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.


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.

Florida (2011 Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon Relay)

Upon completing the 2010 Disneyland Half Marathon, I knew I had to sample the rest of runDisney’s series of endurance events.  When they unveiled the Wine & Dine Half Marathon last year, I was intrigued (but also a little saddened because it replaced the Tower of Terror 13K, which I also wanted to run).  However, it took place the week before the Chicago Marathon and even amateur distance runners know that you don’t run 13.1 miles the weekend before you run 26.2 – that is, unless you want to hurt yourself.

Space Mountaineering

But then in February of this year, Steph found herself in an odd predicament: she had a free flight on American Airlines that was expiring but no plans to go anywhere.  Just days before the reward was set to expire, we were at a bar with some friends, when one of them, a marathoner herself, asked me if I knew about the Wine & Dine race.  I said yes, and I thought it was a neat idea to hold a nighttime half marathon that ends at a food and wine expo.  That made Steph’s head turn and, in what has been one of the most shocking moments of our relationship, showed actual interest in running it.  Granted, she wasn’t talking about running the half marathon but instead splitting it into a relay with me.  But still, she’s a swimmer and a reluctant runner, so I decided to make it happen before she could reconsider.

With plane tickets and a race registration under our belts, we needed a place to stay.  That’s where our good friend Paul came in.  Because of his preferred status with Marriott, he is constantly being inundated with timeshare offers in exotic locations.  He has organized two very fun and successful trips so far to California with these absurdly cheap deals, where the only catch is that you have to attend an aggressive sales pitch.  These can be awkward conversations that end in the salesperson calling the next twenty years of your life meaningless and/or asking you to abandon paying for your parents’ healthcare.  Those were real situations and that’s why Paul’s a trooper.

Of course, any trip to Disney World and its surrounding second-tier theme parks draws a crowd, so with us came our friends Ryan, Liz and Marla to add to the festivities.  We spent Saturday at Magic Kingdom, celebrating the park’s 40th birthday by tearing through the galaxy in Space Mountain, thwarting Emperor Zurg’s battery-based galactic takeover in Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, cavorting with melodious ghouls at the Haunted Mansion and waiting for almost two hours to watch as Kaylie and Amber let over 160 Fast Passers board Splash Mountain for every 10 people in the regular line (we call class warfare).  Oh, and we also watched in bitter disappointment as Stitch stole the essence from what used to be the awesomely terrifying Alien Encounter and turned it into a cutesy gigglefest.  Not cool, Disney.  Stop paying attention to weeping kids and their angry parents!

(left to right): Liz, Paul, Steph, Me, Marla, Ryan

But despite a few logistical hiccups – it was actually more like a comical series of delays – it was a very fun day.  Later that night, Steph and I made it to the parking lot of the Disney/ESPN Wide World of Sports complex to get the race started.  I don’t know if Disney is hyper-punctual or too overeager, but we did so much waiting for what seemed like no reason.  Though the race started at 10 PM, we were told to be at the start by 8, which meant that Steph got to nap for an hour and a half before lining up at the start.  Meanwhile, I boarded a shuttle that took me to the relay exchange in the parking lot of Animal Kingdom where I would wait for almost two hours.  Fortunately, it was 70 degrees with a tiny breeze.

The exchange happens around mile 4.8, where runners doing the relay split off from the group and enter a chute.  Their corresponding runner sees them and after a brief celebratory high five or a hug, continues the race.  Even though I was getting anxious to run, I was enjoying seeing these brief moments of elation and camaraderie.  I’ll admit, I come close to tearing up whenever I see people finishing marathons with their parents and seeing father-daughter relay teams was no different.  Since the race utilizes a wave start, I assumed that Steph would be in the later waves, so I was anticipating making the switch around 11:15 PM.  But then at 10:55, lo and behold, she emerges from the trees with the rest of the runners and into the relay chute – turns out she started right at the front of the pack by mistake.  Whoops.

After seeing that she was fine and just wanted to stop running, I made my way out of the relay chute to join the rest of the pack.  Steph had run the first leg at her own pace, so when I entered the crowd of runners, I was definitely doing my fare share of side-stepping.  I was feeling amped, energized by having spent an entire day looking forward to the race and encouraged to run fast by the cool air around me.  My first mile was basically spent exiting the Animal Kingdom parking lot, followed by two miles on Osceola Parkway, heading to Disney Hollywood Studios.  I was running comfortably at a 7:30 pace, passing literally everyone I could see, slowing down only for the occasional rolling hill.  Around my third mile, I started suspecting that perhaps I should be running slower, but that thought was banished when the course turned right onto East Buena Vista Drive and into Hollywood Studios.  The sight of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror sent enough adrenaline into my legs to carry me another ten miles.

And that’s why my fastest miles were the next two.  Call me childish, but running through these parks is a blast for me and the organizers did a great job with the Hollywood course.  It started by running a loop around the famous dilapidated hotel of horror, giving runners a few seconds to behold the giant guitar that marks the entrance to the Aerosmith Rock ‘n Roller Coaster.  It then cuts right into the heart of the theme park and wraps around Mickey’s wizard hat from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” where energetic music was being piped in from every speaker in the park.  From there, it turned under the Pixar Studios arch and entered the Back Lot Tour, where costumes and props for many Disney movies are allegedly made.  The course then continued onto the Streets of America and to my surprise, every building had been draped in bright Christmas lights with “The Christmas Song” echoing through the streets.  Finally, it heads towards the park perimeter and exits into the parking lot.  From there, the race runs on a path alongside various ponds and Disney hotels before reaching the Avenue of the Stars, a street that hugs Epcot Center and ushers runners into the finish chute.

I finished my leg in just over an hour and our relay time for the half marathon was 2:00:42.  After collecting my medal, I found Steph waiting for me, ready to enjoy the expo.  We met up with our friends inside shortly afterward and treated ourselves to craft beers, a few tasty morsels of food, but more importantly, a negligible wait time for Test Track.  They also went on Mission: Space, but I decided to sit that one out because I’m not a fan of rides that spin you mercilessly.  So instead I had another beer.

All in all, I loved this race experience.  The 8.3-mile relay leg fit perfectly into my marathon training program, so I treated it like a fast tempo run and never came close to exhaustion.  The course was delightful and, had I not signed up for this weekend’s Chicago Marathon, would definitely run the complete half marathon in future years.  Since it has the same (admittedly pricy) registration fee as other Disney races but grants you access to Epcot’s Expo and select thrill rides, it’s definitely worth the money.  The organization, though a little demanding of your schedule, is still exactly what I’ve come to expect from Disney: top-notch and, in a few moments on the course, absolutely magical.

But now it’s time to get through the last nerve-wracking week of the marathon taper.  It looks like it might be slightly warm this year, so I might as well start hydrating now.

State 16: Mississippi (2011 Tupelo Marathon)

Flat, fast and in cool temperatures.  That is how you might characterize the three marathons that I have run.  Two were in Chicago, whose October temperatures can vary wildly but are usually cool, and the third was in Traverse City, Michigan.  You could say I cherry picked those and you’d be right.  As recently as this year I thought, if I’m going to put the many hours and miles of training into a marathon, I want to at least enjoy the event and not suffer in awful conditions.  I had learned to deal with heat in half marathons, but the idea of slogging through a full did not call to me.

I guess it’s because I’m a very sweaty guy.  In fact, I’m the third sweatiest person I know.  I start perspiring by standing still in 70’s temperatures.  It must be genetic because I don’t have any other explanation.  I’m not high-strung, don’t have a high body fat percentage and certainly don’t want to be sweating.  But it still happens.  I come back from short, 4-mile runs looking like I jumped in a lake.  All that water loss leads to a depletion of energy, especially in humid conditions.  In these cases, the sweating process is thrown out of sync because the water in the air doesn’t allow perspiration to evaporate, which is what cools us.  So in hot and humid races (such as the 2010 ING Miami Half Marathon and the 2011 XTERRA Trail Race in Columbia, South Carolina) I end up quickly bereft of all energy and overheated.

So it should go without saying that I would avoid any races held in typically hot, humid areas.  I would probably stay away from most summer races altogether unless they were in Canada or the Pacific Northwest.  Summer would be for me what winter is for most runners – that time of year where you just relax and let yourself go because it’s too awful outside to hit the pavement.  You’d think that.  But I ran a very humid race in Connecticut and followed that with the single most arduous race experience ever in South Carolina … in July.  So I suppose it was only natural (or crazy) to continue this defiant trend and go for a full marathon in a similar environment.  And why not?  It’s an almost adolescent reflex: if someone tells you you can’t do something, it just makes you want to do it more.  In this case, that someone was my body.

Pitch black course by night

I wish I could say that it was this personal, passionate drive to push myself to my limits and prove that things as elementary as “temperature” and “dew point” couldn’t keep me from running a marathon; that the sport is more of a mental game and that no physical shackles could hold me back.  But that’s not the real reason I signed up for the Tupelo Marathon.  We’ll get to that later.

I actually signed up for the race before my races in Connecticut and South Carolina.  Things might have been different if I had waited until after crossing those finish lines, heaving and deliriously looking for a water bottle.  But in this universe, I committed hastily and a few months later, landed in Memphis, ready to make the 90-minute drive down to Elvis Presley’s birthplace.  I arrived around 10:30 AM and my room wasn’t ready so I drove out to Trails & Treads, a local multisport store, and picked up my packet.  While there I met the race’s director, David Whiteside, who recommended that I go out and drive the course.  I obliged and took a nice stroll through the first 9 miles of the course’s winding roads, flanked by farmlands, large estates and forests.

David Whiteside, the man who puts this beast together

That night I went to Vanelli’s, an Italian restaurant next to my hotel, and threw down some last-minute angel hair pasta.  It was 4:45 PM by the time I finished eating.  The early wake-up had thrown off my eating schedule.  Breakfast had been at 4:30 in the morning and lunch around 9:30.   Since the race was starting at 5 AM (you read that right, five in the morning), I was planning on going to sleep early, which also meant an early dinner.  I was anticipating a sleepless night, but the sandman was merciful and I managed to log five hours before my alarm went off at 2:45 AM.

There are two reasons for the race’s absurdly early start time.  The first is that the roads aren’t closed for the event, so the sparse early morning traffic goes some way towards keeping runners safe.  The second, more important reason, is that Tupelo is consistently hot and humid so the race is held extra early to avoid dangerous conditions.  I had trained all summer in anticipation of these conditions.  Runs that I would normally schedule for the early morning were moved closer to noon to get more heat exposure and days where Chicago hit 90, I’d go for a run in hopes of getting acclimated to the scorch.  Whiteside tried to reassure me by talking about last year’s bizarre temperatures, which were in the 50’s at the start.  But this year’s forecast was providing no such comfort, so I went in expecting the worst.

Thankfully, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

Sunday looked like a buffer between a long streak of oppressive heat and the advent of Hurricane Lee.  Saturday logged a hi of 97, yet from Monday onward, days were all in the low 70’s and rainy.  Sunday had a very narrow temperature range: an overnight lo of 74 and a daytime hi of 83 (not awful, but far from ideal).  This was made a little less attractive by Lee’s surge of tropical moisture entering Louisiana and Mississippi.  As we walked to the start line on Chesterville Road, I wasn’t uncomfortable or even hot, but I could feel the humidity in the air.

The race started right on time, sending about 450 runners on their way to finishing either the marathon or the shorter 14.2-miler.  With only 225 running the full 26.2 miles, it was easily the smallest marathon field I have ever run with.  Despite this, there were many runners from all over the country.  The race has developed a cult following in the running world, attracting many 50-staters, Marathon Maniacs and Half Fanatics looking to add Mississippi to their list.  Guilty.  It’s a very bare-bones organization, which is fitting for its size.  There are no MC’s, no pre-recorded national anthem, no corrals or gear check – just a bunch of people itching to run.

The first six miles of the course are run on Chesterville Road and in pitch darkness.  Whatever patch of road not lit up by sparse streetlights was occasionally revealed by headlamps or handheld flashlights.  I tried to stay behind runners with lights because they helped me see the mile markers, which were spraypainted on the pavement.  I’m glad the road was evenly paved because some sections were so dark that I wouldn’t have been able to see a pothole.  With little to focus on because of darkness, I started paying close attention to the weather.  I was definitely sweating by the first mile, but not profusely.  I would later find out that it was 80 degrees with 54% humidity.  There was a light breeze cutting across the course, keeping my spirits higher than I would have expected.  But that’s the problem with long-distance running – it’s so easy to feel confident in those first miles.

The sun came out between miles 5 and 6, right around when the course turns right onto Endville Road.  It was the first time in a race that I was thankful for a significant headwind.  While the first few miles were windy, Endville felt like a series of straightaways with a dependable pattern of rolling hills.  Around mile 9.5 the course veers south onto Countrywood Road, another 2-mile straight shot before turning east onto Butler Road, where we would have less than a mile to run through a very attractive subdivision to reach the 13-mile turnaround.  At this point the weather had changed, actually dipping to 74 degrees, but making up for it in higher humidity (80%).  It was beginning to rain lightly, which was refreshing, so I decided to increase my speed on the way back.

And that lasted for about five miles.  With humidity holding in the mid-80’s, I couldn’t keep pace.  By mile 18, I had slowed down to a 10-minute pace and even that felt like a chore.  The rolling hills on Endville felt so much easier in the first half, but this time they were forcing me to walk.  By the time I got back onto Chesterville Road, I was picking landmarks and running to them before stopping to walk.  My water bottle was a semi-nauseating mix of different flavors of watered-down Gatorade but without it I would have gone even slower.  At mile 20 I stopped to tie one of my shoes whose laces had gotten loose.  When I stood back up to run, it felt like someone was kicking me in the back of the knee every time I took a step.  To seal the deal, the rain had kept steady until mile 22, where it became a true downpour.  It didn’t last long, but it definitely slowed me down even more.


By mile 25, I was almost completely beat.  I couldn’t run more than a half mile without stopping to walk and I was beginning to feel short of air.  But I was also aware of something very encouraging: my legs weren’t complaining at all.  Sure, I was completely winded and wanted to lie down, but I had no aches, no pains, not even on the soles of my feet.  At the end of every marathon I’ve done I’ve had searing pain in my quads and calves, maybe a cramp or two.  But not this time.  I just had no energy left in me to move them, all of it having gone to my skin to keep me cool – a fool’s errand in 93% humidity.  But at this point finishing was inevitable, times be damned.  Harnessing my last glycogen reserves, I ran the last half mile of the race without stopping.  The organizers had put up a large, colorful banner at the finish line and every person who wasn’t wolfing down food was next to it, clapping for each new finisher.  Crossing the line in 4:31:30, I logged one more marathon, one more state, and collected the true reason I signed up for this race:

The 2011 Tupelo Marathon Finisher's Medal

Good Eats Part 1: Tupelo

Good Eats Part 2: Memphis

Every year the organizers give runners an impressively detailed skull and crossbones medal (check out 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010) and this year was no different.  I had finished a difficult race in challenging conditions and didn’t have a single injury or cramp to ruin my afternoon – I deserved a badass medal to immortalize the accomplishment.  However, not all was well as my hotel didn’t give me a late check-out so I had exactly 20 minutes to lie down before having to leave.  Note to self: running marathons is infinitely worse when you don’t have a bed readily accessible afterward (and ironically, I can go to sleep on command sitting in a moving car, but find it impossible to nap reclined in the driver’s seat).  So the rest of the day was spent driving back to Memphis and eating.  The day before, I had asked the charming lady at the front desk if she had a “good eats” recommendation and she sent me to the fine establishment of Dairy Kream.  I was still pretty nauseated from eating only GU gels and washing them down with multi-flavored Gatorade, so I was in no mood for real food.  So I had some ice cream instead.  Two hours later though, I was ravenous and on the recommendation of a fellow runner whom I’ve never met in person, I went to Central BBQ and filled my stomach with delicious, juicy southern barbecue.

So now I’m sixteen states down with the Southeast having provided both entertaining and memorable races.  Tupelo felt like less of a large, overbloated event and more like a runner’s race.  The hospitality was great and you really felt like the organizers wanted you to genuinely enjoy yourself; you weren’t just one registration fee closer to breaking last year’s attendance record.  When you sign up, you get a personal email from Whiteside, welcoming you to the race.  To be honest, I could get used to these small races (and I might have to, given that I’m boycotting’s Rock ‘n Roll Race Series).  But I’ll have to start that pattern next year, as I have two gigantic marathons planned during the next nine weeks: Chicago and New York City.  Onwards!

State 15: South Carolina (2011 XTERRA Trail Run)

Like many young, wide-eyed college kids enjoying the carefree circus known as their freshman year, I joined a fraternity in hopes of meeting fun people and increasing the likelihood of a good time.  It was an impulsive dive into the unknown, actually going against my original convictions.  But it proved to be an excellent decision.  Even today, five years later, I still see my Pike brothers very frequently.  In fact, three of my five post-college years were spent with a Pike as a roommate, Jason being one of those.



During one’s sophomore year, you get what most fraternities call a pledge son (some call them “little brothers” or simple “littles”), who is basically a new member that you choose and shape into an acceptable member of society.  We had recruited a sizable group of clueless freshmen to join our ranks and I was a bit unsure as to how to go about deciding who I wanted to mentor and occasionally spoil.  Our chapter was fond of renting a bus and road-tripping out to nearby Big Ten schools for Away football games – not only was it a fun trip, but it was also a great opportunity to see how well these newcomers meshed with the rest of the upper classmen.  After one of these trips, I went to Sargent dining hall with two freshmen named Nick and Jason.

Jason was a quiet, white bread kid from a nearby suburb.  I honestly didn’t learn much from him in that session and whatever I did I must have forgotten (sorry dude).  However, Nick stood out more because he looked like he was still in high school.  He had spiked, gelled hair, a graphic T-shirt and a beaded necklace characteristic of most counter-culture hoodlums who change their hair color every summer.  I wouldn’t have been shocked if his wallet came with a chain attached to it.  But at some point he mentioned that he liked Killswitch Engage and that was good enough for me.

Later that year, he would end up joining Pike and becoming my pledge son.  Over the next three years, we shared many fun times, including concerts, video game marathons, leadership positions within Pike and trips to both Costa Rica and Maryland, where I met his extremely doting parents who to this day still call me when they’re in town.  Jason, who also joined Pike, became his roommate and close confidante for the next three years.  After graduating, Jason stayed in Chicago while Nick was accepted to GE’s Edison Engineering Development Program, a rotational program that took him to Texas, Georgia and finally Greenville, South Carolina.  Though he had visited us many times since, we had never made the trip to his constantly rotating neck of the woods until this past weekend.  I found the XTERRA Trail Run, a trail half marathon in Columbia, South Carolina, a few hours away from Greenville and a trip was planned.

After a last-minute 3-hour delay, we landed in swampy South Carolina around midnight on Friday.  We met up with Nick at his apartment and had a few beers while catching up with each other.  The next day, we went out to the River Bend Sportsman’s Resort to shoot sporting clays with Nick’s shotguns.  This, apparently, is what happens when a liberal kid from DC moves to the south.  It was a first for both me and Jason as neither of us had ever fired a weapon before.  Of the 40 or so orange discs that were hurled into the wilderness, we each hit about 7 or 8, while Nick’s more experienced marksmanship earned him easily more than twice our combined kills.  Note to self: if you ever break into Nick’s apartment, he has the skills and weaponry to shoot you, even if you’re the size of a dinner plate and flying through the air.

We make one fearsome posse

That night we had sushi in Greenville’s Tsunami restaurant before making the 2-hour drive to Columbia.  By 11 PM, it was lights out.  I have never been so unenthusiastic about running a half marathon as I was the next morning.  Why?  Well …

“I hate the heat,” I say.  A nearby acquaintance with a cursory knowledge of my life then turns and with a look of comical disbelief, says, “But you’re from Costa Rica.  Shouldn’t you be used to that?”

Actually, no.  As humid as San José is, it rests high at 4,000 feet, which keeps temperatures well below 90, even during the dry season.  Ironically, I should be used to heat and humidity from the twelve years I spent in Georgia … but I wasn’t an endurance athlete then.  I wasn’t any kind of athlete then, I was a skinny kid with a Super Nintendo and a 14.4 Mbps internet connection.

But I knew what I was getting myself into.  A trail half marathon in South Carolina in July was bound to be a challenge and I was feeling adventurous.  There are only so many flat road races that you can run before you want to try something new.  Plus, I had been hearing a lot about my friend Jay’s adventure racing in Colorado and it further motivated me to hit the trails.  I wasn’t at all prepared and hadn’t done any runs hotter than 82 degrees, but … well, where’s the adventure if you’ve covered every angle?

My first impression of the race start met my expectations.  It took place on a gravel road, flanked by parked cars.  There was no large banner or start mats, but instead two maroon XTERRA flags and a few volunteers with a microphone.  The rest of the setup was similarly austere, with only a rope stand designating the finish line in a park clearing about a hundred feet away.  I really enjoyed the simplicity of it all, a stark contrast to the flashy lights of most large road races (though we all know I love those too).

Can we look any goofier? Also, check out those elite numbers.

The field was considerably smaller than my average race, with about four hundred people lining up behind the flags.  In addition to the half marathon, there were several runners participating in the event’s 5K race, which would start shortly afterward.  But by the time the race director took the microphone to deliver the typical pre-race announcements, the start was fifteen minutes late and amid the nervous chatter of race participants, the day grew steadily warmer.

That gravel road was as paved and as wide as the course got.  Not two minutes into the race, runners left the main path and cut into the woods, where for the next four miles we would run like ants in a single-file line.  The air was still and the woods were thick, the path as narrow as two shoulder widths.  Everyone kept an easy pace, focusing more on rocks, exposed roots and slippery sand than on their split times.  Taller people like yours truly also had to watch for branches and leaf whiplash – our registration goodie bag also came with ointment to treat poison ivy, which wasn’t very reassuring.  I couldn’t see the path ahead for more than twenty feet because I was too busy turning, watching my feet and looking out for other racers.  Passing people (or getting passed) only happened when there was enough room for someone to scuttle ahead – it felt like passing cars on a two lane highway.

The first five miles or so went by very slowly.  I was keeping a very conservative pace (around 10:30 min/mile) to preemptively avoid heat exhaustion.  Despite this, I was drinking more water than usual.  The organizers had provided five aid stations but highly encouraged runners to bring their own water.  The combination of my slow pace and frequent hydration was keeping me relatively stable, but by mile 6 I was so sweaty that I could feel it in my shorts.  With the 90% humidity and lack of wind, sweat doesn’t evaporate and the body’s cooling mechanism falls out of sync.  It wasn’t long before the water in the air began to affect me.  There was also the pesky problem that Jason had taken off ahead and I was no longer closing in on him.

By the time I reached the aid station at mile 8, I decided I had to stop and rest.  I could hear my feet splashing in my shoes and every step sent droplets of sweat from my shirt and visor to the swampy dirty below.  The volunteer urged me to eat an orange slice to get my blood sugar up and I must say, it was the best tasting orange I’ve ever had.  After I washed it down with iced Gatorade, I felt reinvigorated and continued running.  The next mile was easier than the last three, which had mostly consisted of sharp uphills combined with perilous downhills.  However, upon reaching mile 9 I reached a section of park that was a less flush with vegetation, as if on the edge of a housing development.  Here, the course gently sloped upwards for a long time, sapping the rest of my energy.  There was no one with whom I could commiserate as the field had been stretched very thin.  I could feel a lump in my throat rising, my breathing pumping out warmness into the damp air that with every step weighed more heavily on me.  What I was doing was no longer considered “running.” I was shuffling uphill and falling controllably downhill.  Even the rare straightaway was a challenge.  But I couldn’t let myself dwell too much on how arduous it was to keep going – I still had three miles left to go.

There were many turns.

During the earlier stages of the race, I saw two people fall.  One was a girl who was probably in her mid-20’s, who tripped to the side of the trail into a pillowy tuft of grass.  She shook it off, waved away the runners who offered to help her up, and kept running without any visible problems.  Another runner was a shirtless man who looked to be in his 50’s.  I didn’t see him fall, but watched him slowly get up and take a few steps on perfectly stiff legs.  He too dismissed concerned runners and decided to continue the trail on his own (he would pass me a few miles later, so I wasn’t too worried).  After mile 12, I had my own run-in with gravity.  At this point, I was so tired that I was barely lifting my legs off the ground.  In one of these sluggish steps, my right foot clipped a root and I was sent flying forward, my arms circling like windmills and my legs suddenly faster than lightning, doubling their efforts to keep me from falling on my face.  I managed to not fall down, but definitely lost all my composure with a very loud “Whooooa!” echoing through the woods.

Gravity would have its second shot at me just a half mile later.  As if I had learned nothing, my stride was stopped dead in its tracks by déjà vu and I lost my balance.  This time, my legs did not obey my survival instincts and instead locked themselves into place, sending me falling like a heaving, sweaty tree.  Miraculously, I ended up with no scratches – just a lot of dirt on the right side of my body and a cramp in my shoulder.  Following in the footsteps of those before me, I stubbornly waved away the runner who had offered to help me up, and kept my laughably slow pace until I could hear the thin crowds of the finish line.  Once I saw the parked cars from the morning, I managed to increase my pace to a respectable speed with a combination of pride and magic.  As of this writing, I don’t know my official finishing time, but it was somewhere in the realm of 2 hours and 35 minutes, almost a full hour slower than my half marathon PR.

When finished, Jason and I shared war stories in the pavilion by the finish line.  I must congratulate him here, for it was the first time he’s ever beaten me in a race, and by a large margin.  We had reason to be proud: at the finish line, a slender, athletic girl boasted to a nearby runner that she had competed in several half Ironman triathlons … and this had been her toughest race by far.  But neither one of us could celebrate having conquered our first trail half marathon because we were so visibly weathered and beaten.  I did everything I could to cool myself down but nothing was working.  I doused my head in cold water, drank from the Gatorade cooler until I was practically eating the mix, ate four orange slices and later force-fed myself a couple of pretzels.  I was no longer running, so where was the relief, the pride, the pleasant and gradual return to homeostasis?  Even in hot races, I had found that right after the finish line, no matter how torturous the course or hellish the weather, I could cool down and reach a comfortable condition and just relax.  But not here – it wasn’t until we had cranked the car’s AC to a glacial storm that we finally felt alright with the world.

After showering and meeting up with Nick at the hotel in Columbia, we drove to DiPrato’s, a nearby restaurant by University of South Carolina’s campus for brunch.  With the crowds of seersucker-clad southerners in their golden years, we stuck out as the only young men in their mid-to-late 20’s wearing t-shirts.  Once the bill was paid we realized that we had to floor it back to Greenville to make our flight.  Three hours later, Jason and I were flying back to Chicago, happy to have spent a great weekend with a good friend, old memories, new jokes, firearms and a scorching half. 

I would run another trail race, easily.  I liked the challenge and the feeling of running through a hiking trail with nothing but tiny flags pointing the way.  However, next time, I’m choosing one in April.  In Wisconsin.