Shore Footed: 2017 New Jersey Marathon (State #47)

It’s hard to PR these days.

New Jersey Marathon Starting Line

They say that you reach your peak after seven years of running. While I can’t name with any due certainty who “they” are, there seems to be widespread agreement on this theory. Something potentially stalls after seven years of consistent training and a self-propelled drive to improve. It could be aging, burnout, or the ignition of a very specific gene that targets your VO2 max with surgical precision. Regardless, this theory exists and as someone who is still very much on board with running and improving my times, I refuse to succumb to it.

But despite the inspirational aphorisms to the contrary, running is very much a physical activity. After this much time, running through my late 20s and early 30s, what many scientists and laypeople alike would consider the tail end of someone’s athletic prime, my best times become harder and harder to best. So when I decided to re-focus my training in 2017 to once again try and qualify for Boston, I knew I had to do something new, something different, something that those familiar with my training habits would consider radical.

I joined a running group.

Thanks to Fleet Feet Chicago’s Boston365 running group, I honed my speed like I never had before. We would gather on Wednesday nights in the parking lot of Lincoln Park Zoo, rocketing through intervals in dense pelotons, and reconvene in the hilly suburb of Barrington on Saturday mornings for long runs. As the weeks went on, I expanded my comfort level with explosive speed, setting an aggressive PR at the 8k distance in late March. But I wasn’t quite enjoying the same surge in improvement with long runs.

Everyone in the group was training either for the Boston Marathon or another race held shortly after. I had chosen the New Jersey Marathon in Oceanport as my spring race, the event that was going to bear the brunt of all my training. It not only takes place in a state I have yet to run, but I quickly learned that it is considered one of the flattest races in the country.

Smiling through mile 6

The race began on the grounds of a raceway in Long Branch, a few miles west of the coastal town of Oceanport. Shaking off my last minute nerves, I put on my sunglasses to block the eastward breeze keeping us cool. It was game time. I had put in four months of solid, uninterrupted training for this race, each of which broke that month’s mileage record. I had run 50% more miles leading up to his race than in the same time period before my standing marathon PR. I had masterfully eaten a reliable stream of carbs in the three days prior and hadn’t even sipped a beer in ten days.

So it was with great confidence that I knew literally anything was possible.

Anyone who has ever run a marathon will tell you that nothing is guaranteed. The distance is so long that it gives ample opportunity for anything to happen. If you start too fast in a 5k, you will probably only suffer for one mile, and even then the decay won’t be as pronounced. If you overdo it in a half marathon, you might not know it until mile 9. But over the course of 26.2, you could be riding high for 15 miles before you even get a hint that this glory chase is actually a fool’s errand.

Mile 20 at the Asbury Park Boardwalk

And that is mostly what happened to me. When you’re trying to qualify for Boston at my age, you have to run a marathon in about 3 hours, 8 minutes. That, therefore, requires that you pass the half marathon mark in about an hour and thirty-four minutes. Thanks to gray skies and a cooling sea breeze, I was able to confidently run the first half of this race about a minute slower. Many times during that first half, I evaluated my form, my breathing, my turnover, and cadence, feeling emboldened by how easy it felt to carry a 7:09 pace this far into a race.

Two miles later, I got the first indication that this wasn’t my day. As I ran through black asphalt ocean-side neighborhoods, I glanced at my watch and saw that my pace was ten seconds slower than my target pace. That would normally not be an issue were it not for the noticeable uptick in perceived effort. This early in the race, I knew there was no way I could keep up the pace. Had this slowdown happened after mile 23, I could dig deep into my grab-bag of clichés and save the day. But at mile 15 you’re not even past the psychological halfway mark.

Mile 24

I was therefore faced with that frustrating decision: do I keep going as fast as I can, whatever that pace may be, and dip my attitude into a vat of acid for the rest of the race, or force myself to slow down gradually, at my own pace, and still somehow enjoy the experience?

Salvaging the race and finishing with a semblance of a smile felt like the better option. I know what it’s like to snarl through the second half to finish with an unimpressive time. It shines a pool of light on the decision some elites make to simply drop out of a race around 30k rather than finish. If you’ve been training for months to murder your PR and you can tell this early that it’s not going to happen, what is the real reason to fight against the strain?

Mile 26.1, oceanside

The only real reason was simply because! Life is for the living! Leave it all on the field! Nut up or shut up! But you can’t make that decision until you’re actually running the race and can feel the blood pounding in your head and lungs, realizing that every mile will only get worse if you continue to resist the ever mounting weight in your legs. When you’ve run 36 marathons, you learn to take these days in stride, pun fully intended.

All of this is to say, I took it easy in the second half despite running smoothly through the race’s early miles. It seemed that my group runs had imbued me with great speed but not with the necessary endurance to keep it going. Moving forward I might try and break one of the foundational rules of long-distance training, and actually run some of my longer distances at race pace, rather than just the last few miles. My subpar performance in New Jersey (a 3:41 for those who care) hasn’t killed the quest to BQ, just delayed it until the fall.

Surprise race participants Chris (remember him?) and debut marathon slash birthday girl Melissa

As for the race itself, I really enjoyed it. It was easily one of the flattest courses I’ve ever run, especially the second half. What begins in tree-lined residential neighborhoods on wide roads eventually became a tour of New Jersey’s many seaside communities, from Long Branch to Asbury Park, Allenhurst, and Monmouth Beach.  Several miles were run on dew-soaked wooden planks, which felt elastic after seventeen miles of black asphalt. The smells of sea salt mixed with cotton candy as runners passed through each new community, the crowds lining the shore growing as the miles ticked up.

With state 47 behind me, I have just West Virginia, Alaska, and Hawaii to visit to bring my 50 states journey to a provisional close. In between now and then, I’m letting myself be lured down a new path, one with its own language, maps, and cultures, not only to explore uncharted terrain but to reignite the flame of athletic discovery and re-draw at further distances the lines that we call our limits.

Ever onwards.

All Hills & Fall Chills: 2016 Mad Marathon (State #44)

I signed up for the Mad Marathon in Vermont’s Mad River Valley because it’s one of those rare marathons that takes place in July. I assumed that with my summer training I would be able to handle a warm run in the northeast, and by coasting off my post-Ice Age fitness, I wouldn’t have to put in too much hard training. That said, once signed up, I got this message from Otter:

“haha enjoy the elevation change there [expletive deleted]”

(left to right) Aparna, Erin, Phil, Laura, me

(left to right) Aparna, Erin, Phil, Laura, me

He wasn’t kidding. Unlike many people in the marathon community, I didn’t know about the famous Mad Marathon hills until after my registration had processed. I don’t know if I would have chosen a different race had I known that there were three ski resorts within five miles of the starting line, but with a plane ticket also procured, there was no backing away.

Mile 1

Mile 1

When you live in Chicago, there aren’t many hills to be found. In order to get any sort of incline, you have to either leave the city or run up and down the same mound forty times in a row. In lieu of finding uneven terrain, some runners have suggested tackling urban parking lot ramps. Given the dangers present in running where drivers aren’t actively looking for pedestrians, I’ve kindly turned that proposal down. The treadmill also allows for serious climbing, but these days my love for that machine has swung fiercely back towards odium, so my options for strengthening my legs are severely limited.

That said, I made it to the starting line with a modicum of confidence. The sky was hidden behind a heavy layer of clouds and fog, which occasionally showered the valley’s deep green. A chilly breeze paraded down Waitsfield’s main street, making us all suspect we had slept through summer and woken up in mid-October. You could feel the excitement in the crowd, even with the chance of rain. Marathon veteran and race staple Larry Macon was huddled in a bright red, long-sleeved shirt among the 800 runners, waiting for race organizer Dori Ingalls’ pistol to fire. Once it did, we were treated to a rare, flat stretch of road, just enough to tease us.

Mile 3

Mile 3

After running past Waitsfield’s tiny Main Street, we turned right towards a covered bridge, which acted as a gateway to the race’s many climbs. For much of the race, we were always just a minute away from significant elevation change, surrounded on all sides by a dark green envelope, with an ever looming threat of gentle rain. Within the crowd was Laura, who had been there with me for four other states, and Erin, who had shared three completely different ones. Also in the mix were Phil and Aparna, two new friends who had joined the weekend adventure. I was the only one running the marathon distance, while Javier was still sleeping, proud to be the only non-runner.

Two miles into the race, as we reached the top of a dew-drenched hill, I was surrounded by heaving gasps. I couldn’t tell if these runners were able to continue another 11 or 24 miles on such labored breathing, or if they had all badly misjudged the elevation. My legs were already much heavier than usual, but my slow pace and quick steps were keeping my lungs from requiring more than a standard gulp of air. But if this gradual uphill continued, I wasn’t sure how much longer I’d be able to keep it together.

Mile 4

Mile 4

What went up soon came down. As someone with legs made for taking large, bounding steps, I let myself lean forward, meeting the downward slope with my toes, and barreled toward the next covered bridge with eagerness and celerity. It soon became clear that this race was going to be an extended fartlek run, where I would violently change from a measured and focused 10-minute jog to a reckless, arms-swinging 6-minute dash in seconds.

0710_madmarathon 10Along the way, I passed several sign posts with messages painted in thick red strokes. One said “Keep Running Cows R Watching” and another said “Ski If You Can’t Run.” A third pointed into the deep woods with the tempting, yet ominous words “Secret Shortcut” as if written by Br’er Fox, luring us into a trap.

With the race’s first big hill behind us, the next four miles were mostly flat, as we ran over local dirt roads dividing large stretches of farmland. Cows watched from above, while sheep and horses grazed happily across many bucolic fields of northeastern idyll. Cratered and ridged puddles splashed underneath as winds stirred the branches overhead. The race bills itself as ‘the world’s most beautiful marathon,’ as many races do, but in this moment, I was in awe of the sylvan wonderland surrounding me.

Once through with the flat reprieve, it was time to pass through our third covered bridge and begin the long climb upwards. This time, there would be no rewarding downhill on the other side. The course would instead make a left turn and continue its skyward path, totaling a length of about eight miles of near continuous uphill. Despite having walked almost every uphill section of my last race, I was determined to run through every last bit of this one. So I kept a forward tilt, shortened my stride, and tiptoed my way up, up, endlessly.

Mile 6, mercifully flat

Mile 6, mercifully flat

Somewhere along the way, my impossibly long streak of avoiding rain during races was delicately cut short. The occasional drizzle we had kept as a mercurial companion became an honest rain once we reached the race’s highest point around mile 17. Every tiny change in the road’s topography became a puddle or a rivulet, splashing beneath us as we let ourselves be pulled back down to the finish line.

The problem with running downhill this far into a race is that it still requires a lot of effort, despite gravity helping us out. The bottom of my feet had taken a beating during the last twenty miles, and downhill they hit the pavement harder. Once I would either get used to it or develop a tolerable rhythm, whenever the road would flatten, it would suddenly feel like I had doubled my weight. And when faced with another brutal hill around mile 23, well, I had to bid farewell to my pride and walk the damn thing.

Mile 11

Mile 11, the interminable uphill

But steadily onward I ran, watching the miles slowly tick off, silently wishing well the runners to my right, who were on the uphill portion of the race. At one point, I spotted an older runner with short, white hair and a jocular tone in his voice, talking happily with a small group of runners. I did a quick double-take. Had I not been so determined to continue running downhill without interruption, I would have stopped and said hi to Bart Yasso.

Mile 17, the downhill begins

Mile 17, the downhill begins

Instead, I continued downward, past familiar landmarks. At mile 24, a typical aid station had been upgraded with a beer station, where a young bespectacled man was serving a deliciously refreshing wheat ale from a cooler. Even if my watch weren’t telling me I was just a couple of miles from the finish, beer stations normally portend the final stretch. Just two more miles under the flitting, green canopy separated me from finishing my 44th state and 33rd marathon.

I reached the race’s fourth and final covered bridge, the same one we ran through just past the first mile marker. A friendly volunteer was stationed at the entrance, urging me to keep going. I felt like I was leaving an amusement park and she was an employee, thanking me for visiting, and to please exit through the gift shop. There was just one more mile and one more hill to crest.

Mile 23, the hill that broke my run

Mile 23, the hill that broke my run

After a short run through the small town of Waitsfield, now awake with spectators and cars, I turned into a green clearing. Twin rows of orange cones became parallel lines of flags, presumably representing the nationalities of the race’s runners, both leading to the finish line. The announcer pronounced my last name as if it rhymed with “cholera” and I stopped the clock at 3:42:19. Race organizer Doris was there, ready to give me a hug, just like she had for every single finisher before me. I was tempted to exempt her from it, given that I was a virtual sponge of sweat and rain. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. Thank you, Doris.

Mile 24 Beer Station

Mile 24 Beer Station

If you have never visited the Mad River Valley, I highly recommend it. While there, visit the similarly named Mad River Barn & Inn for a delectable squash bucatini and the Mad Taco for a variety of succulent tacos. If you’re lucky, both locations will have the famously rare and refreshing Heady Topper IPA, which should be on any beer enthusiast’s must-try list. Lastly, if you have the legs for it, sign up for the Mad Marathon and hope that, like me, you manage to wake up on race morning with an autumnal chill so that hills are the only wrenches thrown in your running gears.

But I wouldn’t have enjoyed these treats from the northeast at all were it not for the excellent company with whom they were shared. Although serial marathoning can be seen as a fool’s errand (even Phil has committed to Slate’s anti-marathon program this year), there’s no mistaking a race’s ability to bring people together, runners and proud non-runners alike. And as long as there are states I have yet to run, there’s still the promise of returning for yet another round of food, laughter, and of course, many long miles. Thanks, everyone.

Madness Managed

Madness Managed

(And if you think you’re just three seconds away from an age group award, like I was frustrated to learn afterward, remember to always finish as fast as you can.)

Onward.

Marathon_Map 057 (VT)