathon with a pack stuffed with real food and a sugar-free electrolyte without throwing up or bonking miserably.  I hadn’t ever tried this combination before, so anything was possible, including miserable failure.

But it wasn’t long before my challenges were put in perspective.  This was one of the first marathons held since the Boston Marathon bombing last Monday, still fresh in the minds of both runners and organizers.  Many of the runners, myself included, had printed out Runners United to Remember bibs and had pinned them to our backs.  Others had taken markers to shirts and written words of support, encouragement and condolences for those affected.  Before the national anthem, we participated in a moment of silence, where four yellow balloons were released seconds apart, the names of each death fading, but never forgotten, into the morning blue.

We were off at 7 am sharp.  In that first mile I noticed several aches and pains that tried to portend a ruinous finish for me, all of them casualties from last Sunday’s trail race, which had turned my leg muscles into cake batter.  The backbreaking downhill had only taken my left foot’s middle toenail prisoner and today it felt like the size (and likely color) of a plum, nudging the bottom of my shoe with every step.  My quads were also not totally fresh and each step sent a tiny pinch of stress into them.

I hoped those wouldn’t come back to haunt me.

This is roughly what the first 14 miles looked like

This is roughly what the first 14 miles looked like

It wasn’t long before I was surprised by how hilly Olathe was.  In my mind, Kansas has always materialized as a broad swath of burnt orange, a panorama of endless horizon, nothing breaking the monotony besides a distant tornado or a rickety windmill.  Garmin must have chosen the only place in the entire state with enough rolling hills to satisfy 14 miles of marathon course because there were very few flat stretches of road.  Adam the Pacer was using the SMART pacing method, which involves starting slower than your target pace and gradually accelerating.  However, we were rarely ever running a constant pace because of the reliable ups and downs we had to conquer.  They weren’t steep or anything, but come on, this was Kansas.

The course during these first 14 miles, though hilly, was actually pretty boring.  We were either running on suburban roads alongside residential subdivisions or, during one short stretch, actual sidewalks barely two people wide.  That said, aid stations were well-manned and volunteers were cheery and helpful, though I didn’t take any of their wares.  I soon learned how awkward it was to un-sling my Camelbak, open the back zipper, and unwrap a CLIF bar with gloves without littering, all without breaking stride.  But hey, we were all having fun.

“I don’t have time for these f*cks,” said an ornery driver at an intersection, his path blocked by runners.
“Sorry to inconvenience you,” the woman running next to me said.  “Read the news.”

An example of runners embracing the Oz theme

An example of runners embracing the Oz theme

Ok, so not everyone was having fun.  I guess long-distance events that block roads aren’t a regular thing in Olathe.  But onwards we went, following flag-bearer Adam and his unofficial co-pacer Marla.  Margo, as it turned out, was nursing an injury so she would end up joining us much later at mile 17.  Marla, on the other hand, was a deceptively intense breed of runner.  In a few sessions of eavesdropping, I learned that she had run over 100 marathons and had actually won a race in 1995.  Strange how gods can blend so easily among mortals.

Adam’s marathon count, which hovered somewhere in the 80s, was equally impressive.  When he wasn’t taking a pit stop in the bushes, he was steadfastly monitoring our pace, adjusting it as necessary.  He wasn’t as talkative as some other pacers I’ve run with, so I took it upon myself to get to know him a little more.

“So are you from Kansas City?” I asked.
“No, from Wichita.”
“Isn’t that where Westboro is from?”
“No!” he said, with a laugh that suggested he’s been asked that before.  “They’re from Topeka.   Marla’s from there.”
“Oh yeah,” Marla said with a slight groan.  “I don’t understand those people.”

And just like that, I had exhausted all the things I associate with Kansas: the Wizard of Oz and Westboro Baptist Church.  Neither Adam nor Marla seemed happy to have the latter be part of Kansas’ reputation in the country, but they talked about them like the sad reality that they are.

We crossed the halfway mark in 1:56:22, slightly slower than the 1:55 necessary for a 3:50 finish.  There was no timing mat for the half split, so I had to remember it for the rest of the run.  For the next mile or so, I felt like Dory from Finding Nemo when she remembers the address in Sydney.

1:56:22, that’s my half time.  What’s my half time?  1:56:22.  Just so happens my time for the half was 1:56:22.  Why do you keep asking?  But I don’t mind telling you, it was 1:56:22.  What, you didn’t catch that?  It’s one hour, fifty-six minutes, twenty-two seconds.  Well, if you MUST KNOW, it was …

… even as I write this, I can feel my mind slipping from my grasp.

This is what the latter 12.2 miles looked like

This is what the latter 12.2 miles looked like

Once past mile 14, the last of the major hills were behind us and we entered the Indian Creek Bike Trail.  The rest of the race would be mostly run on this path, which was one long spaghetti noodle that wound in between neighborhoods, under streets and over small wooden bridges.  It also wasn’t perfectly flat, but its dips and bumps were shorter and smaller than the first half’s gradual inclines.  The fastest runners started coming back on our left, meaning we too would be seeing this trail again.  Shortly after that, Margo joined Adam as a 3:50 pacer, increasing our group to … three.  Since the halfway mark, Adam’s flock had dwindled to just me – even Marla had gone off on her own.  Occasionally we would pick up someone for a mile or two but afterward they’d either take off or slow down.

“I’m on a pretty good sub-4 streak here,” I told them.  “So if you see me fading, do what you can to motivate me.”

The amorphous 3:50 pace group at mile 19

The amorphous 3:50 pace group at mile 19

I kept reminding myself of one inexorable fact: marathons are hard.  It doesn’t matter how many you do, it’s not easy to just knock one out, even if it’s not intended as a PR effort.  Calories are calories and the right food can defy you on the wrong day.  I had eaten two CLIF bars by now and was ready to tear into my first race-day Stinger Waffle, amounting to a total of almost 700 calories.  I had never done that before.  So the possibility of losing all energy and drifting to the back of the pack was very real.  Every marathon I had ever run was completed with a thick layer of GU lining my stomach.  Why wouldn’t my body rebel?

But onwards we continued.  I was uncharacteristically garrulous for the next few miles, asking Adam enough questions to try his patience.  Much to his relief, the aid station around mile 18 distracted me.  I’m sure it was written somewhere on the official marathon site but I didn’t know just how much the marathon would embrace the Oz theme.  All along the course there were signs with references to L. Frank Baum’s iconic characters (“Follow the yellow brick road!”, “X Miles to the Emerald City!”, “Run Wicked Fast!”) and many witches and Dorothies in racing flats.  But this aid station in particular was like an Oz reunion festival, with every other person in some sort of costume, telling us to have heart, have courage and run smart.

garmin-oz-marathon-finish

As we neared the turnaround, I was surprised to find Jime, Chris and Leo at an aid station with a fancy SLR camera.  By the time I realized it and thought of cool poses, it was too late.  The candid runner shots had been taken.  No bother, I could look intense and focused on the way back.  But instead I was caught blowing a snot-rocket.  Par for the course – race pictures aren’t meant to be glamorous.

“So Dan,” Margo asked, around mile 20.  “Are you going to stick around with us?”

Finishers' Prizes

Finishers’ Prizes

My plan was to stay with the group until the fearsome mile 20.  But as we passed it, I decided it was too early to go off on my own.  I ended up waiting until two miles later to make my move and take off, unfettered by concerns of injury.  I had made it this far feeling not just good, but great.  I had completely forgotten about my toe and my quads.  Even my neck, which earlier was getting a little irritated by my pack straps rubbing against it, seemed to have shut down all its nerve endings.  I felt confident, capable, but more importantly, I felt powerful.  I didn’t feel like I was moving forward because of specially made cytoplasm but with actual food that I eat on a regular basis, and I didn’t prepare for this race by taking it easy in the weeks before.

And here I was, picking up speed, on my way to the finish.  What was left of the course was slightly uphill the entire way, but undiscernibly so.  A few miles later, I was running past the empty parking lots of Olathe South High Middle School, the Finish Line just ahead.  I kicked a little harder to finish my 15th marathon and 32nd state in 3:46:18.  With my second half run in 1:49:56, it was my second biggest negative split (6:26).

0420_1_garminmarathon 62Immediately after finishing, I went to get my finisher’s medal, which was a red, geometric heart with the Tin Man inside.  A helpful volunteer draped a Mylar blanket on my shoulders before I could tell them I wouldn’t need one.  The last few miles had turned my body into a furnace and I still had on my hat and gloves.  I tied it to a chair and went to the beer tent for a can of Shock Top.  Jime soon found me and told me Scott Jurek was nearby, having recently given a talk.  I turned around and sure enough, there he was near the announcer’s stage, just hanging out.  I ran to the car and pulled out my copy of Born to Run (Otter would later ask me, “did you know beforehand that he’d be there, or do you just carry [that book] with you wherever you go?”).

Ok, be cool, I thought.  He’s just an ultra god and an insane specimen of a person.  But, you know, be cool.
“HI SCOTT I’M DAN!”

This is what I looked like whenever he would break eye contact

This is what I looked like whenever he would break eye contact

I lost all composure and practically yelled this straight into his face.  I was worried that my next sentence would be something along the lines of “YOU’RE SO BOOK CAN YOU SIGN MY COOL?” but his relaxed personality, Midwest approachability and let’s face it, million-dollar smile made it much easier to stop being a dork ass and introduce myself properly.  I last saw him at a Fleet Feet in Chicago during his book tour with Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run.  I quickly mentioned that and then got to talking about ultras and last year’s Leadville Trail 100, where he ran as Tony Krupicka’s pacer.  After adding his signature to McDougall’s, I left him to greater fans.

Delicious BBQ and a Boulevard Wheat from Oklahoma Joe's

Delicious BBQ and a Boulevard Wheat from Oklahoma Joe’s

The rest of the day was spent with Jime and Chris showing me the sights around Kansas City.  We ate lunch at Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue.  It was neither in Oklahoma or a restaurant, but instead a tiny kitchen in the corner of a Shamrock gas station.  While that may not sound like your typical restaurant, the line of people that spilled outside and into the parking lot certainly gave it credibility.  As if to completely pound my doubts to dust, inside was a framed list written by Anthony Bourdain of the Top 13 Places to Eat Before You Die, and this seemingly rundown, nondescript relic was a proud member (as a side note, Chicago’s Hot Doug’s also made that list).  It left me wondering, why is it that so many amazing barbecue places are in gas stations?

With Kansas’ (and therefore the world’s) best barbecue sliding down my system, it was time for a nap.  Later that night we would visit the Flying Saucer for some local Kansas City brews and then the Foundry for dinner and … more local brews.  Along the way, my munificent hosts drove me to see Union Station, the new Opera House, the Kansas City Power and Light District and the Plaza, an upscale urban area whose architecture was inspired by the Spanish city of Seville.  And just like that, this quick whirlwind weekend had swept through my boring, black and white preconceived ideas of Kansas and turned them into bright Technicolor.

… at least, for the 1% of the state that I got to know.

(left to right) Chris, Jimena, Me

(left to right) Chris, Jimena, Me

The next morning I bid adieu to Jime, Chris and Leo, and returned to the Windy City with another memento and several fond stories.  And now, as I write this, it’s taper time.  The next numbered bib I pin to my shorts will be for my first 50 kilometer foot race in the Kettle Moraine State Forest of cheesy ol’ Wisconsin.

Meet me on the trail – it’s goin’ down.

Marathon_Map 040 (KS)

On the 2013 Boston Marathon

I ran this weekend in Costa Rica.  It was a tough race, one that I want to share with the world.  But in the wake of yesterday’s incident at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, I feel petty and trivial writing about it.  I will upload it eventually, but I feel much deflated at the moment, as if I just learned that a relative or close friend were in the hospital with a terminal illness.

Yesterday was disorienting.  I was thrilled that Shalane Flanagan had earned a 4th place finish in the women’s race, and ecstatic that Jason Hartmann once again proved that tall guys could finish near the front.  I checked results to see friends and fellow bloggers crossing the finish line, adding the prestigious and historic race to their running scrapbook, memories of a tough effort forever engraved in their running logs.  And then it all went to hell.

It was a despicable, cowardly act committed by despicable, cowardly people.  No matter how much I try to warp my perspective, I can’t seem to glean what indecipherably dark and baseless sentiment would lead someone to do this.  Even in our cynical, post 9-11 world, I can’t drag myself to such a disgusting level.  To those responsible: I don’t care what your vendetta is or with whom you take grave issue in this world, but you have absolutely no problems with innocent people universally supporting the struggles, pains and triumphs of their brothers and sisters from all over the world. 

Targeting people watching or running a marathon is no better or worse than targeting civilians walking to work.  But marathons can be the most inspirational events to witness – to see the world come together for a common purpose, raising millions for charitable causes and bringing families together.  Runners come from all walks of life, from every background and every country.  You did not just insult the people of Boston, but citizens of the world trying to do something great.

If your motives were to break our spirit, as runners and as people, you certainly failed.  Immediately after the event we read many stories about the courage and selflessness of first responders running toward the blast, medical personnel instantly treating the wounded, even marathoners who after running for almost four hours donated blood without hesitation.  All over the internet, runners and non-runners alike came together in solidarity for those affected by this tragic event.  The spirit of the marathon, that spirit of unconditional support and courage, was alive yesterday despite the harrowing pain.

As for me, my heart goes out to the victims of this detestable, craven act; to all of those who finished and had their moment of celebration soiled; to those who felt their dreams stopped short because of someone’s revolting scheme; and to those who watched in horror, knowing they had friends or loved ones on the course, waiting in shock and disbelief for news of their safety.

I went for a quick jog yesterday to try and get my mind off the news.  I couldn’t, but I kept one foot in front of the other, moving onwards.  Because that’s what we ultimately must do – continue doing what we do.  If we live in fear of events like this, then we give in.  Whoever did this wanted to scare and scar us and we can’t let that control how we live our lives.  I for one will continue running, continue my journey, as I hope so many millions will do once all the debris is cleared from Boylston Street.  But for the next few days, I will sit meditatively and think with slow breaths on those who cannot.

Onwards,

Dan

The crime tips hotline in Boston can be reached at 1-800-494-TIPS (8477).

Additional thoughts and perspectives from friends:

See Glenn Run
The Run Factory (2013 Boston Finisher)
T-Rex Runner
Blisters, Cramps & Heaves
Fluency’s Folly (2013 Boston Finisher)
Adventure Foot
Medal Slut
Masher Runs
Bad Angels
Numberz Runner
The Fartlek
Racing the States
Lavender Running (2013 Boston Finisher)
Too Tall Fritz
Devil’s Chasing Me
We Wander and Ponder (2013 Boston Finisher)

State 30: Louisiana (2013 Rock ‘n Roll New Orleans Marathon)

01-RNRNOLA

Despite signing up a few months in advance, the Rock ‘n Roll New Orleans Marathon was an impulse race for me.  I had originally planned on running something in Baton Rouge (where there are two big marathon options) but something about the Big Easy called to me.  Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a famous city in a state that I never have a reason to visit.  Given that there are no other marathons in New Orleans besides the one run by Competitor Group, I felt somewhat resigned to it.  You may have read my previous thoughts on the Rock ‘n Roll series of races, but if you haven’t, the basic idea is that I’m not a big fan.  While they do provide a well-run race, they don’t vary much from city to city and they tend to strangle your wallet.  But I was willing to keep my race snobbery in check for this event.

0223_1_expo 03I was up at 2:40 AM Saturday morning to make my early flight to Baton Rouge via Houston.  I couldn’t find any awards flights to NOLA so I flew into its less glitzy neighbor and drove out from there.  Once on the coast, I went straight to the Expo, which was enormous as expected.  The first showroom was completely dominated by Brooks, with the second one being your typical giant expo with thousands of people oozing their way between tables and tents.  Brooks had randomly chosen me to do a focus group (which was just a covert term for “profitability experiment”) that let me choose whether I wanted the race shirt or a $25 voucher on their in-expo merchandise.  The shirt this year was black, which I don’t like, so I opted for the money.  They had a decent assortment of non-tech cotton shirts, and given how rare it is that any race offers cotton apparel, I bought one.  I’m actually running out of regular t-shirts these days.

0223_1_expo 06I caught a talk by Frank Shorter in the second showroom.  I had seen him last month at the Disney Marathon, where he gave short, encouraging remarks to the runners from the stage right before the gun.  Today he was talking to a row of half-filled seats, with maybe thirty people in attendance.  I thought it was indicative of the field when the person largely credited with fueling the running boom, the source of all this marathon mania, a pivotal figure in the history of American distance running wasn’t commanding the entire room with hundreds of starry-eyed acolytes waiting for an autograph.  This is definitely me being a snob again, but I couldn’t help but wonder what percentage of runners today had even heard of Frank Shorter let alone be able to recognize him.

I had been up for far too long so I left the Expo and went to my cousin Walty’s apartment.  As a junior at Tulane, he’s been living in New Orleans since last summer and was gracious enough to let me stay at his place.  He lives in a very nice apartment complex called the Saulet, located in the Lower Garden District.  However, I’d be there alone as he was out in Costa Rica for his cousin’s wedding.  So I fell on his couch and slept for an hour.  I woke up starving but dinner plans weren’t happening for a while.  Just weeks earlier I learned that our college friend Meghan was also in New Orleans continuing her quest to avoid the job market by being a lifelong student.  I threw an email out there to see if she’d be interested in catching up with someone that she probably last saw at the Keg of Evanston during Big Cup Night, which was also known as “Monday night.”

0223_2_neworleans 03Thankfully she was available, so we planned for dinner in the Marigny, a neighborhood just northeast of the city, teeming with people.  Jazz was spilling out of almost every restaurant, brass bands were playing in the street corner and large groups of people stumbled their way through sidewalks enjoying the (lack of) open container laws.  Restaurants shared walls and dimly lit awnings with tattoo parlors and every other person was either blissfully buzzed or just plain weird.  We ate at the Praline Connection because one of the items on their menu read “Spaghetti and Meatballs: Traditional Italian dish to which we’ve added our soulful touch.”

It was exactly what I wanted from this weekend and the evening validated spending the rest of the day on a highway, in an expo and on a couch.

PR’ing Ain’t (Big) Easy

My alarm went off at 4:30 AM and in the haze that accompanies a rude awakening, I walked across the room, turned it off and went back to bed.  Something in my head, a mental residue from whatever Dadaist dream I was having, told me I should just go back to sleep and that everything would be fine.  It only took a few seconds for my true faculties to come to life and exile whatever saboteur had briefly hypnotized me.  Perhaps voodoo was still alive and well in the city and I had fallen prey to a nighttime enchanter.

Thirty minutes later I was in a parking structure near Harrah’s, about a half mile from the start of the race.  It was 5 AM and chilly outside, so I reclined the seat and listened to XM 90’s on 9 for an hour.  During this time, I not only learned how awful the 90s could be (“It’s not called Alternative Rock 90’s on 9” as Steph would later mention), but I also contemplated how I was going to attack this race.  My goal was to replicate my Des Moines PR but faster.  In order to do that, I would have to run the first half at an 8-minute pace and then pick it up in the second half.  With cool temperatures and a flat course, I was confident that I could make it happen.  But there were other reasons to be so brazen.

This happened for about an hour.

This happened for about an hour.

For one, there were several omens.  I realize that “omen” sounds ominous (omen-ous?) and has negative connotations, but I refuse to use the word “sign” because that would involve some sort of religiosity on my side, which, as some might have guessed, has no place in my life (and yes, I’ll concede that omens and signs are the same thing, so really this paragraph should be just a silly footnote and not a serious thing but just humor me would you?).

  • Walty’s apartment was on Race Street.  Not a huge WHOA but still, what are the odds?
  • 90’s on 9 played Melissa Etheridge’s “If I Wanted To” which had the line “I could run fast as a train.”  Ms. Etheridge doesn’t routinely make the top 10 list of pump-up jams, but this line raised a confident eyebrow.
  • I switched to the Pearl Jam XM station and heard “Rearviewmirror” which is arguably their best song.  Who cares, you ask?  It was the last song I heard before putting on my game face to kill this beast and lo and behold, Pearl Jam’s lead guitarist Mike McCready was not only running the half marathon, he also played the national anthem on guitar.

Sure, none of these mean anything and they shouldn’t.  But there was one X factor at play and it was written all over my face: the beard.  I contemplated shaving for the event because all athletes (except one-time second fastest marathoner ever Duncan Kibet) are clean shaven.  However, I had raced with a beard twice and both times the results had been quite favorable.  I PR’d at the 2011 Holiday Half (beard evidence) and ran a 1:41 in Miami under muggy conditions (beard evidence).  I “researched” this topic furiously and will spare you the extremely high-level knowledge that I force-fed my brain.  Instead, I dumbed down this infinitely tortuous matter and ground it to a palatable mush in the form of this diagram:

beard-power

In the words of Jesse Pinkman, PhD: “Science, bitch.”  Thousands of years of bearded men being successful couldn’t be wrong, so I decided to follow in their hirsute footsteps and join the pantheon of shaggy greats.  But first I’d have to listen to far too many sponsor ads while waiting for the race to start.  Finally, after hearing Mr. McCready scratch out the national anthem with the help of judicious whammy and echoed feedback, the elites were off.

0224_1_neworleansmarathon 02The half marathon was actually quite exciting.  Leading the men was the famous trio of Great Britain’s Mo Farah (10,000m and 5,000m gold medalist), Ethiopia’s Gebre Gebremariam (2010 NYC Marathon winner) and Kenya’s Martin Lel (multiple London Marathon winner).  The women’s race would be contested by Americans Shalane Flanagan (2008 Olympic Bronze Medalist at the 10,000m) and Kara Goucher (fastest American woman at the half marathon).

The rest of us mortals would share the road with thousands of others, on our way to achieving our own goals.  We were barely two miles into the race when we turned onto St. Charles Avenue, a boulevard divided by a grassy trolley line where the day before I had seen so many people running.  The road was cracked; trees seem to sprout out of the road in crooked stems like witches’ hands and all around were buildings whose architecture was as old as the city itself.  It was a beautiful run, despite being a simple out-and-back.  Somewhere along the way, we saw the leads on the other side of the boulevard with Gebremariam leading Farah by just two strides.  Several minutes later, the lead women ran by with Flanagan bunched up amongst her East African competitors.  Once we reached the Loyola University campus, the rest of us turned around.

St. Charles Avenue without runners

St. Charles Avenue without runners

With the trolleys and claw-like trees behind us, we were heading back to the heart of the city, passing Poydras Street where the starting line was, and toward the famous French Quarter.  Many a balcony was populated by eager locals, cheering for the colorful mass of people flooding their streets (though I guess I should be careful with such a metaphor when talking about this city).  Mile 10 was somewhere in this part and I crossed it in 1:20:33, just slightly over the 8-minute pace I was trying to execute, but only by about 4 seconds per mile.  So far, things were going according to plan.

The course makes its last turn for the half marathoners onto Esplanade Avenue, leading them on a 3-mile straight shot to their finish line.  This road was very similar to St. Charles.  It was cut down the middle by a row of trees, the road had its fair share of cracks and potholes and all around us were 19th century mansions.  On the road itself were thousands of half marathoners chugging along past the nefarious 11-mile mark, panting their way toward the finish.  It’s a strange feeling being surrounded by people running on counted breaths while I still had more than half the journey ahead of me.  I sometimes felt a little guilty when I’d gingerly pass someone who was three heaves away from fainting.  That’s what you get when you make the split so close to the end, I suppose.

Much love to the guy behind me for that priceless pose.

Much love to the guy behind me for that priceless pose.

Right before mile 13 the course reached the corner of City Park, a huge green area in the middle of the city.  Marathoners split left while everyone else ran straight into the park, towards the drowned-out sound of a thumping bass.  There were several people standing after the split, with more than one shouting that we were “almost there.”  I couldn’t stop myself from yelling back, “We can hear you!”  But we were definitely the minority at this point.  With roughly four out of five people abstaining from running an additional 13.1 miles, the field thinned out considerably.  Not long after the split, we entered City Park through a separate entrance and I ran over the half mat in 1:44:25.  Operation Let No One Pass You was officially under way.

I was feeling good so far.  We ran around the perimeter of City Park for the next two miles, heading north toward Lake Pontchartrain.  The sun had been out all morning but the course was protected by a reliable canopy.  This was extremely helpful for me because I lost my running shades in the last week and would be squinting hard later.  I had dialed up my pace to 7:40, passing runners who had either opted for a more consistent pace or were already slowing down.  It was a bit early in the second half to start questioning this move, but somehow the pace auditor let himself in.

Was I feeling like this in Iowa?  Could I keep this up?  My legs are fine, but my feet are starting to ache.  My breathing is fine but I’m definitely sweating more than I was in the first half.  Is this too early?  Did I bank enough time in the first half to “coast” the rest of the way?

“Nice kicks,” I said as I passed someone wearing a shiny pair of Kinvara 3s, mostly as a distraction from the creeping doubts that were invading my otherwise zen-like run.  At the 25k mark, City Park was behind us and we had entered an upscale neighborhood just shy of the lake.  A short uphill later and we were at the coast (I did, in fact, need a reminder that New Orleans is below sea level).  The lake in front of us was so vast that it looked like the ocean.  From there we would have another out-and-back section along Lakeshore Drive with the faster marathoners already on the return.  We would have a refreshing headwind but absolutely no shade for the next five miles.  It was around this time that I felt like I was on autopilot.  My body would have enjoyed stopping, make no mistake, but almost out of momentum and electrical impulses, I pushed onward, crossing the 20-mile mat in 2:36:44, just a minute faster than my PR.  One glance at my watch and the auditor was back.

Can I keep up this pace to the end?  A 50-minute 10k would put me a minute slower than my PR, so I can’t go over 8 minutes per mile.  Don’t go over 8.  Don’t go over 8.

There were two more miles on the coast before we would head back inland toward City Park.  This stretch included several hills, none of which I was anticipating.  I somehow managed to get through them without damaging my pace.  On top of those physical obstacles I was trying to not let the many psychological challenges of marathon running get to me.  One that few people talk about (because it’s probably just me) is seeing the runners still on the “out” stretch of an out-and-back.  Many were grimacing, pushing themselves forward, fighting against the tantalizing desire to stop.  I would look at them on occasion and think: they still have 8 miles to go.  Later in the race, that number would be higher.  For some reason, perhaps the simple concept of association, I would embrace those numbers as if they were my own.  I have 8, 10, 12 miles to go.  It was a completely unwanted thought but just seeing the pain on their faces was enough to rattle my confidence and fog up the chamber where I kept my mantra.

Don’t go over 8.  8 miles to go?  No, don’t go over an 8-minute pace.  Don’t go over 8.  8 what?  What mile is this?

City Park, the finish line in the distance

City Park, the finish line in the distance

We were now back in City Park and I had been trailing a runner with a bright orange ING Miami shirt for quite some time.  Every time I would come close enough to pass him, I would reach an aid station and walk, letting him put some distance in front of me.  When I finally came shoulder to shoulder with him, I turned and thanked him for pacing me, but his reply was lost in two explosive gasps.  I decided it wasn’t a good time to start a conversation, so I pushed ahead.  Operation Let No One Pass You was still, as of that moment, going as planned.  In fact, I passed mile 23 feeling far too fresh.  Even the auditor was at a loss.  Perhaps even he knew that I wouldn’t have a shot at a truly fast marathon for a while.  Or maybe it was that clouds had reached the Gulf and obscured the sun, sending a legitimate chill through my skin, which was covered in both sweat and water from the last aid station.

It's a fine line between long-distance runner and homeless person.

It’s a fine line between long-distance runner and homeless person.

I was doing my best to keep a powerful pace without glancing at my watch.  My PR in Des Moines was possible because I had no idea what pace I was running.  I simply ran what felt right.  While the first half of this race was dependant on precision, the second half was more of a blind attempt to focus on the road ahead and not let the numbers dictate how I felt.  I knew that I was staying faster than 8 minutes per mile, that was certain.  But just how much faster I didn’t know.

I reached the 40k mark in 3:13:09, dangerously close to my PR.  I would have to keep up the pace for the last 1.4 miles if I wanted New Orleans secure the top spot on my marathon list.  I could hear the music of the finish line, but I had no idea where it was.  The last of the marathon course winds in and around several of City Park’s pedestrian paths, often with no indication as to which way we’d face the finish.

Finally, I saw the entrance where the half marathoners had left us hours ago.  I was almost there.  After a sharp left turn, we were running on a wide road toward the New Orleans Museum of Art.  The road leading up to it split into a cul-de-sac, hugging the building and once again splitting the field of runners.  Half marathoners went right, marathoners went left, both groups reunited at the other side of the museum.  At one point, we were only separated by a barricade and I heard one of the half marathoners say to her running partner, “Just 0.1 left – make it last!”

Hell no.  Let’s end this thing.

Finisher's Medal with Beaded Necklace

Finisher’s Medal with Beaded Necklace

Right then the course split us again, sending each distance to its own unique finishing banner.  There were two people ahead of me right before that split.  I passed them and kept up the pace with the end in sight.  Up ahead, in the final 400 feet, there was no one separating me from the finish line.  I fantasized that I was the leader and that I had just passed my last competitors, throwing my hands in the air triumphantly when the announcer called me by name.  I threw my head back quickly to make sure no one was going to make Operation Let No One Pass You a last-minute failure, but I had left them behind.  My calves were on the verge of cramping, as if they had a mind of their own and just seeing the finish line could make them start to give up.

But they managed to hold on for that last dash, which ended with a loud scream as I PR’d by exactly two minutes – 3:23:12, running the second half in 1:38:47, beard and all.

Rock On or Roll Over?

I hobbled through the finisher’s chute with medal, liquid diet and banana in hand until I found the gear check trucks.  Clutching my bag and various running accoutrements, I collapsed on the side of a tree with the post-race party jazz blaring behind me.  I would learn later that Mo Farah won with a course record, just one second ahead of Gebremariam, and that Shalane Flanagan came in second despite a PR.  I didn’t want to stay long at the post-race party because I wasn’t waiting for anyone and didn’t want to walk too much on ground-up feet.  So I followed a large group of runners toward the shuttle buses and I found a Disney-esque line leading up to them.  Not long after, I was back at the start, heading toward my car and that glorious post-marathon shower (seriously, is there no better feeling?).

Buffalo Shrimp Po' Boy from New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company

Buffalo Shrimp Po’ Boy from New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company

Two hours later, I had showered, napped, and made my way back to St. Charles Avenue to visit New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Company for a huge shrimp po’ boy.  While I was unable to truly dive into the local cuisine the day before, I felt I should eat something fried after the race and the sandwich hit the spot.  Were I to have spent more time in the Crescent City, I would have definitely been a little more adventurous with my selections.  But as I had a flight in Baton Rouge to catch, that will have to wait for another time.

So how was my Rock ‘n Roll experience?  Truth be told, I liked it a lot.  The expo was enormous, the course was beautiful, I got to see several running celebrities doing what they do best and the colorful, beaded medal celebrates two huge New Orleans staples: Mardi Gras and Jazz.  Running this race was like the first time I saw Avatar.  I didn’t see it when it came out because it looked dumb, overblown and everyone had already seen it.  But when I finally saw it, I couldn’t help but enjoy it.  It wasn’t the best movie ever nor was it the most creative or insightful, but it was well-made, epic and tons of people liked it enough to merit repeat viewings.  Sure, it’s still pretty expensive and they’re always finding new things to charge you for (like runner tracking, premium parking packages and VIP entries).  But if all you want is to sleep soundly knowing you signed up for a well-run race, it’s not a bad way to go.

And so went my last shot at a fast marathon for a while.  I’m taking a few days to recover before continuing the trail regimen, which will include a few fun primers in the next couple of months.  But for now, I’m going to shave and enjoy having reached a new milestone.  Thirty states down – 60% done with the goal!

Marathon_Map 038 (LA)

Florida (2013 Walt Disney World Marathon)

1. In Praise of the Mouse

0113_disneymarathon 04If you’ve been following my journey to run at least a half marathon in all fifty states, you will have noticed that I’ve already done Florida.  In fact, I’ve run four races there already, so why spend more time and money on a state that gets me no closer to my goal?  Because the Walt Disney World Marathon has been on my bucket list since even before I became a runner.  I knew about Chicago, New York and a few others, but the day I realized there was a race that took you through the Disney theme parks, I thought, that sounds insanely hard why would anyone do that so fun.  This was before I had even finished my first 5K.

See, though I may be 30, I never became immune to the veil of wonder that theme parks drape over their guests as they cross the turnstile.  I’ve been visiting Disney parks since I was an infant and can’t imagine one day entering one of their parks with a cynical scowl.  In fact, whenever I see kids crying at Disney, I want to ask them, how awful is your life that you’re sad in here?  Or maybe it’s the opposite – they live the best lives imaginable, eating brownie skillets for breakfast and lobster mac ‘n cheese for dinner, that anything else is a daily waterboarding.  Or perhaps the parents are the culprits.  You got your kid to cry in here?  In the words of Chris Farley, what did you DO?!

0113_disneymarathon 02Because Disney World really is the happiest place on earth.  Sure, you have to wait for hours in line and there are many more cost-effective and altruistic ways to spend the cost of admission, but once you’re inside Brer Rabbit’s Laughing Place or feeling your stomach drop just waiting for the Tower of Terror’s initial lurch, the world is different.  Disney goes a long way towards making you feel like you’re somewhere else and that talent is made manifest from the minute you step in line.  But it’s not just within the confines of the resort that the Mouse tries to achieve the company goal of making people happy.   Having run both the 2010 Disneyland Half Marathon and the 2011 Wine & Dine Half Marathon, I had learned that this magical feeling goes beyond the park experience.

I knew it was only a matter of time before I finally signed up for the Disney Marathon.  I had considered it a few years back, but I kept coming back to one big snag: training.  An early January marathon would mean a 20-miler in the middle of a Chicago December, which would be hell.  Plus, I’d have to run during Christmas and New Year’s, much to everyone’s annoyance.  But the 2013 race was the 20th anniversary of the race, and I’ll have you know that I’m a sucker for milestones like that.  Then there was the added decision of whether I would run just the marathon or go hard and sign up for the Goofy Challenge, where you run the half marathon on Saturday and the full marathon the next day, for a combined total of 39.3 miles in two days.  I honestly wrote out a list of pros and cons, which looked sort of like this:

disney-proscons-chart There was no good reason to sign up for Goofy except, of course, the challenge and eternal glory that comes from finishing it.  But given the confluence, I decided that I would enjoy running at full speed for one race than holding back during two.  Much to the dismay of my Chicago friend Marissa (who did pull the 39.3-mile trigger), I committed to “just” the marathon.  My date with destiny (Disteney?) was on the horizon and my hopes were high for an excellent season.  What could possibly go wrong?

2. Speed Bumps

As always happens when anyone writes that last question, stuff goes wrong.  Rather than run the conventional 20-miler four weeks before the race, I was in Boulder City running the Hoover Dam Marathon.  It went very well and my legs were surprisingly fresh afterward.  But three days later, I would go for a run to learn that my left arch was not cooperating with me.  A week later, after no running whatsoever, it hurt just to stand.  I was very worried about this because I had never suffered such a persistent injury and certainly not one that wasn’t responding to rest.  Fortunately, around New Year’s, I went on a successful 7-mile run with Otter and our friend Marla and my worries were put to rest.  I wasn’t back 100%, but the progress was very encouraging.

But I couldn’t quite get back into a regular training groove.  Even with perfectly sound feet, the constant barrage of holidays eats into my training time.  Obviously this isn’t a complaint, it’s just a reality.  Like someone building a sand castle too close to the water, the three-punch series of Christmas, New Year’s and a trip with my extended family to Park City made carving out running time a challenge by itself.  I ended up covering just under half of my usual training distance prior to Disney because of this (and my longest run was the aforementioned 7-miler), so my confidence was a bit shaken.  Additionally, two out of three family members were incubating some nasty colds, to which I was sadly not immune.  And just to add a little glitter to this cake of apprehension, this was to be my 13th marathon, held on the 13th day of 2013.  If superstition is your thing, then you too would have been a little concerned.

And as a bonus, here is a chart of my marathon times, plotted against average temperatures:

time-temperature-chart

Disney was built on a swamp, so I was anticipating heat and humidity.  Given the forecast for Kissimmee, Florida, I was expecting a finishing time just under four hours.  When you add up all of these elements, I was basically resigned to running what I would consider a slow time.  In light of this I decided: screw this, I’m going to try and have fun.  For the first time ever, I would run to enjoy the race, take in the sights and even take a picture or two fifty.  I would still bring my Garmin and keep a decent pace, but I wouldn’t delude myself into thinking I could somehow post a competitive time.

3. Race Day

0113_disneymarathon 19So it was with this mix of reassurance and caution that I entered Corral A on race morning.  It was about 4:45 AM and I had already done a considerable amount of walking.  It was about a half mile from the runner drop off to the staging area at the Epcot parking lot and then another three fourths of a mile (easily) from there to the start line.  I sat down on the pavement and waited for everyone else to make their way, while a DJ tried his damndest to energize the crowd.  That’s one thing about Corral A: these people are out to dominate the course and are conserving every last drop of glycogen, which means they won’t do any choreographed dance moves, no matter how enthusiastic the MC is.  It was enough of a challenge to elicit a cheerful “yay” from anyone.  It was like watching a clown try to cheer up war torn refugees or that much-loathed boss try and rev up the employees that wish him dead.  Though I wanted to support him, he certainly didn’t earn any points from me by playing the Cha Cha Slide and the Macarena back to back.

It wasn’t long before the official announcers took the stage just a stone’s throw away from me.  I was very impressed with the lineup of running celebrities that Disney had put together for the last-minute pep talk.  Among them were Bill Rodgers (Boston and NYC Marathon winner in the 70s, credited as part of what started the running boom), Jeff Galloway (Disney’s official running coach, author of very popular marathon training programs), Frank Shorter (Gold medalist at the 1972 Summer Olympics marathon), Bart Yasso (Runner’s World’s Chief Running Officer and mastermind of the Yasso 800s) and even Joey Fatone (dude from ‘NSYNC who I didn’t recognize until they said his name).

famous_people_2013_disney_marathon

After all the famous people had given their words of encouragement, the true celebrities were welcomed to the stage.  Mickey, Donald and Goofy bumbled upwards in black and red track suits, speaking with giant smiles and wild gestures, giving everyone the green light.  A few minutes later, I crossed the start line under fireworks with four parks and 26.2 miles ahead of me.

0113_disneymarathon 23The road to the first park of the race, the Magic Kingdom, felt like forever.  We were running on the three-lane road that services the Epcot parking lot and it was lit only by streetlights.  There wouldn’t be any buildings until the 5k mark (which I reached in 26:45) and even then it was just the parking lot for the monorail.  I had heard this complaint from friends who have run this race before: that it’s mostly running on highways with theme parks in between.  Given that most races are run on boring roads, I wasn’t going to complain at all.  But those first miles did stretch on longer than I thought they would.  I also noticed at this point that I was already drenched in sweat, despite running a slower pace.  This didn’t bode well.  But what could I do?  Slow down?  Pass.  I decided instead to just focus on other things and let the auto-pilot take over.  However, my zen was broken by a sinister staccato, a dark melody that I was too slow to recognize until I saw Jack Skellington and Sally by the roadside.  That’s the other thing about Corral A.  The majority of us are so hell-bent on getting the fastest time possible that we won’t stop for anything except the essentials.  In other words, there was no one in line to get a picture, so I zipped out and gave the Pumpkin King my scariest pose before returning to the course.

0113_disneymarathon 26

0113_disneymarathon 27By mile 5 we finally reached the outside of the Magic Kingdom and entered through a service entrance right onto Main Street USA, where every building had been wrapped in lightbulbs.  Not to be upstaged, Cinderella’s castle had also been draped in a web of light, looking almost ghostly in the distance.  I ran through this section with an enormous smile, which widened as I drew closer to the castle and the spectators grew louder.  However, instead of running straight to the fairy tale structure, we banked right and took a detour through Tomorrowland.  Back in the Disneyland race, Darth Vader had set up camp around here with a detail of several Storm Troopers.  I was a little disappointed to discover he didn’t show up to this race.  It was more likely that he had gotten zapped to another dimension by Buzz Lightyear.  I’m not sure why I decided that the Usain Bolt was the best pose for this galactic ranger, but that’s what happened (not that it matters, the picture was so blurry that you can barely tell which one of us is the guy with delusions of grandeur and which is Buzz Lightyear).

After running underneath Cinderella’s castle, we ran right into Frontierland, where I caught a glimpse of Splash Mountain before leaving the park.  Once back on the park service roads, I passed the 10k flag in 53:15, keeping my pace steady.  I hadn’t exactly stopped sweating and I was blowing snot rockets every thirty steps, but I felt “good” so onwards I went.

0113_disneymarathon 30The next stop was a loop around the Walt Disney World Speedway, which organizers had added as a bonus for the 20th anniversary run.  Right before entering though, I spotted everyone’s favorite blue commander of phenomenal cosmic power, so I split from the path for a second to rub his lamp get a picture.  Once inside, it was like being at the 500 Festival miniMarathon again, except the sun had yet to crest the treetops (and we were running the loop clockwise).  Just outside the speedway, I crossed the 15k mark in 1:18:58, noting a slight increase in speed.  The next two miles would be run on a two-lane service toad that cuts through the Floridian bog.  On the way, I heard “Bad to the Bone” being played off course, a sure sign of a rendezvous with villainy.  I leapt onto the damp grass and got a picture with a group of four baddies, which included Gaston, Maleficent, Snow White’s Evil Queen and Dr. Facilier (the voodoo guy from The Princess and the Frog).  After a few more turns, we reached the Disney Waste Water Treatment Plant.  Lucky for us, we didn’t run through it and were thus spared any potential weird smells.  That honor was reserved exclusively for Animal Kingdom.

Walt Disney World Speedway

Walt Disney World Speedway

The smells were honestly the only real memory I have of Animal Kingdom.  The occasional waft of wild animal would sneak into my nostrils and then leave, as if notified by Disney officials that such treatment of tourists was out of line.  At one point I stopped to get a picture of the Everest Expedition ride, and I remember seeing a giant orange dinosaur towards the end.  But just as soon as we entered, we were out, with the 20k mark hidden somewhere inside the park (crossed in 1:45:02).  I also got blurry pictures with Rafiki and the notorious Captain James Hook.

Cruising through Animal Kingdom

Cruising through Animal Kingdom

I didn't feel as bad as I look in this picture.

I didn’t feel as bad as I look in this picture.

The sun first hit my face around mile 14 as we ran through the Animal Kingdom parking lot.  I remember trying to keep the pessimism from taking over my otherwise effortless run.  Up until this point, the temperature had remained in the mid to low 60s and I had gotten this far without any complaint.  But now the sun was out and anything was possible.  I had been wearing my sunglasses on my head for the entire run, but when I put them down over my eyes, the combination of sweat and steam had rendered them almost completely opaque.  So I put them back on my marshy hair, spotted Pluto on the side of the course, got a picture with him, and continued running.

Despite the sun rising over Orlando, I was somehow speeding up.  I’m not sure what gland secreted stupid juice into my system for this.  What elusive lesson did I learn in the last three years that taught me to speed up when the sun comes out?  Did the roller coasters at Busch Gardens jostle some ossified wisdom out of a deep crevice in my brain?  Or did had they instead shaken it out of proper alignment?

Regardless, by the time we reached the ESPN Wide World of Sports (another bonus addition for the 20th anniversary), I was running in the high 7s, comfortably passing many runners.  There was a considerable amount of highway running between Animal Kingdom and ESPN, during which I crossed the 25k mark in 2:10:14.  Of all the venues in the race, this was the one that took up the most distance.  It wrapped in and out of baseball diamonds, around a track, across fields and back onto the highway for the 20-mile celebration.  Organizers had lined up huge, dazzling marionettes of Mike Wazowski, Lumière, Sebastian, Genie and Tigger on the side of the road.  There was also a large banner with pictures of every single Disney Marathon medal ever given out, including this year’s.  If you know my rules for racing, you’ll know that I kept my head down.

0113_disneymarathon 44

But I quickly picked it back up.  I was feeling strangely well.  Every step was a wet, sloppy mess, but for some reason I wasn’t dying yet.  I remembered those two warm Chicago marathons where I had essentially given up by mile 20, wondering how I was avoiding that resignation.  Maybe it was the Buca di Beppo I had stored in my stomach the previous day for lunch or the barrel-sized Gatorade I downed over the course of the same day.  But I still had the last, worst 10k left, and anything was still possible.  So I decided to just go hard until I hit that disastrous wall.  There was no way I’d be able to maintain this pace along with my sweat rate for much longer.  One of them had to slow down, and I hadn’t yet learned how to stop sweating.  But taking it easy was no longer an option.  So on I went toward Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

One of the best rides ever, period.

One of the best rides ever, period.

0113_disneymarathon 46I ran towards the Hollywood Tower Hotel like a moth drawn to a haunted terra-cotta flame.  I dashed inside the park, stopping only to pose like a superhero with Frozone (where is my super suit?!), scare kids with Sully and inflict structural damage with Wreck-It Ralph.  We ran through the fake New York City and past the Sorcerer’s Apprentice hat, out through the front gates and towards Epcot.  Another park, another blur.  Except by now I was definitely starting to fade.  It wasn’t a sudden weight on my shoulders, but a slow reduction, as if someone had opened a spigot and I couldn’t find a way to close it.  Just two more miles, I thought.  I can run two miles in my sleep.

0113_disneymarathon 52Once out of the park, the course continued alongside a pond shared by several Disney hotels.  Just before the 40k mark, we were running through the Disney Beach Club Resort, cruising past pool decks and cabanas.  The last mile was a spin around the Epcot Lagoon, the iconic Spaceship Earth (more commonly known as the Epcot Golf Ball) in my periphery.  I was definitely tired, but not at all dead.  My pace was right in the mid 8s, slower than the last 5k, but still strong.  My breathing was heavy but controlled, and I was negotiating between stopping to take pictures and attacking that final mile.  My current pace was going to put me very close to my Little Rock time … a little too close to it.  Sometime in the last 6 miles I had shifted from my original carefree attitude to the familiar grunt of a hard effort.  Towards the last few showcases, I was passed by a couple that I recognized.  I had surged past them at ESPN, and here they were, making up the distance, almost frolicking past me like they didn’t have 25 miles behind them.  That did it.  I swung an invisible lasso around them and picked up my speed.  On we went, past Spaceship Earth and into the parking lot, where the blue finishing banner awaited.

0113_disneymarathon 53

I didn’t sprint the end, nor did I take any pictures of it.  I simply kept going, one foot in front of the other, completely unaware that I hadn’t gotten a single pain or cramp in the last 3 hours, 38 minutes and 40 seconds.  I was simply in the moment, living out an awesome experience put together by one of the most imaginative companies on earth.  Say what you will about Disney, but they know how to put an event together.  I had just completed the most fun marathon of my life, beat my Little Rock time and fist-bumped Bart Yasso (and Bart, if you’re reading this, I can be your successor).  But the best part of the event was yet to come.  As I walked into the gear check tent, about twenty volunteers began clapping just for me.  It’s in these details, the differences that truly make the event stand out and every runner feel special, that Disney excels.  I can only hope that these tireless volunteers managed to keep up the enthusiasm for every other runner that would later pass through that tent.

0113_disneymarathon 55With the 20th anniversary medal proudly resting on my chest and my 4th fastest marathon in the books, I went to look for my parents.  I had a few hours to kill before my flight, so we went to Marlow’s Pub to chow on animal flesh.  I ordered the Kitchen Sink burger and a few Magic Hats, which I cheerfully drank.  After all, I was pretty happy.  I had somehow kept up a solid pace for the entire race, despite sweating enough to soak my shoes.  Maybe it was a sign that I’ve improved a little.  Or maybe stopping to take pictures of Disney characters kept me from going too fast and bonking hard.  Or perhaps I second-hand smoked some of that magical pixie dust radiating off the characters’ clothing with every pit stop, a constant whiff of powdered magic that jolted me the rest of the way.  The most likely explanation is that a 5:30 AM start mitigates adverse weather effects … and it didn’t really get that hot.

Regardless, 2013 is off to a great start.  Anyone who loves to run should at some point in their lives complete the Disney Marathon, especially if you’re the kind of person who likes to “have fun” during these crazy events.  It’s not the cheapest race, but you can definitely see where the money goes because every single part of it has that Disney touch that makes you remember what it was like to be five years old.  And lastly, since I’ve run both a half marathon and now a full marathon in Florida, I can finally shade another state in red!  Onwards!

Marathon_Map 037 (FL)