Gold Rush: 2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon

Legend tells of a rich gold mine, hidden deep in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona.  Supposedly discovered by Jacob Waltz in the mid-1800s, it is rumored to be full of Apache gold and many people have gone in search of the famous mine, but none have found it.  Several of these explorers, including treasure hunter Adolph Ruth, have paid the ultimate price for their curiosity.  What everyone soon learns is that the tale and location of the mine itself have changed so much over the years, that it’s almost a myth that people tell around campfires.

0215_lostdutchman 07It was around these campfires in the shadow of mountains and cacti that I found myself on a cool Sunday morning.  The organizers of the Lost Dutchman Marathon had arranged various starter logs in a grid with blankets on either side and runners were huddled around each one, keeping warm and exchanging stories of their own lost mines.  I sat with Nolan, a friend from middle school, and three people we had just met around the crackling flames.  There was Carl, a scraggly ultra runner in a button-up shirt whose running resume included 100ks and 100-milers but oddly only one marathon; Angela, a svelte blonde who had run a 50k the day before and was training for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run; and Laura, who was wrapped a Mylar blanket and ready to run her 107th marathon.  I later learned that she holds the record as the youngest woman to run a marathon in all 50 states and is the youngest member of the 100 Marathon Club. 

In such esteemed company, my own running exploits were amateur at best.

Mile 0 - On the Peralta trail, ready to go

Mile 0 – On the Peralta trail, ready to go

Neither Nolan nor I had time goals, so we decided to attack the race conservatively.  I had only finished one long run since November and he was equally unprepared.  In fact, he had only started training for the marathon three weeks prior.  But that didn’t quell our enthusiasm, so we ran the first 10k of the race at a comfortable, conversational pace, even agreeing on the specific pace we wanted.

(left to right): me, Nolan, competing for biggest goon

(left to right): me, Nolan, competing for biggest goon

The race started just a few feet away from the campfires and wound through the Peralta Trail, a meandering crushed dirt and stone path about two lanes wide.  For six miles, our feet felt the raw crunch of loose dirt, the path beneath us lined with cacti and gorgeous views of the red Superstition Mountains.  Unfortunately, so early in the race, we were experiencing its most scenic views.  Once we left the serpentine Peralta Trail, we alternated between running on the shoulder of Highway 60 or through various neighborhoods. 

While I’ve always been partial to desert races and the Santa Fe architectural style, this part of the race wasn’t very special.  I told Nolan more than once that if none of these neighborhoods existed, or if the paved asphalt were replaced with an unkempt dirt path, this race would be almost magical.  It didn’t help that for much of this section, we were relegated to running in single file because the cones separating us from traffic were practically leaning off the road.  Passing runners meant either invading a lane with open vehicular traffic or going off-road and kicking up scree.

Mile 2 - The cactus gates beckon

Mile 2 – The cactus gates beckon

We continued the race with even splits, reeling in runners and slowly passing them.  I was wearing a tech shirt with the Superman logo emblazoned on it, which meant a reliable series of “Go Superman!” at every aid station.  I made a few quips about how my paper cup of lemon-lime Gatorade looked like kryptonite, much to the amusement of the old ladies who handed it to me.  Around halfway, we were met with several uphills, which he climbed with exuberance while I quietly groaned.  He lives and trains in Atlanta, so he was far more used to elevation change than this Chicago resident.

Mile 7 - Back to paved roads

Mile 7 – Back to paved roads

“Thank god for these clouds,” he said, more than once.  Though it was a bit warmer than southern Arizona typically gets in February, a vast blanket of clouds had covered the sun for most of the morning.  That meant we were barely sweating, ticking off the miles at a manageable pace.  However, we were fast approaching the 16th mile, that dreaded marker that heralded the farthest we had run in preparation for this race.

We held on but the early signs of fatigue were plain.  Sometime around mile 18, Nolan said he was starting to get in the weeds.  Undeterred, I kept the pace, pulling him with me.  We weren’t shoulder to shoulder anymore, but I could hear him behind me, listening to either an NPR podcast or crude hip-hop.  But shortly after, as we ran through a terra cotta subdivision in the race’s only out-and-back section, I stopped hearing the plod of his footsteps behind me.  I took a quick picture break and he caught up, just in time for a downhill.

“After this downhill, we’ll be back on target pace,” I yelled over my shoulder.
“It’s all you man, just go ahead,” he replied.

Mile 15 - There's gold in these hills

Mile 15 – There’s gold in these hills

And so I did.  Aided by the slight downhill, I turned on the afterburners.  I left marathoners behind me as my breathing picked up and I chased the burnt orange horizon.  I knew I was relying far too much on muscle memory, but things were going better than expected and it felt great to pump my arms.  But with so few people running the marathon, I soon found myself with no one to chase.  And then at mile 22, the clouds were banished and the sun came out to lick the landscape.

Just like that, I couldn’t keep up the pace.  The sun weighed on me, like an iron pushing down on my back, and I began to lose steam.  Aid stations became walking breaks and I began to pour water down my back to keep cool.  The long stretches of road felt interminable, with each new block looking exactly like the one before, as if I were running in circles.  I wasn’t alone in my slowdown, as nobody was passing me.  In fact, no one was even around, ahead or behind.  It was just me, the road, and the sun.

Mile 19 - Blocky, Santa Fe houses in the background

Mile 19 – Running through neighborhoods

I reached mile 24 to behold a cartoonish gateway made to look like a brick wall.  It was supposed to symbolize runners breaking through that demoralizing moment in most long-distance races where you lose all energy and everything hurts.  Honestly, I think it was a little late, as I had been sputtering for a good two miles by then.  And so late in the race, this quirky monument was more of a taunt than a motivator.  But if it seemed like all hope of finishing strong had died like the embers of a campfire, it was rekindled just eight minutes later.

Right at mile 25, I stopped at an aid station for my last swig of Gatorade.  During this break, two marathoners passed me.  One was a tall gentleman in a neon yellow RunLab singlet, the other a young brunette in a turquoise Ragnar t-shirt.  They seemed to be running the same pace, but I didn’t know if they were running together.  But the mere fact that they had been the only people to pass me lit a fire under my feet and I gave chase.

Mile 24 - The "wall"

Mile 24 – The “wall”

There was one tiny hill left to crest before we cut off the main road and toward the Rodeo Grounds where the finish line awaited us.  I kept RunLab and Ragnar in my sights, the three of us passing other marathoners and walkers.  The sun continued to burn us and the open desert provided no relief.  But we continued, my pace only slightly faster than theirs as I brought them closer and closer.  The next burst of speed was imminent until I heard a familiar voice from the side of the road.

“Vamos ticos!”

Ha, I thought.  That guy looks a lot like uncle Jim.  Wait, what the hell, that is Jim.  And Scott.  Huh?

“What in the hell?” I yelled with a smile as I high-fived them.  “What are you guys doing here?”
“We ran the half,” Jim said.  “Stephanie told us you were here this morning.”
“Nope!” I said, continuing to the finish, “You can’t be real, I must be hallucinating!”

Finish - Nolan (right) crosses the timing mats with Carl (left)

Finish – Nolan (right) crosses the timing mats with the dapper Carl (left)

My first thought, which is perhaps a bit narcissistic, was that they were here to surprise me.  But it turns out it was just a crazy coincidence, made possible because we had all kept mum about our race schedules.  The half marathon was an out-and-back with a different start than the marathon, so there was no way to have seen them earlier.  I would have dwelled a little more on the likelihood, but I had prey to catch.

We turned into the Rodeo Grounds and saw the finishing banner in the distance.  Crowds had lined up against the barricades, like the dusty citizens of a small western town, ready to watch a duel at high noon.  By now I was within striking distance of RunLab and Ragnar.  All of our paces had picked up and we were aggressively running through the finishing chute.  I approached and squeezed between them, our shoulders just inches apart.

“Finish strong!” RunLab said to his friend.  “Don’t let this guy pass you!”

2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon Finisher's Medal

2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon Finisher’s Medal

Bad move, RunLab.  If you wanted “this guy” to run faster, that’s exactly what you had to say.  As Ragnar visibly picked up the pace to try and match mine, I let loose and stormed toward the finish line.  I rarely have a final kick in marathons, but this duel had given me a reason to surge.  Nobody passes me in the second half of a race, nobody.  Crossing the finishing mats in 3:41, I hobbled over to the metal barricades where I met up with Jim and Scott.  They each had great race experiences, with Scott notching a new PR and Jim finishing his first big race since recovering from two significant injuries last year.  It’s been a long, slow recovery for him, so the smile he boasted all day was much deserved.

Ten minutes later, Nolan crossed the finish line shoulder to shoulder with Carl.  He looked beat.  A thin layer of salt had dried on his face and his glazed eyes were fixated downward.  I knew that expression, so I avoided giving him a congratulatory slap on the back or inundating him with questions.  After walking it off and finding a patch of grass in the shade, he was back to his pre-race self.

I really appreciate that Nolan has now joined me in four out of fifty states.  I just wish I hadn’t dragged him to three unremarkable cities.  In 2012 we went to Birmingham and later Tulsa, and this weekend we spent time in a climate that reminded him all too much of a time in his life that he’d rather forget.  However, despite that, we had a great time chasing Jacob Waltz’s lost mine, reminiscing about really old times, and discussing the shadiness of local Atlanta dealings while playing a round of mini-golf.

(left to right) Scott, Jim, me, Nolan

(left to right) Scott, Jim, me, Nolan

Turns out all the fast people were in their 20s and 30s.  Surprise FIRST PLACE in M30-34!

Turns out all the fast people were in their 20s and 40s. Surprise FIRST PLACE in M30-34!

As for Jim and Scott, it was decided that we should keep closer tabs on our race schedules, though they’ve already kindly abstained from joining me in my next potential state, the sexy and alluring North Dakota.  Much further down the road though, it seems like they have a date with Berlin.  With any luck – and plenty of peer pressure – we may see Scott make the transition to 26.2 miles.  He’s been getting too comfortable with the half, which spells doom for any intentions of avoiding the full beast.

With Arizona now shaded in red, I’ve reached a new milestone: 25 marathon states.  And just like that, I’m halfway done with an undertaking I never thought possible.  Even when I came up with the project of running a half in all 50 states, when I was already logging hundreds of miles with relish, I wouldn’t have dreamed of pursuing a 50-states marathon quest.  But here I am, halfway there.  And the best part is, despite those painful miles where everything aches and you can feel your vitality escape with each hot breath, I’m still loving it.


Marathon_Map 055 (AZ)

State 8: Arizona (2010 Damascus Bakeries Tucson Half Marathon)

It doesn’t take much to convince Jason Velkavrh to race.  Over the last two years, we’ve run fourteen of the same races with the most recent of which, thanks to Velk’s increase in training, were actual competitive endeavors.  In early November of this year, we finished the Hot Chocolate 15k within 30 seconds of each other at a very fast pace.  Afterward, over some beers at Finn McCool’s, we decided that if we were to train hard in the winter and find a chilly half marathon, we’d destroy our PR’s for sure.  After some internet research, we found that the Tucson Half Marathon was not only run in 40’s temperatures and a dry, desert climate, but also on a mostly downhill course.  So we went for it.

Tom Hines, ladies and gentlemen

After getting into Tucson via Houston, we settled in at a Sheraton on Grant Road using his vast horde of Starwood points.  The next day, we went to the Hilton El Conquistador to pick up our race packets, which had a disappointing cotton shirt but a surprising pair of wicking socks, a few vendors and little else.  While Tom Hines drove down from Tempe, Jason and I ventured into an Italian restaurant and continued our extreme carbo-loading regimen by eating what felt like an entire loaf of garlic bread.  Shortly thereafter, we met up with a very bearded Tom a few blocks away and drove to Fantasy Island, which was not a sex motel as the name suggested.  Instead, it was a series of desert trails, perfect for off-road biking.  After a brief stroll through cactus fields, we hopped back into the car and drove 7,000 feet up the Catalina Mountains, which was spectacular.

This was my first time in any desert climate, so the rising mounts of orange and brown were truly breathtaking.  We eventually made it to Ski Valley, stepped outside into the chilly air, took very deep breaths, and drove back into town.  That night we went out for a sushi dinner before calling it a night.

We were up at 4 AM sharp and out the door by 4:40.  We parked at Canyon del Oro High School and boarded a bus to the start line.  Along the way, we noticed that the shoulder of the highway was lined with traffic cones and that’s when we realized we were driving on the actual race course.  The bus eventually dropped us off on Biosphere road, though you would never have known that because it was still pitch black outside and the only lights came from two spotlights powered by generators, a cluster of heat lamps and the stars above.  With temperatures in the low 40’s and a breeze cutting over the mountains, runners were huddled together like emperor penguins around the heatlamps, conserving as much heat as possible before darting down the desert highway.  Had the speakers not been blaring 80’s power anthems, I would have sworn we had boarded the wrong bus.  There were no large banners with the name of the race, no signage, no tents – just hundreds of shivering runners waiting for 7 AM.

After hearing an a cappella rendition of the national anthem, the race organizers began the event.  I don’t know how this happened, but I remember waiting in the tiny start corral in pitch darkness … and then running in daylight.  The change was that dramatic.  The first hundred yards would set the pace for the rest of the race and that pace was fast.  Given that my half marathon PR was a 7:31 pace, I decided earlier that I would run the first half at 7:30 and then kick it into overdrive in the second half at a 7:10 pace.  But there was one snag to that operation: Jason.  He started running fast, really fast.  I caught up to him and informed him that our first split was a 6:56, hoping he’d slow down.  But he didn’t.  At that point, much like it did at the Hot Chocolate 15k, hubris took over.  As we continued the gradual downhill run, our splits stayed consistent and fast – 6:50, 7:04, 6:44.  Jason wasn’t slowing down.  Since I stop to walk at water stations (he doesn’t) I started falling slightly behind.  I kept up an unhelpful mantra, telling myself that we were going much too fast and that this pace was far from sustainable.  I was running a 10k pace, so how could I possibly keep it up for over twice that distance?  I could feel it in my breathing, but fortunately not in my stride.

I kept running at that unreasonable pace and receding into the distance, so did Jason.  My ever mounting concern about an inevitable 9th mile bonk aside, I managed to take in the scenery around me.  The sun was rising slowly over the Santa Catalina Mountains to my left, giving me an impressive 30 foot shadow that stretched over the highway and into the cactus fields.  I was expecting the heat to climb at this point, but never did I feel remotely warm.  I was definitely sweating – but the morning chill stayed with me.  As I approached mile 9, the gap between Jason and me had narrowed to only a few seconds but with a split of 6:56, the pace had stayed the same.  We crossed mile 10 in just over 1:09 and continued downhill.  For the first time, I was leading and it was looking like finishing with a sub-7-minute pace was possible …

I didn't take pictures of the race course, but this is desert and downhill, so it's the closest I have.

… until we hit mile 11.  Up until this point, the majority of the race had been run on North Oracle Road, a thin desert highway that runs southwest towards the city.  At mile 11, runners turn left onto East Hawser Street, a mile from a residential neighborhood and two from the finish.  We had seen the elevation chart earlier and knew that there was a slight incline around this part but hadn’t expected the sudden rise that it really was.  Under normal conditions, it wasn’t much of a hill.  But since our legs had been doing less work for more speed for over an hour, it felt torturous.  After slogging up to the top, we picked it back up slightly and dashed past subdivisions towards Coronado Middle School and the finish line.  Crossing the finish line in 1:32:06 was a personal best by over six and a half minutes.  Jason, however, improved his record by over ten and a half minutes by finishing in 1:33:37.  We collected our medals, stocked up on free food and took a bus back to our car.

For the next hour we would incredulously reflect on our superhuman accomplishments.  We tried hard not to fool ourselves.  It was obvious that the 1,000-ft descent was 90% responsible for our blazing times, the remaining 10% due to absolutely perfect conditions.  Temperatures were in the upper 40’s, humidity in the low 50’s (surprisingly) and winds at our backs.  But still, our impressive times were now in the books and the trip’s overall goal accomplished – not just to secure a PR, but to obliterate our PR’s.  With a time that I would not consider remotely possible on a regular course, I came home happy and proud.