Church of Sunday Long Run

“I thought everyone’s parents ran.  I thought everyone got up and went to … the Church of Sunday Long Run.  That’s what my dad would call it.” ~ Shalane Flanagan, April 13, 2014, 60 Minutes interview

Not everyone was born to talented long-distance runners, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when Shalane learned that her weekly family tradition was unique, or even bizarre.  But when she said this during an interview with Anderson Cooper, it made me laugh and think.

Over the years, the Sunday Long Run has become more than a weekly run, it’s become a ritual.  Three out of four weekends of every month typically feature a run of 13 miles or longer.  It is simply a thing I do now, like going out on a Saturday or watching The League on Wednesdays.  So when she said those words, Church of Sunday Long Run, I realized with some consternation that perhaps I did belong to a religion (though outsiders may call it a cult).

Or as my wife so eloquently said, "Look at this dweeb."

Or as my wife so eloquently said, “Look at this dweeb.”

But every church or religion has to have its high holiday.  And that for me, without a doubt, is the second Sunday of October, when the city hosts the unrivaled Chicago Marathon.  That wonderful day is like Christmas to me, a magical time of year when extended family descends on Chicago for a weekend of big meals, shopping and fond reflection.  The city teems with people from all over the world with flags proudly draped over their shoulders.  Reservations at Italian restaurants are impossible to get, the Magnificent Mile enjoys rising revenues and all around are eager, nervous faces ready to run and get to know the Windy City.

I haven’t run the Chicago Marathon since 2011, but I’ve always been in town for the celebration.  Every year I have a blast seeing the multicultural hordes on the trains, cheering for each runner who puts their name or country on their shirt, and hosting the ceremonial Deep Dish meal after the race is done and the city shines with the glint of swinging medals.   

For the last two years, I have escorted people to my favorite spectator spots in hope of seeing their significant other’s first ever attempt at 26.2 miles.  But this year, I was given no such duty, so I visited the course with Otter to see the elite race play out in four different spots.

We watched the East African lead pack rocket up LaSalle Boulevard around mile 4, gliding past us almost effortlessly.  They ran easily, lightly on their feet.  You could be forgiven for thinking they were barely trying.  They ran alone, with the next cluster of runners a block away.  Tucked in the middle was Kenenisa Bekele, already a legend in the running world, wearing the coveted #1 bib, as defending champion Dennis Kimetto had chosen to run Berlin instead, where he ran a gobsmacking world record.  Around him were the other top stars, Eliud Kipchoge and Sammy Kitwara, accomplished runners in their own right competing for their first World Marathon Major victory.

They continued their blistering pace down Wells Street at mile 11.  Wesley Korir, the 2012 Boston Marathon champion and 5-time Chicago finisher, had dropped from the lead pack but stayed close to the leaders.  His full-time job as a member of Kenya’s parliament had surely taken a toll on his training, but that wasn’t stopping him from running a world-class time.

Mile 2

Mile 2

By the time the elites had reached mile 21.5 in Chinatown, we were down to an aggressive lead pack of three Kenyans.  Kipchoge, Kitwara and 2014 Tokyo Marathon champion Dickson Chumba led the race, having recently dropped Bekele.  The Ethiopian great was not far behind, but at this stage in the race, it was all but guaranteed that he was not going to make the podium despite his impressive track credentials.

We reached our last spectator spot at the base of “Mount Roosevelt,” the only significant hill in the entire race, sadistically located at mile 25.9, just in time to see the winner.  By the time the pace car arrived, there was just one man running behind it –  Eliud Kipchoge, donning a neon yellow singlet, hammering out a celeritous pace, chasing his 2:04:05 PR from last year’s Berlin Marathon.

About twenty minutes behind him was the female leader, Rita Jeptoo, who went on to win her second consecutive Chicago Marathon and fourth straight World Marathon Major.  If she wasn’t already the #1 female marathoner in the world, then there’s no doubt about it now.  Just a few minutes behind her was top American Amy  Hastings, who equaled her personal best of 2:27.  I would have followed the female elites more closely but it would have prevented us from seeing the male competition at every spot.

By finishing in 2:04:11, Kipchoge ended up missing both the course record and his personal best, but nonetheless gave Chicago a brilliant performance.  Not only was it the third fastest time ever run in Chicago and the Western hemisphere on a record-eligible course, but he did it all smiles.  And why wouldn’t he?  This is the best race in the world.  It has a pancake-flat course, thousands upon thousands of eager spectators, twenty-nine distinct neighborhoods, and an incredibly deep elite field that always put on a real race.  Oh, and the weather has been absolutely perfect for the last three years.  Seriously, I should demand that race director Carey Pinkowski pay me not to run, because it basically guarantees ideal conditions.

I already know that I won’t be running the 2015 Chicago Marathon (you’re welcome, everyone) for the same reasons that I haven’t run it the last three years: there are other states to conquer.  By running Chicago, I am essentially not running a host of other races that could help me reach my goal.  And yes, the lottery system is also a huge bummer, but at least I don’t have to deal with hometown rejection for another couple of years.  As Mike said, the London, Berlin and Tokyo marathons will provide that in spades over the next decade.

But that doesn’t mean that I won’t relish the day when it arrives yet again next October.  I will be there, along with all the other acolytes of the Church of Sunday Long Run, cheering happily with a hint of vicarious envy, for the world’s fastest runners and the 40,000 athletes behind them.

Congratulations to every proud finisher!

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

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

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

This marked the first time I saw the sun all weekend

This marked the first time I saw the sun all weekend

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

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

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

Mile 4, by the sea

Mile 4, by the sea

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

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

Denial

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

Anger

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

Bargaining

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

Depression

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

Acceptance

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

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

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

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

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

Lobster Roll at Sebago Brewpub

Lobster Roll at Sebago Brewpub

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onwards.

Marathon_Map 053 (ME)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aw hell yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

You know it’s sad, but true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onwards!

State 40: Wyoming (2014 Bighorn Trail 50k)

Otter, Jay and I waited for the start of the race under a cloudless sky. The mountains of Wyoming stretched out infinitely ahead of us, with little indication as to where exactly the Bighorn Wild and Scenic Trail Run 50k would take us. Marla would be here an hour later to tackle the race’s 30k. A steep ascent over a red dirt trail loomed ominously ahead of us. After asking a few friendly strangers, we learned that we’d be tackling that wall before anything else.  As I looked past the giant hill and the unknown challenges to come, I had still not shaken the insouciant confidence that would eventually doom me during this race.

(left to right): Otter, Marla, Jay, me

(left to right): Otter, Marla, Jay, me

“I don’t think I’m properly nervous for this,” I had told Otter two weeks prior. “Yeah, it’s a trail race; I’ll just take it easy. I’ll be fine. Very little trepidation, which is worrying me.”

“I reckon you’ll be fine,” he said reassuringly, but the enigmatic “haha” he issued beforehand wasn’t so comforting. I would later learn that he was appropriately aware of the punishment to come and had prepared with much more diligence. He had run the Kettle Moraine 50k two weeks prior to haze himself into trail shape and had fastidiously studied the Bighorn course maps like a sailor attempting to navigate the Straits of Magellan. As race day approached, he asked me more than once if I was ready to run the hardest race of my life.

I should have listened to him much earlier.

2014 Bighorn Wild & Scenic Trail 50k Google Earth Rendering of the First 14 miles

2014 Bighorn Wild & Scenic Trail 50k Google Earth Rendering of the First 14 miles

For though the first four miles were beautiful testaments to the natural high of trail running, I very quickly found myself in the depths of perdition. I could write pages about the distant snow-capped mountains holding onto the last patches of a brutal winter, or the white and purple wildflowers seasoned throughout sylvan clearings. But those moments of beauty and transcendence were like the sweet cherry on top of a cake made of lead and dirt.

Mile 0

Mile 0

By the fifth mile we had stopped climbing and there were no more easy rolling hills. Instead, the path all but disappeared into a precipitous drop, the steepest I had ever run. It was like shimmying down a black diamond ski slope but with loose dirt and rocks to slow you down. I watched as experienced trail runners marched downward confidently while I took each step carefully, knowing very well that lost balance would lead to a treacherous fall. I hammered my legs on the slope like a typewriter, stomping down with little ease, speed or grace. It wasn’t long before my quads began to ache.

Five miles in, I thought, and already my quads are shot. This race is going to suck.

That last sentence I may have said out loud. The woods responded quietly, indifferently.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Despite ramping up my mileage considerably in April and May, which included running almost 40 race miles in one weekend, I had done absolutely no hill workouts beyond whatever hills happened to crop up during races. I had done no strength training, hadn’t done any stairs or even completed a mile on a bike. It was a case of pure hubris, of a haughty runner who prematurely thought he had perfected endurance and become master of his body.

What an idiot.

Mile 3 - Delightful, flat terrain

Mile 3 – Delightful, flat terrain

The first real aid station welcomed me at mile 8 with the smell of crackling bacon. Though appetizing, I took the time to stop running and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a few ruffled potato chips instead. Runners that had passed me long ago were still there, mingling and enjoying the camaraderie and breathtaking scenery all around us. I capitalized on my quads no longer hurting by quickly refilling my pack with water and continuing the race.

The next six miles were a gradual uphill. I looked up at the road ahead and very high above, I saw the reflective glints of several vans and cars. It was the next aid station, the start of the race, and the end of our 20k loop. I wished I hadn’t seen it because it looked so impossibly far away. Have you ever walked toward a distant beacon, and been completely aware as you walk that it is not getting perceptibly closer? I liken it to walking in a city toward a skyscraper. If you look at it for even five minutes, it doesn’t seem to get any nearer.

That’s how I felt for about an hour.

Mile 11 - If you click and zoom in, you can see the reflection off the vans.

Mile 11 – If you click and zoom in, you can see the reflection off the vans.

I kept climbing, alternating an efficient shuffle with power hiking, pushing dirt behind me to the tune of labored breathing, but every time I’d look up, the camp was still a day’s hike away. Six miles is an eternity when the end is always in sight. There was a silver lining in all of this though. By this point I had noticed that running slightly uphill was not painful at all but surprisingly easy because it didn’t require that I slam my quads down. Perhaps I’d be able to put that downhill battering behind me.

Mile 16-17 - The climb continues

Mile 16-17 – The climb continues

Finally at the aid station, after a lot of hiking, I took a little break. I downed some grapes, a cup of chicken broth and another handful of chips. The climb wasn’t over, there would be another mile of it, but at least I had reached somewhere. The rest of the race would be a point-to-point winding path ending in Dayton, Wyoming, where we had parked our car about five hours prior. The next six miles were beautiful and easy. I locked in step with a female runner ahead of me and scampered over dirt, flowers and the occasional stream. I was tired but the downhill pains weren’t too bad, allowing me to cover much distance with few grimaces.

And then it all went to hell at Horse Creek Ridge.

Perhaps I should have learned that those early aid stations were there not intended to just replenish your energy stores, but also to prepare you for an incoming gauntlet of pain. Just past that third aid station, where I filled up on fruits, I reached a creek. I walked shakily over the makeshift log bridge, steadying myself with a thin rope. A thin dirt trail snaked over the thick grass ahead. I could see several runners ahead hiking the path, which cut to the right, behind a group of trees and out of sight.

Mile 19 - This was right before the Haul.  I couldn't take the camera out for the actual climb because it was too steep.

Mile 19 – This was right before the Haul. I couldn’t take the camera out for the actual climb because it was too steep.

Those trees, I would soon discover, were hiding a mountain. A short, but almost vertical mountain that the organizers call “the Haul.” No one ahead of me was running or even power-hiking this section. Everyone was pulling themselves upward, with their arms either resting on their hips or pushing off their legs. I don’t think my heels ever touched the dirt during this climb. A desire to rest taught me a harsh lesson: don’t stop. A break in the rhythm sent a flood of pain into my legs. I would have stiffened up completely and possibly fallen backward had I not snapped myself back into upward motion.

Heave, gasp, heave, gasp.

Once at the top of Horse Creek Ridge, something changed. The climb had sapped every last bit of strength I had, conspiring with the thin air at 8,000 feet to rob me of all remaining vitality. Every step from that point was painful, every single one. To make matters worse, the Tongue River Canyon opened up below me, interminably downhill. And there were 12 miles left to run. All downhill.

It wasn’t the race that changed – it was still the same brutal, unfeeling and uncaring event that I had found and decided to run. It continued to deny me any respite from the ever-growing acid in my quads or burning in my lungs. The mountains wouldn’t rearrange themselves and the path had no intention to suddenly pave itself to make way for someone who didn’t treat the distance with the proper respect. But even with this harsh lesson learned, and with every positive mantra I could muster at the time, I couldn’t help but slump.

Mile 20 - It would be all downhill from here.  Painfully, agonizingly downhill.

Mile 20 – It would be all downhill from here. Painfully, agonizingly downhill.

A runner’s quiver is full of motivational tools and positive thoughts. You have to overcome the bodily pain and ignore the struggle to get to the finish. I’d like to say that I overcame the challenges and stomped through the brick walls separating me from the finish. But that’d be a lie. In the moment, as it happened, I was not enjoying myself and really, desperately, wanted this race to end. Had there been a drop station, I am afraid to say that I would have seriously considered it.

The Tongue River Canyon was a gorgeous expanse of greens, lavenders, and yellows. Wild grass exploded out of the ground in enormous tufts, trees covered the exposed layers of rock in distant mountains like ancient mildew. It was truly a magnificent part of the country, the perfect place to embody the very reason why trail running is fun and in some cases, spiritual. But in the moment, as it happened, no part of me was enjoying it.

I winced with every step I took. If my quads weren’t searing in pain, then my toes were being bludgeoned against the front of my shoe. I did this for about four miles, stopping only to let faster runners zip by me. This was eternity, captured in an agonizing, yet beautiful stretch of slowed time. Each individual step did nothing to bring the mountains closer, but somehow, because each one had to lead me somewhere, I made progress. I was eventually thrilled to hear the heavenly sound of the Tongue River roaring through the canyon. I had reached the bottom.

Mile 23-24 -- In the middle of Tongue River Canyon

Mile 23-24 — In the middle of Tongue River Canyon

Replying to the young volunteer who offered to refill my water bottle and pack was a struggle. Whenever I spoke, I could hear my voice echoed in my head, as if a fishbowl were surrounding it, which threw off my balance and concentration. I tried to equalize my ears by cracking my jaw around but that didn’t help. Instead, I ate a handful of grapes, clipped my pack around my chest, strapped the bottle to my hand, and kept shuffling onwards with the worst of the race behind me. What lay ahead was a slow, defeated march.

Now almost completely flat, the course had spilled out of its single-track, rocky confines and onto a wide, two-lane dirt road. Cars and locals on bikes would show up on occasion, but I had no leftover energy to say hi or even look at them. The sun, a fixture of the day, had hidden behind large storm clouds, allowing for longer bursts of running (though my definition of “running” during these last five miles left a lot to be desired). Normally in a long race, I laugh at the idea of being just four miles away from the finish line. On that soon-to-be-rainy Saturday, though, that felt like another exercise in forever.

Mile 25 - Alongside the Tongue River, lots of uneven terrain

Mile 25 – Alongside the Tongue River, lots of uneven terrain

The race was no longer divided into sections of ups and downs, but instead a single stretch of road that went on and on. Aside from one aid station and the advent of storm clouds, there was little I noticed. On occasion, runners would pass me, some of them on their way to a fifty-mile finish. One runner strode by me with a pacer, and another pulled ahead with trekking poles. I felt pathetic by comparison. These guys were most likely finishing Bighorn’s 100-mile race, which had started the day before, and here I was, sputtering like a lemon after running under a third of that distance.

I crossed a bridge and made it to the tiny city of Dayton. Under normal circumstances, Dayton is a city that you’ll miss if you blink and barely registers on a map unless you’re viewing it with a microscope. But as my feet hit pavement, it became a bastion of civilization, the Emerald City, Roland’s Dark Tower and Mount Doom all in one. I had never been so happy for a race to be over, and I could practically smell the finish line over the scent of my own disgusting state.

I entered Scott Bicentennial Park, a recreational area next to the river with a baseball diamond, playgrounds and picnic tables. There were crowds gathered, cheering for each new haggard face. I heard Marla yelling my name but from both exhaustion and perhaps shame, I couldn’t turn my head to look for her. I simply threw a brittle index finger in the air and kept running, possibly signaling the number of minutes I could tolerate before collapsing. I saw Jay directly ahead of me in his green rain jacket, having finished almost two hours prior. He made an arching motion with his thumb, pointing to the finish line.

Mile 27 - No more climbing or descending, just flat road.

Mile 27 – No more climbing or descending, just flat road.

I could have finished this race happy. I could tell you that I found a deep well of wisdom in that last mile and siphoned out a reason to smile. But I did neither of those things. I dragged myself under the finishing banner and had just enough self-awareness left to turn off my Garmin, which read just under seven and a half hours. I could have forced a smile then, but my ego was too bruised. Over the years I’ve tried to cultivate an image of a runner with perseverance and strength, an image of someone constantly facing huge challenges with a cool confidence. Every time someone calls me crazy for the amount I run, I soak it in as a deserved compliment.

But fifty kilometers over the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming had taken that sturdy effigy and dragged it through the dirt. All the years I had spent becoming a competitive runner seemed to mean absolutely nothing anymore. I didn’t feel good having completed this run in what I considered a disgraceful way. It wasn’t the result itself that stung me, but the fact that I came face to face with a lesson I didn’t think I’d have to re-learn:

Train.

It’s such a stupid thing to have to tell someone, let alone someone like me who has done these things before. The mountains don’t care about your road half marathon PR, or what your most recent 5K time was. The thin air beyond 8,000 feet won’t cut you any slack if you don’t change your training routine to face it. Rocky soil and uneven dirt paths won’t catch you if every mile you log is on a perfectly groomed city path.

Mile 29 -- Why won't this end?

Mile 29 — Why won’t this end?

And I knew these things. I knew all of them. But I had the arrogance to think that I had reached an echelon of fitness where I was somehow exempt from all of them. Though I was lucky to leave this race without injury, I paid dearly for that attitude and couldn’t quite feel proud. Looking later at a map, the distance we had covered looked absolutely dizzying from above. How could I have taken such a blasé approach to it? Was it symptomatic of runners’ general overconfidence towards health? Was I not cut out for ultra distances?

I struggled with these questions as I lay on the cool grass, trying to fix the hollowness I felt in my head. Experience and training were everything.  Jay had run a 50k PR and didn’t seem the least bit shattered by the experience, while Marla, who had moved to Colorado just three months ago, had run the 30k distance, saying it was the toughest race of her life. Otter crossed the finish line not long after me, looking like a kid busting through the gates at a theme park. He was talking like an auctioneer, rattling off his race experience to all of us at an electrifying pace. Though his body was certainly pretty beat, his attitude could have probably turned around and done the whole thing again.

Finishers!  And I look like a madman!

Finishers! And I look like a madman!

Now that I’ve had time to recover from the experience, a deranged part of me is looking forward to the next intense, body-mangling experience. As I writhed in pain on the damp Dayton grass, I swore I would never run another ultra, ever again. But that promise was tainted by a poor performance, begot by being a pompous idiot. It didn’t have to be this way. It will be different next time.  Next time, I won’t be an idiot.  Next time, my plan will be smart and simple, summarized by one word that means both the steady improvement of the body through stress, and a sturdy, robust machine seemingly impossible to stop.

Train.

Forty states down – the final stretch has begun!

Marathon_Map 050 (WY)