End of Year Recap (2013)

If 2012 was the year of speed, where I lit up the race circuit with as many PRs as I could, then 2013 was the year of distance.  Despite a few new personal bests, what highlighted the year were my adventures past the 26.2-mile threshold and the brutal weekends that I had to put in to visit the great unknown with as few detours as possible into agony and self-hatred.  It all started with a suggestion from my running hetero-lifemate Otter, which I first thought was in jest.

A 50-miler?  Was a hallucinogen somehow warping a “K” into the word “miles”?  Had Otter lost his mind?  How the hell were we going to do that?  The ultramarathon had the same veil of mystery that the marathon had for me four years ago, so that prickly feeling in my stomach had returned.  Almost because of that trepidation, I decided to go for it.  It reminded me of what it was like to view the mountain and commit to climbing it.  The challenge itself and the overwhelming, almost dizzying heights is what drew me to add my name to the Ice Age Trail 50k and the North Country Run 50-miler.  To paraphrase the overused but still effective words of George Mallory, we do these things because they are there, because we can do them.

… or at least try.

Recap_2013

But first, let’s do the usual numbers dance.  Although I spilled paint all over the map last year by filling in twelve states, I wasn’t as irresponsible with my body and budget this time around.  In the last twelve months, I filled in seven new states, four of which I had never visited ever for any reason.  I completed the west coast with Washington and Oregon, dotted the west with Utah, added Kansas and Louisiana to the map, completed the South with North Carolina and added some Northeast real estate by running in Pennsylvania.  Illinois also ceased to be the only state in which I’ve run both a half and a full marathon, now in the esteemed company of Florida and Wisconsin.

Race Stats

Half Marathons Run: 4*
Fastest: 1:31:13 (NC Half Marathon)
Slowest: 3:06:42 (Cerros de Escazú 21k)

*This tally includes one trail 25k, which, because of a poorly marked course, ended up being just over 14 miles.

Marathons Run: 6**
Fastest: 3:23:12 (Rock ‘N Roll New Orleans Marathon) PR
Slowest: 3:56:41 (Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon)

**If you include ultras, this number is 7.  If you’re feeling merciful and add the DNF from the North Country Run, where I technically ran more than a marathon, it’s 8.

Number of fellow runners: 101,000+
Largest race: 33,219 runners (Shamrock Shuffle)
Smallest race: 142 runners (Lakeside Festival 5k)

Mileage Stats

Miles Run: 1,626 (new record, previously held by 2012: 1,366)
Average Pace: 8:21
Race Miles Run: 296.9
Average Race Pace: 9:24

And the newest stat, which I find intriguing, is how many miles I ran on the treadmill this year.  That total is 272, which is worth noting because the total amount of treadmill miles I logged in the four years between 2009 and 2012 was 304.  So in this year alone, I almost doubled my lifetime miles on the machine.  Does this mean I’m becoming a bit picky with the weather?  Or perhaps I’m being more strategic with my workouts.  Regardless, I had to point out my nascent love affair with the hamster wheel.

0324_nc-half-marathon 07Although the numbers speak for themselves, I’d be remiss if I didn’t gush about the impact the year has had on me.  The signature event for 2013 was the North Country Run 50-miler.  I changed the way I ran, focusing very intently on going long and recovering more quickly.  I spent my entire summer pushing my weekly mileage totals, routinely breaking distance records.  Prior to this year, I had never run more than 142 miles in a month.  In March I ran 178, a record which was decimated in July, where I logged 223.5 miles.  I was up early on almost every Saturday and Sunday, running back-to-back long runs not limited to the reliably sunny and humid Chicago 0414_cerrosdeescazu 11lakefront path.  My travels took me to Ocean City, New Jersey, where a 5 AM run on the boardwalk was the only way to avoid the 100-degree scorchers.  I visited Miami and took my ultra-training to the Rickenbacker Causeway, where I would be lacquered in a thick layer of sweat just two miles in.  I ran 15 miles along the San Francisco coastline and on the Golden Gate Bridge just three hours after landing in the Bay Area at 2 AM … and then I ran 20 miles the next morning while my friends nursed hangovers at the hotel.

My entire running schedule was built around it, with every 0420_1_garminmarathon 62other race handpicked to serve a purpose.  I learned to eat while on the run at the Garmin Marathon, battled the trail elements at the Paleozoic 25k and Cerros de Escazú 21k.  I happily logged miles at the Walt Disney World Marathon and then test-ran my ultra preparedness at the Ice Age Trail 50k, my first venture past 26.2 miles.  Every race run in the first eight months of the year had some component that I was either testing or validating.

In other words, I was dead serious about this race.

0511_iceage50k 04But then, for lack of more eloquent phrasing, shit happened.  Two weeks before the race, I was hit by an unexpected pain in my left knee.  Despite employing every preventative measure I could think of, by mile 14 of the year’s headline race I was hurting.  Every system was firing on all cylinders, rallying with me in hopes of obviating the hot pain shooting from my knee, but it wasn’t enough.  Just shy of 40 miles, I decided it would be dangerous to continue.

The decision hurt at the time.  I’m the kind of person that likes to make his commitments public because I don’t 0824_northcountryrun 12like letting people down (who does, right?).  So the inevitable series of explanations that followed kept my shoulders closer to the ground than I like.  But six weeks later, my decision to call it quits bore fruit.  In my first ever trip to the Pacific Northwest, I ran two marathons back to back and both under four hours.  As if to prove that everything was still fine, I ran just shy of my PR in Philadelphia just a month later.

So really, there was a lot to learn this year.  I was faced with the unfortunate reality that life doesn’t always unfurl as intended.  But the pain I suffered in my left knee was leavenworth-marathon-05insignificant compared to actual hardship.  Although it is easy to feel like the world has betrayed us whenever race plans go awry, we have to step back and realize what a privileged complaint that is.  If this is what’s making us upset and monopolizing our grievances against the universe, then we need to pause and take a deep breath.  There are other races out there, and not all of them involve running.

About a month ago, my uncle passed away from complications stemming from a malignant brain tumor.  His wife, my aunt, is my godmother and his children grew portland-marathon-group-pictureup with me.  Although he and I didn’t have a uniquely close relationship, his sudden departure was agonizing.  He was in Miami with us when his oldest daughter and I ran the half marathon in 2010 and 2011.  So I felt that it would be fitting to dedicate my 20th marathon to him.  While I haven’t yet finalized my resolutions for next year, it will start with my first ever charity marathon.  As of this writing, I’ve already reached my fundraising goal.

2014 will be about many things.  It will be about remembrance, vindication and fortitude.  It will be about improving what is working, fixing what is holding us back moab-trail-half-marathon-groupand changing focus on what matters.  At this time last year, I didn’t think I could possibly top 2012’s excitement and thrill.  But somehow, I managed to do it.  Even though I wasn’t completely successful, I felt more alive this year as I scurried up wooded trails, scorched over flat pavement and clambered up sandstone cliffs.  Perhaps facing defeat gave each finish line an extra jolt of satisfaction.  I always assumed that I would finish every race no matter what, but that hubris was put to the test in August and I’ve taken the harsh lesson to heart.

And so, with a thick mix of emotions, I bid farewell to 2013.  As the pictures on the side suggest, it was an excellent year for my feet and my heart and I look forward to every starting line 2014 will offer me.  From old friends to new companions, there was no shortage of good company as I tackled the year’s challenges.  There aren’t many people who use running as a means to stay in touch, but I’m glad and honored to be one of them.

Onwards.

State 36: Pennsylvania (2013 Philadelphia Marathon)

09-PHILADELPHIA

Although almost 30,000 runners and several times as many spectators were flooding the streets of Philadelphia, it was a strangely quiet morning.  The organizers had chosen to not play any music until the start of the race out of respect to the citizens of the City of Brotherly Love, which I thought was a nice gesture.  The lack of deep bass thuds had a calming effect on me as I looked for the gear check trucks.  I was shivering a little in the low 50s temperatures that had woken up the city.  All around me fidgety runners prepared for the 20th anniversary of the Philadelphia Marathon, shaking sleepy legs and breathing into cupped hands.

Philadelphia, Old and New

Philadelphia, Old and New

For the first time in many races, I was nervous.  I was out to race today, something I hadn’t done since February.  Every marathon I’ve done since then had either been a training run, a trail ultra, or part of a weekend double.  Not only was this my first chance to run aggressively in a long time, but it was my last chance for the year.  I wasn’t signed up for any future target marathons and didn’t even have plans for the next potential PR, so this was it.  I performed my feverish runner duties by relating all of this (and perhaps too much more) to Bruce, the 1:40 pacer for the half marathon.  There was no one leading a 3:20 group, so I opted to join Bruce’s troupe until the halfway mark, where I would hold on for as long as possible.

At 7:03, our corral was given the green light and we shot down Benjamin Franklin Parkway towards the city.  All around us were flags from many countries hanging from streetlights, as if welcoming the world to one of the country’s most historical cities.  In the center of it was Philadelphia City Hall, the world’s tallest masonry building, pointing skyward among its more modern steel brethren.  Held up by white granite and brick, it stood out despite many surrounding buildings surpassing it in height, an awesome structure that must have mesmerized Philadelphians at the turn of the 20th century.

Right from the start, I could feel the pace.  The first miles of my marathons are usually tackled at an easy speed – especially the fast ones – but today I was out for something more.  There are several websites that let you predict your potential finishing time for various distances according to your current PRs, McMillan Running and Runner’s World to name two.  For too long my projected times had sneered at me, taunting me with what I believed were impossibly fast times.  My 5K PR of 19:07 suggests that I can run a marathon around 3:03, which is absurd.  Even my half marathon PR of 1:30:47 translates roughly to a 3:10.  I have my excuses for falling short of these lofty goals: I’m built for shorter distances; my tall body needs more calories; I don’t do enough fast long runs, etc.  Almost all of these are some variety of “I can’t.”  But on the streets of Philadelphia I was going to try.

I have to admit, it was strange trying to prove myself wrong and a meaningless algorithm right.

philadelphia-marathon-start-corralBut I was acutely aware of how fast I was running.  I normally don’t feel like I’m working until the second half, but here I was pushing from the very beginning, which wasn’t the best sign.  But I was going to do this, recklessly if necessary.  I had told a friend earlier that week that, crazy as it undoubtedly sounds, I would rather hit a hard wall at mile 17 and drag myself to the finish, heaving and sobbing but knowing I tried, than play it safe with the usual formula and PR by a minute.  Even over g-chat, I knew she had raised an eyebrow.

Through the heart of the city I continued, staying on Bruce like his shadow.  We ran through the Philadelphia Convention Center, where the expo had been held for the previous two days.  I saw my favorite sign of the race around here – a picture of Yoda, typically calm and serene with the tag “If a smart pace you run, a fast time you will achieve.”  We passed Chinatown and then the National Constitution Center, which had the emblematic “We the People” script emblazoned in huge letters on its walls.  Barely two miles in, we reached the shores of the Delaware River, New Jersey clearly visible on the other side.  Bruce’s group was an amorphous, fast-moving glob of humanity; racers would join for a few strides, ask a few questions and get swept away in the free-flowing torrent.

City Hall

City Hall

We reached 5k in 23:44, right at target pace.  As we turned back into the city, we passed Washington Square Park and then made a left turn towards the core of downtown on Chestnut Street, but not before passing the Liberty Bell Center.  Be it the large crowds, the electric city atmosphere or as a strategic move to bank time, Bruce picked up the pace.  By now, I was comfortable with the cadence, matching the stride of everyone around me as if on parade.  We passed City Hall once again with the 10k marker not long after.

Right as we left the city we were treated to the boisterous calls of University of Pennsylvania’s fraternity row, where many a hoodie-clad brother were manning beer stations and handing out comically red Solo cups to eager runners.  Had this been much later in the race, I might have indulged.  But at this point, I was focusing on the hills.  The reliable flatness of the first seven miles was over and my pace was seeing its own peaks and valleys.  Bruce kept reminding us that we had plenty of time to work with, so we could take the uphills at a more conservative pace.  During this section, I was alternating between feeling light-footed and sluggishly ponderous.  The pace we were running was a little ambiguous – fast enough to feel it, but not fast enough to worry.  So naturally I would alternate between confidence and concern.

Around mile 10, we made it to Fairmount Park, mostly past the ups and downs.  Many trees were shedding the last of their red canopy, reluctant to face winter.  I was still running with Bruce, but the 1:40 group had dwindled considerably.  Every time I looked around, I saw people who hadn’t started with us.  They were likely random runners who happened to be there and weren’t consciously following the ballooned pacer sign.  Right at the twelfth mile, Bruce suddenly picked up the pace, which made me suspect that he had taken it a little too easy over the last fifteen minutes.  Another 23:42 5k split and we had reached the 20k mark, close enough to the finish line to hear the muffled echo of the announcer’s voice reverberating off buildings.

philadelphia-marathon-downtown-google-earth-map

Even after completing several marathons, it’s never easy to hear the race announcer’s enthusiasm, knowing you’re only halfway there.  Despite high energy levels and the assurance of knowing that I’ve delayed complete exhaustion for many miles, it still sucks to hear him congratulate runners as they finish.  I can see them stop running and it makes every step a little more difficult.  It’s like starving in a restaurant for hours and watching the waiter bring an entire tray of sizzling steaks to the table next to you (and they were waiting for half as long).

To make matters worse, the second half of the race course wasn’t very thrilling.  I’ve seen it in many other races – the half marathon gets the vast majority of the sights, leaving the marathoners to face a formulaic out-and-back for the roughest miles.  I understand, it saves money and manpower, but 6.5-miles out and a mirror-image trek back sometimes feels like we’re being punished for wanting to run farther.  To be completely selfish, what if we reversed the course and let marathoners finish in the city?  And we can ignore how much costlier it would be to shut down those roads for longer in the day.

Pushing the finish line behind us with every breath, marathoners spent the vast majority of their dedicated portion on Kelly Road alongside the Schuylkill River.  Small crowds appeared every now and then but for most of it, we runners were our only company.  Though monotonous, the course was actually quite beautiful.  But I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted because by mile 16, it was getting harder to keep the negative thoughts away.  I was feeling the pace and it felt fast.  At this point in my fast marathons is when I normally start to push the pace, accelerating almost magically and laugh haughtily when I sneak a glance at my watch.  But today it felt like a chore just to keep it up.

As if to cement those dark thoughts in my head, the course briefly shot over the river via the Falls Bridge, after which we would run downhill for about a third of a mile, turn around, and run back up.  It sapped a lot of energy and willpower from me and marked the beginning of my slowdown.  Once done with this dastardly detour, we were back on Kelly Road on the original path away from the finish line.  Although I passed 30k still on pace, the last 5k split was the first to breach 24 minutes.  As we approached the town of Manayunk, I saw a runner ahead who had collapsed.  Spectators had moved him on the sidewalk, hoisting his legs in the air, his face oddly peaceful.  I saw an older man cross the street on the phone with an emergency responder.

I hope he’s okay, I thought.

Manayunk Main Street (Google Streetview)

Manayunk Main Street (Google Streetview)

The crowds were out in full force in Manayunk.  We ran appropriately down Main Street towards the turnaround.  Aid station volunteers and spectators blended together into one energizing display of support and affection.  Having reached the farthest point from the finish line, I made the hairpin turn and began the journey toward the finish.  The roar of the town’s denizens was invigorating, but not enough to distract me from fatigue.  The road was mincing the bottom of my feet and my gaze began to droop slightly.  Just after leaving the town, as the crowd support returned to thin levels, I took a walk break.  I stepped to the middle of the road to avoid an ambulance bounding towards me, almost brushing shoulders with marathoners running in the opposite direction.

I walked, hands resting on my hips, taking stock of what had happened.

That first half was too aggressive, I admitted to myself.  I couldn’t reasonably expect to go from running 1:44s in the first half to 1:39 and keep it strong.  I recently wrote about how foolish it is for the world to expect a two-hour marathon to happen soon given current performances, and here I was, thinking I was capable of a similar quantum leap in performance.  Why was I special enough to break free of the shackles of statistical analysis?  What made me think I could just defy the odds?

logan-square-fountainBut although the intensity had gotten to me earlier than expected, I found that I wasn’t too upset.  At least I had tried.  And I soon realized that I was still running around an 8:10 pace, which was significantly far from the usual 9 to 10-minute bonk speed I can muster after reaching the point of exhaustion.  So onwards I ran at whatever speed felt doable.  I couldn’t say the same for the runners around me, who hadn’t collectively decide on their own pace.  Some passed me, skipping nimbly over the pavement while others slumped by the wayside in worse shape than me.  There was nothing else to do but keep going.

And then something strange happened.  Around mile 23, I assessed my current situation.  The bottoms of my feet were numb, but they weren’t keeping me from running.  Make no mistake about it, they hurt.  But it wasn’t like a spike in your quad, where it leeches your motivation and self-worth or a seizing hamstring that stops you cold in your tracks and makes you reevaluate your life decisions.  My breathing was controlled, I wasn’t short of air; my leg muscles were working, all systems reporting.  Really, there was nothing going completely wrong.

So I decided to do something.  Something beautiful and pathetic in its simplicity.

I decided to run faster.

Conveniently located near the finish line.

Conveniently located near the finish line.

And I did.  Over the last three miles, I picked it up, bit by bit, passing runners and inching closer to the finish line.  At this point in the race, even a tiny incline would stop me in my tracks, but I pushed on, even with mile 25 being mostly an ascent.  I became the passer, leaving tired runners behind me.  I know in my bones that I couldn’t have sped up like this in Manayunk; I did not have it in me to push the pace.  But at that twenty-third mile, it just felt like the correct (and obvious) thing to do and my body responded.  Part of me thinks it was the pull of the finish line, but I’ve never smelled sweet victory three miles out.  The two marathons I ran six weeks earlier, which put some seriously acidic pain in my legs, might also serve to explain this sudden surge.  Perhaps I hadn’t digested the five GUs I had put into my system until that very moment.

But something happened.  Perhaps it was the body finally accepting that it was made for running, that it was finally capable of handling the continued beating, even after hours of it.  Was this the moment of transcendence?  Had I finally become the master of my pain, one with my suffering?  Or was it something more banal?  Had I simply conditioned my legs to tolerate the strain of a hard run?  Had I been overestimating the energy-syphoning effects of a bonk all this time?

The Final Stretch (Google Earth)

The Final Stretch (Google Earth)

Although I never found the definitive answer, it didn’t matter because I was smiling for the rest of the race.  My pace charts may have won again, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy myself or post a competitive time.

I kept speeding up as I passed the twenty-fifth mile, returning to the boom of the finish line.  The marathon had an excellent final stretch, which was run on wide and open streets, past the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the green Eakins Oval.  It felt like the entire city had opened up to me, like I was entering an arena with philadelphia-marathon-medalresplendent, blue columns made of glass and steel.  I eventually crossed the 8-minute threshold, and as I heard the announcer around the corner I somehow managed to speed up to a 6:45 for the final dash.  Although my performance was a positive split, I will never complain about finishing in 3:25:28, my third fastest marathon to date.

Hours later, as I scarfed down a Philly cheesesteak sandwich like a combine, I thought about how this race fit into my experience as a runner.  It wasn’t a game changer but it certainly put my abilities in perspective.  There was once a time when I considered an 8:40 marathon pace to be ambitious, but today I stayed below that, even on empty.  It was an encouraging indicator that, given time, dedication and discipline, we are capable of remarkable change, even if it’s not immediately apparent on the surface.

In a way, it was very similar to the first two days of the weekend.  Before I toed the line in Philadelphia, I drove to the historic, Appalachian town of Lancaster to visit Brandon, a fellow Wildcat and fraternity brother.  Although we were both very involved in the development of our chapter and both served as president at some point in our undergraduate careers, we didn’t become friends.  Our social circles certainly intertwined but our personalities and vision for the chapter didn’t always line up.  But in the years since graduation, something happened that made us reconnect.  Before I had ever run my first 10k, Brandon was already a two-time marathoner and an Ironman, so that probably had something to do with it.

Left to right: Brandon, me, Kevin (November 14, 2003)

Left to right: Brandon, me, Kevin (November 14, 2003)

I visited his and his wife Ashley’s lovely home in Lititz, just outside of Lancaster.  I got to meet Jackson, their adorable 12-week baby (who I think looks a lot like Jack-Jack from The Incredibles and not just because he’s a baby) and play with their vivacious golden retriever.  It really was like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting.  In fact, if I were able to send this post back in time to myself in the year 2003, I doubt I would react with anything but incredulity.  I’m running how many marathons?  What is this touch-screen computer that I have in my pocket?  Brandon is married?  To a really nice girl?  And is responsible for the welfare of a CHILD?

Left to right: Ashley, Lady, Brandon, me (November 16, 2013)

Left to right: Ashley, Lady, Brandon, me (November 16, 2013)

My reverie was broken by the cooks at Steve’s Prince of Steaks barking out an order through the onion steam.  I glanced at my watch and realized it was time to go, lest I miss my flight.  I stood up from the chair and hissed a few painful breaths as my legs cracked through their concrete casing.  I had completed my 19th marathon, 36th state, spent a fun weekend with friends and learned a few lessons along the way.  The 3:20 threshold continues to beckon me, with the Boston Qualifier even further down that arduous road.  Although I haven’t planned it yet, I need a target race for next year, one where I crash through every wall and get closer to that prize.  I’ll run more hills, throw in more intervals and push the pace on my long runs.  Bit by bit, I’ll make it happen.  I’ll face those vexing time charts and chip away at the rock on my shoulders, with every run facing the almost sisyphean task of hoping to stay strong over 26.2 miles.

Onwards.

Marathon_Map 045 (PA)

State 35: Utah (2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon)

I harnessed the GoPro camera to my head, careful to not elbow the dense crowd of runners around me.  It was fastened to an elastic band that squeezed my head in three directions, but it felt oddly comfortable.  The sun had almost crested the colossal mounds of red to our right, slowly warming us from the near-freezing temperatures of the desert morning.  The 2013 Moab Trail Marathon and Half Marathon was just minutes from starting and the race announcer was making sure we understood what we were about to do.  This wouldn’t be your average trail run, where your biggest concern is avoiding tree roots and the occasional whipcrack of branches on your face.  Today we would have to contend with cacti, crypto (a living bacteria that serves as desert topsoil), loose rocks and slippery terrain that could spell certain doom if not navigated properly.

I privately thought that we had bitten off more than we could chew.

In the waves behind me were Steve (my father-in-law), his brothers Greg and Jim, and his brother-in-law Dan.  Almost immediately after we all finished the Hoover Dam Marathon last December, the brothers began ruminating over which would be the next trip.  In one of the many emails, Moab was mentioned.  I knew of several races in the area, but one in particular stood out.  Having read Mike’s detailed and flattering account of the Moab Trail Half Marathon, I was intrigued and threw it in the ring.  Within days, flights were bought and race registrations paid.  As the weekend crept ever closer, excitement levels reached feverish levels.  I soon learned that Moab had a Mecca-like quality for Steve and Greg, over the years adopting an otherworldly character that always brought a fond smile to their faces.  In their biking days of yore, they would visit the red desert canyon and lay claim to every trail they could find, seeing breathtaking natural monuments along the way.

If you ever visit Moab, you MUST stay at the Red Cliffs Lodge

If you ever visit Moab, you MUST stay at the Red Cliffs Lodge

This long weekend was therefore not just another out of state race, but a poignant family trip down memory lane.

With race director Danelle Ballengee’s blessing, the crowd of bouncing runners was sent on its way (for Danelle’s riveting back story of survival and triumph, please read Mike’s Moab story).  I made sure to click Record and followed the human flood ahead of me.  The first four miles were all uphill, interrupted only by brief dips and rocky camel humps.  During this ascent, we would run over almost every possible kind of terrain.  We started on asphalt, which quickly became loose sand, a surface that sapped the speed from every footstep.  That soon disappeared, giving way to packed dirt with loose rocks, which grew to boulders and later entire mountains.  I took a moment to look up from the trail to behold the towering walls of red surrounding me.  This race, more than any other I’ve run so far, was the cruelest culprit of the central conflict of trail running — there is so much beautiful scenery to ingest, but you have to keep your eyes on the ground or you risk snapping down like a mousetrap.  We hadn’t run two miles before a gentleman ahead of me fell face first into a pile of rocks the size of human heads.  Although he immediately got up and shoo’ed away any help, I’m sure he took a rough hit to more than just his pride.

The Start / Finish Area

The Start / Finish Area

But like a kid trying to do his homework with the TV on, I couldn’t help but look up from time to time.  The mesmerizing towers of rugged sandstone seemed to close in on us, each formation more impressive than the previous.  The race followed the regular pattern of shock and awe from the previous day’s sightseeing tours.  We had hiked to the almost mystical Delicate Arch, absorbed the dizzying vastness of Dead Horse Point and drove through the cartoonishly smooth biking playgrounds of the Slickrock Sand Flats.  Steve and Greg had escorted us through each stretch of crimson landscape with the same zeal as an older brother showing his siblings Star Wars for the first time.  Each new sun-burnt carving was a wonder to behold, never once blending in with its surroundings.

That’s how this race felt.  Every single section, every part was completely unique and had its own story to tell.

IMG_4750

Four miles later, I could feel the top of the climb, the end of the race’s opening act.  I did my best to avoid walking, but there were several steep escarpments where everyone ahead of me had stopped to power hike the smooth mounds of red and white.  The peak was at the top of a gradual incline of jagged rock and the sun was just beyond it.  Slender, alien silhouettes ambled ahead of me towards the light and I followed in short, dusty steps.  Even with my sunglasses, I was almost blind.  But once over the other side, it was like entering another world.  The light changed, everything came into focus, and just like that, I was flying.

moab-trail-half-marathon-mile-8I could feel the crunch of sand and rock with each step as my feet skipped over the surface.  Although it was so easy to give in to gravity, I would meet a long, gruesome end were I to accidentally slip and fall to my left.  So I kept a respectable distance behind the runner ahead of me and let my eyes dart to and fro on the path ahead, evaluating where to (not) step.  Like a stream finding the fast-flowing river, we soon spilled from the rocky cliffs and onto an orange dirt path, hugged by miles of desert, distant mounds of jutting turmeric acting like walls of an enormous arena.  The last four miles had consisted of a slow, sustainable running pace with brief periods of hiking and a few four-legged scrambles, so the suddenly flat, soft trail easily broke the chains.

I hit Record on my unicorn camera and let reckless impulse consume me.  One by one, I passed runners, often running along the edge of the trail like a skater on a half-pipe.  My Garmin’s wrist strap had broken the day before, so it was bouncing in my back pocket, my pace a complete mystery.  But in the middle of flight, I didn’t care.  I had laser targeted the red skyscrapers on the horizon and was closing in on them like a hawk, every step effortlessly pushing off the packed dirt, every rock providing a spring to the next, nothing in my-

Beep-beep-beep.

“What the,” I said and pulled the harness off my head, my skin practically stuck to it.  “Are you serious?”
“Battery dead?” a nearby runner asked, mid-stride.
“No, full memory card.”
“Ah, that’s a shame.”
“Yeah,” I said, clumsily strapping it back on my head like a mascot caught out of costume.  “I could probably make some space on it, but I doubt my father-in-law would appreciate it if I delete his Scuba diving videos.”
“That’d be a terrible idea.”
“Oh well,” I said.  “At least I got the hard part on video.”

The runner laughed and continued with his run.  He didn’t say anything else though.  In retrospect, I suspect that he had run this race before because, as I would learn just a few miles later, I had not quite reached the hard part of the race.

moab-trail-half-marathon-mile-9

I reached the first of two aid stations at the end of the flat stretch, where I drank some HEED energy drink and ate an orange slice with a sugar cookie before continuing on the path, which was no longer a discrete trail.  For much of the next three miles, we would be on the shoulders of red bluffs just a head turn away from awe-inspiring canyons (also known as a giant, potential graves).  Running was happening in short bursts, whenever possible.  Loose rocks, curious shrubs and a general sense of self-preservation kept me from attacking these cliffs.  The slower pace gave me a chance to absorb the enormous gap created by ancient water, an expanse so large it almost rivaled Dead Horse Point.  I continued leaping over rocks and sliding under natural overhangs, wondering how the brothers were reacting to this race so far.  After all, I was the one who suggested it.

I could imagine Greg admiring the view in his congenial Midwestern voice that hints at his goofy personality; Dan would stop and appreciate the monuments with pithy, no-nonsense remarks while stroking his goatee; and Jim would take a hundred pictures with his phone and remark at each new vista with gushy adulation in his slow, mellow intonation.  Meanwhile, Steve would yell “Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!” like a wild man, pick out the most efficient way possible to tackle the challenge ahead and continue enjoying the trip he put together with the bros in his life.

moab-trail-half-marathon-mile-10But I did hope they were being careful.  The orange ribbons that marked the trail weren’t as easy to find anymore.  There was no one ahead of me to follow so my eyes were working overtime to find the next marker and keep me from tripping on rocks.  For several stretches, it felt like I wasn’t following ribbons as much as unearthing them.  During one slight downhill, I began to pick up speed but couldn’t lose focus for a second.  As I fell methodically down the stepped rocks, I felt like a cyborg targeting every possible object and evaluating its relevance, four, five times a second.

I was enjoying this so much, I couldn’t help but smile.  It didn’t take long for the downhill jaunt to become a dance, with short, rhythmic steps clicking against the sand before a semi-graceful leap over a rock.  I was living every step, focused so intently on form that it felt like I was holding my breath the entire time.  I wouldn’t have noticed if the spires in the distance had uprooted themselves and done Tai Chi.

But soon all running would come to a grinding halt.  The shoulder of the mountain was narrowing with every step until it was scarcely more than a thin ledge with clumps of red dandruff.  The only things separating me from tumbling down the side into a canyon popping with vegetation was an arm’s length of space and a poor decision.  I was also holding a hand above my head to keep the camera from scraping a red ceiling.  Two days earlier, we had hiked to see Delicate Arch, which included a slow walk next to a similarly sharp drop-off, during which Greg had mentioned his fear of heights.  I could only hope he would keep it together during this leg of the race.

Miles 10 - 12

Miles 10 – 12

I began descending, quickly.  Not only were the ribbons leading me down into the canyon, but runners were catching up with me – probably the ones I passed during the flat, dirt road – and I didn’t want to be the bottleneck.  I saw a spotter up ahead, who ushered me towards a pit between two large boulders.  Rather than crabwalk down the edge, I decided to jump.  I landed with a full crouch, my knees almost touching my ears.  After picking myself up and slapping the dust off my gloves on my legs, I slid down until I could turn around and see the line of people waiting to shimmy down the rock face, wishing my camera had some space left to capture the vertiginous descent.

I reached the bottom of the canyon, the next aid station just a few minutes away.  The trail was thicker here, so I ran with my hands outstretched, pushing away the plants and reeds that had joined the cavalcade of obstacles.  As I approached the station, I noticed with great confidence that I was still feeling strong and not drained by the air at 5,000 feet like I had expected.  I downed another cup of HEED and left the station through a thin layer of trees that separated the canyon from the main road.  We had driven here the day before and knew what was to come: a long, dry climb.

Miles 10 - 12 (Google Earth)

Miles 10 – 12 (Google Earth)

So up I went.  I started with a slow jog, pushing the gravel behind me in short steps.  I passed a few walkers along the way, who would later pass me as I took my own break.  A quick asphalt switchback pulled us quickly up the slope and for the first time in the race, I could feel my quads start to burn.  The top of the climb was in sight, so I let myself take one last walk break before topping the hill and turning on the afterburners.  Though the road was full of small rocks that could still be felt through the soles of my trail shoes, I wouldn’t have noticed.  The downhill had the perfect slant – not too weak to just be a false flat, and just shy of a quad-melting grade.  I came up to an older runner who looked to be in his 60s.

“This is more like it!” I yelled as I passed him.
“That’s the way to do it!” he said with a fist in the air.  “Save it all for the end!”

The sinister stream

The sinister stream

But the downhill, like every single act of this race, was short lived.  A small sign dug into the side of the road showed a little black arrow pointing left, into a shallow canyon.  As if to avoid temptation, the organizers had stationed a few friendly volunteers next to the sign to make sure everyone stopped their exuberant prance and made the proper left turn.  The road became slickrock so my run became a jog; the slickrock began dropping into the canyon in steps, so my jog became a cautious scoot.  Once flattened, I got back to running, eager for the finish line.  But there was one obstacle left to face.

This last barrier to glory would come in the shape of an ice-cold stream, winding in and out of the canyon, surrounded by mud-drenched rocks.  The organizers had warned us that the local beavers had been busy, so we should plan on getting our feet wet.  There was a volunteer at the first crossing, who wasted no words by telling us that we simply had to get in.  There was no way to avoid it.  It was too wide to jump and no rocks were breaching its surface to act as stepping stones.  So in I went.

Jim on the final scramble to the finish line

Jim on the final scramble to the finish line

Those first steps were awful.  Though it was only shin-deep, the cold sensation shot up my legs and through my spine, causing me to stiffen completely.  I lumbered across that stream with my arms moving around me as if I were shaped like a sphere, all grace and confidence draining into the icy water.  But to my delight, it only took me about five or six steps to reach the other side.  Once on land, I knew it was vital that I run to bring my feet back to life.  We were deep in the canyon and there was very little sunlight reaching us, so running alone would warm them up.  I was trying to actively hug the ground with my toes with every step, leaving the cold sensation on the damp grass.  So far, it was working.

That wasn’t so bad, I thought.  Now time to … get back in?

All elation of being almost finished was dashed when I looked ahead and saw runners crossing back to the other side of the stream.  If we had to ford this thing more than once, then it was possible that we’d have to cross it a third, fourth, maybe even a fifth time.  I was right on all three counts.  Just as my feet would warm up, I would once again drown them in an icy bath like a cruel interrogator.  But at least the crossings were quick, requiring only two or three fully underwater steps.

But even that small luxury was stripped from me as we found ourselves wading in the middle of the stream, parallel to the bank, those damned orange ribbons hanging from the branches above us.

This is getting silly, Steve would think.
Oh boy, Greg might say aloud.
This is sooooo cooooool, Jim would chime in.
Dan, meanwhile, would scoff out an expletive and soldier onward.

I was happy to see this Arch in Moab, even if it didn't take millions of years to form

I was happy to see this Arch in Moab, even if it didn’t take millions of years to form

This pattern continued for a few more crossings until we were finally out of the water and onto the road.  I was thrilled to be back on dry land, even if we had yet another climb ahead of us.  It felt like I had an ice pack squeezed between the tops of my feet and my shoes, but it was quickly melting with each step.  At the top of the climb, I could hear the muffled sounds of the race announcer and a red arch, slightly obscured by a row of porta-potties.  The adventure was almost over, so it was time to empty the tank.  My legs had shuffled through cliffs, slid over loose rocks, climbed up dirt roads and now battled with glacial waters, but I managed to kick uphill, pulling the finish line closer.  The end was near …

… until it wasn’t.  What I thought was the entrance to the parking lot looked more like a complete turnaround, back into the canyon.  My suspicions were confirmed by the cheery volunteers pointing downward into the realm of the cold creek.  I told the friendly woman who rerouted me that what she was doing was downright cruel.  She assured me that there was just a quarter-mile left, which was friendly volunteer-speak for “a vast expanse of unfathomable distance separates you from success.”

Jim finishing the 2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon, just 3 weeks after the Chicago Marathon

Jim finishing the 2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon, just 3 weeks after the Chicago Marathon

Just as I had thought, we’d be crossing the dreaded stream again.  There were a few rocks poking their heads out of the surface a little downhill, so I tip-toed over them and into a wall of reeds and dirt.  I regretted that decision because I ended up covering my shoes in muddy runoff just to avoid getting them wet.  Once back on the trail, it was business as usual – a thin, serpentine path interrupted by enormous boulders with ribbons leading the way.  Jim would later joke that he imagined the race director tying each one in a deliberately treacherous location while snickering sadistically.

The shrubbery was thicker and taller here, making me feel for the first time that I was in a forest.  I reached the stream again to find a black pipe connecting the embankments, just a few inches above the water.  My first thought was that we were going to tightrope across it.  And why the hell not?  We had done most everything else in this race except zip-lining as Steve would later point out.  But a volunteer showed me otherwise.  She pointed to the muddy water next to the pipe and told me there was a cinderblock there.  I looked down and saw nothing.  But after exploring the water with my foot, I felt the solid structure underneath.  Like magic, the rest of the water became translucent and I could see the remaining stepping stones.

moab-trail-half-marathon-finish-02moab-trail-half-marathon-finish-03

(left to right): Dan, Greg, Steve finishing the 2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon

I walked over the water like a basilisk and ran over smooth dirt toward the finishing area.  Up ahead were about forty people ceremoniously standing above a giant rock, looking down at runners and cheering.  One of them yelled, “She’s gaining on him, watch her go!” so I gave everyone a show and picked up the pace.  I ran up and slid past the rock to behold a short, but very steep chute covered in orange sand.  I could tell it had suffered the fanatical footsteps of many runners already, giving me neither traction nor elegance.  But once at the top, it was just a quick left turn to dash across the finish line in 2:19:22.

national-championshipAfter changing into dry shoes and socks, I made my way back to the top of that last climb to see the rest of the boys finish.  Jim soon came scrambling up the mountain, proving that he had enough endurance to finish this tough race just three weeks removed from his second marathon.  Not long after, Greg and Dan emerged together, matching each other stride for effortless stride under the finisher’s banner.  Shortly after them, Steve climbed through the arch, conquering the trails of Moab for the first time on foot and cementing the five of us as finishers in the most intense adventure race any of us had ever experienced.

We spent the rest of the day gabbing about the race like girls after a One Direction concert.  While everyone enjoyed the event in their own way, there were signature moments that couldn’t go unnoticed.  Cresting the top of the first four miles, the fast dash through the open fields, the perilous descent, the long hill, the treacherous creek, the false finish line and that last crawl through the inflatable arch.  It was clear that everyone loved the race.  I can already hear us talking about it when we return in ten years for the next grand adventure with brand new faces.  And return we no doubt will.

(left to right): Me, Greg, Dan, Jim, Steve

(left to right): Me, Greg, Dan, Jim, Steve.  Where’s my matching team shirt, you ask?  Covered in sweat and crumpled in a plastic bag, where it should be in the interest of public safety and comfort.

Because there was something unique about the landscape in Moab, something difficult to describe that separated the red desert spires from any other natural formation.  Each stepped mountain was not just an impressive sight worthy of a telephoto lens, it was a painting of the enormity of the planet’s geological history.  I’ve been to the Alps, biked the Rockies and walked around volcanic craters in Costa Rica.  But I seem to imagine the creation of a mountain like a child – three or four earthquakes and suddenly, there are mountains where once a plain existed.  But the slowly eroding red top hats and stone scepters in southeast Utah give you a true sense of just how long it took something like Dead Horse to reach its current state.  Similarly, it makes me realize that we’re just a blip on earth’s radar, and that millions of years after we’re gone – assuming we don’t decimate the entire planet – Delicate Arch will still be there, moving a bright circle across the desert, a silent caretaker with a thinning cane.

But until that happens, I will enjoy that short blip in the company of great people as we visit amazing places.

Marathon_Map 044 (UT)

2013 Chicago Marathon Weekend

Once again, I did not run the Chicago Marathon.  It wasn’t because of under-preparedness or a lack of interest, but rather a product of planning out the year very far in advance.  By the time registration opened in February, I already knew that I would be running the Leavenworth and Portland marathons the weekend before.  Given Chicago’s perfectly flat course and reliably cool weather (and high price tag), it’s not a race that I would run for fun.  But over the years, marathon weekend has taken on the same snow-globe wonder as Christmas, so I have to participate in it as much as possible.  And so on Sunday, October 13, I was once again in the middle of the Loop as a spectator, waiting for the race to start.

Breakfast of (Soon to Be) Champions

breakfast-with-laszloBut my 2013 Chicago Marathon experience did not start there.  Earlier in the week I was contacted by Laszlo, a fellow blogger and half marathoner who was coming to Chicago for his first stab at the full beast.  Given my penchant for meeting fun people during my running adventures, I agreed to breakfast with him and suggested the great pancakes-and-eggs eatery Eggsperience.  His wife and daughters were sleeping in from the long drive from East Michigan, so it was just the two of us talking about life, how running has changed it and what he should expect during the monumental challenge that awaited him on Sunday.

Stalking a Living Legend

scott-jurek-chicago-marathon-expoFull on pancakes, I made my way to the Marathon Expo, where I waited coldly, stalker-like for ultramarathoner extraordinaire Scott Jurek to arrive at the Pro-Tec Athletics booth.  I made some Costa Rican friends as I waited.  I had brought a flag, which hung loosely by my side from a drawstring, which caught more than one eye.  Among those was a Costa Rican reporter, who took a picture of me for the paper (I’ve since checked and I didn’t make it to the print edition).  By the time Scott showed up, I was closest to the table in front of a crowd of adoring fans.  He signed my copy of Eat & Run, but not until I showed him that we had met before at the Garmin Marathon.  Steph told me that Scott most likely notified security of my presence after I left.  I will admit that part of me felt like Buddy from The Incredibles, except I hope to not become his nemesis in twenty or so years …

The Tables Turn

left to right: Jime, Chris, Steph, me

left to right: Jime, Chris, Steph, me

That night, Steph and I dined with Jimena and Chris, who hosted me in Kansas for the Garmin Marathon back in April.  Jimena was a high-school classmate of mine and her husband Chris was attempting his first marathon the next morning.  They had gone out to the Garmin race to watch me run in the spring, so I was returning the favor by escorting Jime to various different spectator spots.  Chris was still vacillating between joining the 3:05 and 3:10 pace groups, and I unabashedly endorsed the faster time.  If he was confident enough to BQ on his first marathon, then it was his duty to abandon restraint and aim for glory.  There’s no shame in going as hard as you can and with the weather forecast showing perfect conditions, there were few reasons to hold back.  It’s not advice that I would have followed myself four years ago, but I wasn’t teeming with such self-assurance.

Same Pose, Different People

chicago_marathon-02After seeing the elites rocket down State Street under the iconic red Chicago Theater lights with Chris not far behind, Jime and I went to LaSalle and later Sedgwick, where I managed to get three pictures of the same person in three disguises.  First came Laszlo, who after gushing about how much fun he was having, romped down the block like a kid in a toy store.  Not far behind was Marla, equally thrilled to be running her first marathon, strutting down mile 11 with a million-dollar smile.  Behind her in the second wave of runners was Louisville’s own Glenn, who took a half second to recognize me under my cap and beard before sprouting devil horns from his hands.

“I think they all posed that way because they think you would do that,” Steph would later tell me.  Maybe.

chicago_marathon-03Regardless, it was proving to be a beautiful day for runners and spectators alike.  Last year, clouds obscured the sun and drove my body to shivers for most of the day.  This year’s morning was bright and we were too busy yelling out people’s names, nationalities or identifying features (“GO FACEPAINT!”) to ever succumb to chills.  Costa Rica was the fifth most represented country at the race and they definitely made themselves known.  “I think if you’re running the marathon and from Costa Rica, you’re obligated to wear a shirt that says so,” Otter remarked after the race.  I believe him.  I yelled every single nationality I could see and few were out there in chicago_marathon-01such large numbers as Mexico or Costa Rica.  What I did learn from this experience was how heartbreaking a marathon can be for people with foreign or exotic names.  I’m sorry, I really am, but if you have “Valtyja” or “Jørgün” handwritten on your shirt, that potential moment of irrevocable indignity where I butcher your name is enough to keep my lips sealed as you run by.  I know that by mile 11 the runner might not have it in them to turn around and give me the stink-eye for soiling their moniker, but in the time it takes me to figure out the best way to pronounce it, they’re past my shouting range.  Plus, what if I try to be smart about it and end up looking like an idiot?  It’s possible that I’ll see “Georg” and think, “Ah, this dude is German,” thereby shouting “Looking strong, Gay-Org” just to have him turn around and say in perfect apple pie American, “It’s pronounced George, dick.”  Maybe one day I’ll shed those silly concerns and just yell everything I see on everyone’s singlets.  But that time will have to wait.

The Best Spectator Sign I Have Seen in Recent Memory

I was reading a recent recap of this race and the author mentioned seeing a Harry Potter-themed sign (“Accio Finish Line!”) and some politically germane zingers (“You’re running better than the government”), which I would have loved.  But the prize for the best sign I have recently seen goes to this brilliant collage.

breaking-bad-marathon-sign

PRs (Post-Race Pizza Reunion)

Later that night, as volunteers and Parks employees were taking the race apart in Grant Park, Steph and I got together for dinner with a group of runners and bloggers alike.  I had warned her ahead of time.  “You know those conversations that I’ll have with Otter or Marla about running where everyone else tunes out?  That’s going to be this entire dinner, all of it.”  Appropriately cautioned, we made it to the South Loop Gino’s East, where we met up with RunFactory Jeff, Zombiephile Glenn, Brew Crew Otter, Scott and Edna (the latter of whom, while cool people, I met at that dinner, so I can’t give them any relevant nicknames).  Glenn talked about his struggles in the middle miles of the race; Jeff begrudged the Achilles pains that kept him from running under 3 hours; Otter carped about the ascetic lowlifes that complained about his Hash House Harriers Beer Station at mile 23, forcing them to shut it down.  But they also talked about the amazing crowd support, the remarkably diverse and electrifying performances in each neighborhood, and how great it felt to see familiar faces and strangers on the sidelines cheering with equal fervor.  It was a fun dinner over a few delicious pies and, believe it or not, the conversation didn’t entirely revolve about running.  War stories were exchanged, drinks happily consumed and half-promises of future races offered.

left to right: Scott, Glenn, Otter, Steph, me, Jeff, Edna

left to right: Scott, Glenn, Otter, Steph, me, Jeff, Edna

Dennis the Course Record Menace and Rita Jep-Too Fast To Catch

The last thing I did before bringing the “holiday” weekend to a close was watch the recording of the morning’s elite race.  My pre-race favorite Moses Mosop didn’t take the crown as I had predicted, finishing instead in 8th (2:11:19).  The top prize went to Kenyan Dennis Kimetto (2:03:45), who broke the course record, became the third fastest man in history and ran the fastest record-eligible marathon in the western hemisphere.  Perennial runner-up Emmanuel Mutai was just seven seconds behind him, making the 2013 Chicago Marathon the first record-eligible race ever to have two finishers under 2:04.  Meanwhile, on the women’s side, Rita Jeptoo took first and joined the elite sub-2:20 group of female marathoners with a 2:19:57 finish, redeeming herself from last year’s performance, where she lost to Atsede Baysa by less than a second.

I can’t wait until next year.