The Marathon Bucket List

When you set out on a journey to run a (half) marathon in all fifty states, you inevitably end up knowing about far too many races.  Be it through chatter in a running group, seeing t-shirts from other events or after a frenetic series of Google searches, you realize that there are just too many out there.  This is not altogether a bad thing, but the panoply of races can be overwhelming, leaving you feeling a bit spoiled for choice.  With so many options out there, it’s impossible to run them all.  So I’ve decided to compile a short list of ten races that I want to run before I lose interest in the sport.  Since none of these get me any closer to my ultimate goal, I will be running them purely for the experience they provide (also known as “fun”).  Were I to suddenly become wealthy beyond my wildest dreams, I would sign up for all of these in one calendar year.  In the absence of a giant, golden vault full of bullion minted with my name, I’ll have to settle for the distant gaze of “someday” …

United States

1. Miami Marathon Completed (2/3/2014)

imagesI’ve run the more popular half marathon distance in sunny Miami three times and each time it’s been an extremely fun run, despite some years pairing the 13,000 runners with crushing humidity.  In recent years, as I’ve gotten better at running in adversarial conditions, I’ve begun flirting with the idea of returning to Miami for the full marathon.  It wouldn’t be easy, but I want to run it to prove that I can.  When I dragged myself across the finish line in 2010 I was wondering out loud, in between stifled gasps, how anyone could run twice this distance under such conditions.  One day I will see how it’s not only possible, but hopefully fun.  If I’m lucky, I wouldn’t have to deal with terrible heat, allowing me to enjoy the glitzy beachfront properties, the seemingly endless rows of palm trees and the opulent turquoise condos that jut from the shoreline as if made of coral.

2. Colorado Marathon

colorad-marathonI have had a love affair with the Centennial State that has lasted decades.  It seems that every time I go, I have an amazing time without fail.  When I started running, the idea of going out west to tackle the miles at altitude seemed too daunting to consider.  But after churning out the Horsetooth Half Marathon, a challenging race in Fort Collins, I knew I would someday return for the full beast.  Although the largest marathon in Colorado is the Rock ‘n Roll Denver race, I have always been drawn to the state’s eponymous marathon, run along the Poudre river in Fort Collins.  When I think of Colorado, I think of the outdoors, rising slabs of earth, dirt and trees.  Though I’m sure there are far more rugged marathons in the state, this one has been calling my name for a while.  The fact that the entire race is downhill certainly helps.

3. Boston Marathon

baa-logoNo serious marathoner’s medal display or trophy mantle is complete without the blue and yellow unicorn.  The Boston Athletic Association’s flagship race is a rite of passage for anyone who has put in more than their share of pain and sweat into training, running their fastest possible, grinding their teeth and sapping their lungs.  And that’s just to qualify.  Just being in Hopkington waiting for the race to start, surrounded by twenty thousand other runners who pushed themselves to similar limits, would be reward enough.  But then you’d actually run the race, with Boylston Street 26.2 miles away, and the coveted title of “Boston Finisher” pulling you all the way.  I am several marathon seasons away from even considering a BQ, but with enough diligence and the perfect day, it can happen.

4. Big Sur International Marathon

imagesThe previous three races all involved cities that I have frequently visited.  I was drawn to them because they took place in cities that I hold dear for one reason or another.  Big Sur is the opposite.  I have never been to Monterey County or the Bay Area but have been drawn to it for quite some time now.  In addition, I read somewhere that this is “the race you have to run before you die” which is the literal definition of a bucket list race.  Every story about this race has been inspiring and the breathtaking descriptions of scenery make the decision to someday run it easy.  Even stories where the entire day was covered in fog haven’t lessened my interest in making the trip.  In fact, I’ve been meaning to fly out to California to run a marathon for years now but the surfeit of races is intimidating.  But even as I discover new, exciting courses to conquer, Big Sur has remained at the very top of that list.

International

5. Paris Marathon

logo_newParis, the city of love, high culture and delicious food.  In my head, I find it impossible to separate thoughts of Paris and that playful yet seductive accordion music that you hear in movies like Amèlie or in the closing credits of Ratatouille.  And that’s while not on the course.  What better way to get to know one of the most iconic and renowned cities in the world than by running on the historic Champs-Élysées, around le Place de la Concorde, past Notre-Dame and finishing just shy of L’Arc de Triomphe?  I can’t think of any other race (or city) that would inspire more nostalgia in me than Paris.  After all, it’s the closest major city to Fontainebleau, where I was born.  So now you know that.

6. London Marathon

vlm-logo-baseLondon comes in a close second to Paris’ nostalgia and sheer weight of history.  As a World Marathon Major, it is known for superb organization, a star-studded international field, and a fast course.  On paper alone, it is enough to get me to sign up (or add my name to the lottery and cross my fingers, as I’ve done the last two years).  But it’s more than that.  I lived in London for a little over two months as a child, which was more than enough time to develop an intense liking for castles and all things medieval.  The chance to run past the Tower of London, Westminster Palace, the Tower Bridge and various other structures of the highest regality is enough to make me and my inner child salivate.  That said, if there were a relay race in the United Kingdom whose legs connected castles to each other, then I would sign up in a heartbeat.

7. Berlin Marathon Completed (9/27/2015)

logo-2013-header-enThe chance to run the world’s fastest marathon is another no-brainer.  Sure, there are downhill marathons like Wineglass, Colorado and Tucson, but those events don’t have a torrential river of humanity 40,000 strong pushing you along the way.  This is the city where the great Emperor himself Haile Gebrselassie became the first person ever to run a marathon under 2 hours and 4 minutes, a feat broken in 2011 by Kenyan Patrick Makau.  Though Berlin is also a city with a very complex and fascinating history, it doesn’t have the same resonant, personal associations as the previous two European cities have had (despite living in Bonn for 3 months before college).  Running the Berlin Marathon would certainly help my ties to the city grow stronger, especially if it allows me to earn a new PR on its perfectly flat course.

8. Midnight Sun Marathon

LogoMSM_122x64All of the previous races have been in large cities with sprawling, international airports.  This one breaks that mold.  The Midnight Sun Marathon takes place in Tromsø, Norway, an island in the northernmost part of the Scandinavian Peninsula, and it starts at 8:30 PM in summer, when the sun shines all night long.  I would race this exclusively for the celestial novelty, but it doesn’t hurt that the course rarely leaves the coast and is hosted by a city surrounded by the Nordic wild.  It would be an adventure just getting there and not knowing the language will add to the experience … but I have no doubt that it would be worth the effort.  Marathons push you far beyond your comfort zone, so why not make the trip do the same?

9. Niagara Falls International Marathon

imagesThough technically an international race, it would require a domestic flight shorter than two hours from Chicago.  I have wanted to run this for two years now, but it seems like every weekend in October has ten different marathons, all of which I want to run including Chicago.  Since Canada isn’t part of my 50-states goal, the Niagara Falls Marathon keeps getting pushed to next year as I decide to knock out another domestic race.  But one day I’ll make the trek to Buffalo, New York, cross into Canada and finish to the sound of thundering cascades of foaming water.  It’s also the only marathon, perhaps even race, in the world that starts in one country and ends in another, requiring a valid passport at packet pick-up and check-in.

10. Two Oceans Ultramarathon

logoDespite my love of travel and discovering new places, I readily admit that I have very little desire to visit the African continent.  I used to find Egypt intriguing but the recent political situation there keeps me from taking any steps in that direction.  However, I have several friends who have lived in Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania, and they all have, in one way or another, tried to convince me that I should run an African race.  They certainly know me well because that is the most surefire way to lure me.  Though a race in Kenya or Ethiopia would be fitting given the sport, I’ve settled on the Two Oceans Ultramarathon in Capetown, South Africa.  There’s a half marathon option but if I’m going to make that excruciatingly long series of flights, I’d do myself a disservice by running anything less than the full distance of 56 kilometers (34.8 miles).  Adding to the intrigue is its non-exclusive billing as “the world’s most beautiful marathon.”

So there it is, my official bucket list.  Though I’m always finding new races and occasionally removing some, I am confident that these ten will remain stalwart ambitions on my radar.  It will be many, many years before I will have completed these, which is fine by me.  Despite gung-ho carpe diem attitudes towards life, not everything should be done all at once.  There’s something to be said about having long-term plans and knowing that you can tackle them at your own pace.  Besides, I have yet to become perilously wealthy, so all of these adventures will take careful planning and too many hours of daydreaming.

But surely I must have missed something.  Please let me know.  Have I forgotten any iconic races?  Do you have a race bucket list?  Are these races all “so annoyingly popular” that they betray my knowledge of the running world?  More importantly, should I replace Paris with Medoc?  Big Sur with Avenue of the Giants?

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Colorado (Crewing the 2012 Leadville Trail 100 Run)

1. Portrait of a Madman

His initials are “JZ” which coincidentally (?) rhyme with “Crazy”

I first met Jay when he pledged my fraternity in college.  He was soft-spoken, brilliant and had a certain je ne sais quoi about him that made him look somewhat crazy.  It might have been his deep-set eyes or his often spasmodic mannerisms, but there was something about him that didn’t match the rest of his demeanor.  On the one hand, I had met a polite, generous and ambitious kid who would do anything for his friends.  But there was always that glint of madness that he carried with him.  I didn’t really figure out the source or reason for that until I first went skiing with him.

While on the slopes, I quickly discovered he was a speed demon with a taste for trees and cliffs.  In one day it all made sense.  While he was more than willing to go to Costco and supply us with a veritable bounty of amazing food and selflessly devote himself to even the tiniest favor in the morning, he would bring you to the edge of a double-black diamond in the afternoon.  The mountain was his realm and he made sure you knew it.  This is not to say that he was ever boastful of his skills.  In fact, I can’t think of a single time in which he touted a personal accomplishment that didn’t result in injury.  His stories would routinely end with splinters of wood lodged in his helmet, his head tilting ever so slowly with each additional detail.

And yet, if you didn’t feel like plunging down his jagged, perilous idea of a fun run, he’d be completely fine with it, and take you to a different path with fewer detours to the emergency room.  For as intense as he is on a ski slope, it has never overridden the fact he’s one of the nicest people I know.

So when he signed up for the Leadville Trail 100 Race and asked me to be part of his crew, I hopped aboard without hesitation.

Notice the steady stream of pee as runners realize what they’re about to do

As the picture above illustrates, I didn’t accidentally add a zero to the title of the race.  It literally is a hundred-mile race, run continuously by one person on foot without sleep.  When I first got into endurance racing I thought the marathon was the longest distance, the ultimate test of one’s strength and determination.  It only took a few clicks through Wikipedia to find races that made 26.2 miles seem like the 3rd grader trying to play with the high-school kids.  And if covering 100 miles on foot didn’t seem impossible enough, Leadville takes place at 10,000 feet and with lots of mountains to climb.

While it takes a certain strain of psychosis to even contemplate registering for a race of such incredible distance, it wasn’t without precedents.  Jay had started running around the same time as me but as a Coloradan, rather than hit up the road racing circuit, he became a master trail runner.  The day I finally broke four hours on a flat, friendly marathon course, he finished his first 50k at altitude.  That same summer he would follow up this accomplishment by completing the Leadville Silver Rush 50-miler.  Yes, that’s almost two consecutive marathons at over 9,000 feet, run solo.

Jay gets weighed at packet pickup. If you lose more than 7% of your body mass during the race, you’re encouraged to stop.

As you can imagine, the training for a 100-mile race is just as grueling as the event itself.  I remember being slightly confused when I was training for my first marathon almost three years ago upon learning that the maximum distance most runners cover prior to racing was 20 miles.  How is it possible, I thought, to cover the last 6.2 miles if you’ve never ventured into the distance?

And yet, leading up to this behemoth of a race, the longest distance Jay had run, which is what most programs will recommend, was 31 miles.  So while I worried about 6.2 paltry miles, Jay was faced with running 69 miles longer than he had trained, and 50 longer than he has ever covered at one time.  To us normal runners (which much of the world already considers insane), no frame will fit around this situation to help us understand.  Really, there’s no way to paint the ultrarunning portrait without using a crooked brush.  I guess you just have to do it first.  And yet, as I stood at packet pickup, watching Jay get weighed in, I couldn’t help but notice how friendly everyone was.  Nobody came off as unhinged or even superhuman.  It’s something I’ve heard a lot, but I got to live it firsthand – ultrarunners are an extremely welcoming and affable bunch.  I guess Jay had found his people.

But where does this amicability come from?  What is it about covering such unfathomable distances that make ultrarunners such awesome people?  My theory is solidarity and balance.  They spend so much time battling through all kinds of pain, often to the point of madness and misery, that perhaps when they’re not running, they decide to just enjoy everything life has to offer, including their fellow companions.  I’m sure that’s oversimplifying it, but it’s my best guess.  Jay’s friend Pete, who was also signed up to run Leadville, had a different idea.  “All of our friends,” he said the day before, as we sat on Harrison street, “are just stupid.”

2. The Leadville Trail 100

Keep your thumb down – you need to conserve energy.

We were up at 1:30 in the morning on Saturday, ready to drive 40 minutes to the starting line in Leadville, Colorado, the highest incorporated city in the United States.  We arrived around 3 AM, about an hour before the race was to begin, but already most businesses were open.  I kept saying it was Leadville’s Black Friday because the town of under 3,000 people seemed to be flooded with many enthusiastic (and hungry) potential customers.  The race started on time, just a minute after pre-race favorite and two-time champion Anton “Tony” Krupicka hustled his way to the front of the pack.  Jay was near the front, fueled by excitement, nerves and pureed baby food.  But more on that later.

“I’ll see you guys in about a marathon,” he said to us before taking off with the horde.  Runners aren’t allowed pacers for the first fifty miles, so we were largely responsible for his gear until then.  After seeing them off, I went back to the enormous Dodge van he had rented to join the rest of the crew.  There was his younger sister Kris, who was the first to call her brother crazy, despite being herself a monster on skis.  Joining us was Kunal, a fellow Wildcat who was in charge of the toughest pacing leg of the day, and Chirag, who wasn’t running but kept conversation alive during down time.  This last point was crucial as we were about to spend a long, long time together in cramped quarters.

But first, we had to sleep.  We arrived at the second major aid station, the Leadville Fish Hatchery, at around 4:40 in the morning and promptly fell into that stiff, half-sleep courtesy of a cold car.  Dawn snuck up on us, signaling that we should start preparing for Jay’s arrival.  He showed up about two minutes shy of his goal, with 23.5 miles already behind him.  He made his way to the medical tent to bandage up some cuts and scrapes and then met up with us to dictate what he needed and how much of it.  As we shuffled around the contents of our plastic food bin, I was reminded of some advice I had heard the day before from the race’s medical director.

“Tomorrow is not an ultra marathon,” echoed Dr. John Hill in Leadville’s 6th Street Gym.  “It’s an eating marathon with some running thrown in.”  It made perfect sense.  The human body is said to only be able to store about 2,000 calories for high-impact aerobic activities such as running, and at an average of 100 calories burnt per mile, that means most people would hit a symbolic wall at mile 20.  This is why the last 6.2 miles of a marathon can feel like a death march.  However, most runners can avoid that unpleasant feeling of energy collapse by sucking down Gatorade and munching on energy gels or sport beans.  But when you have to run 80 miles past that storage limit, you have to learn to eat real food on the run and like a ravenous animal, even if your stomach is begging you not to.

Baby food has a new market to tap

“Some of you,” Dr. Hill continued, “or all of you will eventually start to feel nauseated.  And then you’ll throw up.  And it’ll be unpleasant.  So you’ll eat something salty and you’ll feel better.  And then you’ll throw up again.”

It sounded like there was no way to win.  Damned if you don’t eat, vomit all over yourself if you do.  I suppose given those choices, you’d opt for eating.  Because of that, it was one of our jobs to make sure Jay ate.  However, it wasn’t the easiest thing to do.  You walk a fine line as a crew between respecting your runner’s needs and being a forceful and demanding jackass.  From the beginning, Kris was adamant that we had to practically shove food down Jay’s throat because he would likely err on the side of too little.  At that first aid station, her detailed knowledge of her brother was validated.

“He’s not eating enough,” she said with a combination of concern and told-you-so cockiness.  “If he himself admitted that he’s not eating enough, then that’s a problem.”  Among the several foods that Jay did eat though, were some oat bars and a few packets of pureed organic baby food.  Easy to digest and exploding with vitamins and minerals, they were a great addition to his arsenal.  However, at only 80 calories per packet, they weren’t ideal for the long haul.  I inspected his Camelbak and to my slight dismay, found three Stinger waffles unopened.  After putting him back together, we sent him on his way to the next aid station at Twin Lakes, hoping that he’d nosh on some high-calorie snacks on the way.

Faced with another 3-4 hour stretch of time to kill, we decided to fill it with fun conversations.  Though we had brought a few games with us, we found time was flying by simply by talking.  I hadn’t seen Kunal in almost six years, so it was the perfect time to catch up.  I also got to know Kris, with whom I had never engaged in a long conversation, despite always being around whenever I’d visit Jay.  These long gaps in between crewing duties ended up flying by pretty quickly and made the waiting game very enjoyable.  It certainly helped that we were always surrounded by the majestic Rocky Mountains, gentle brooks and placid lakes decorating the otherwise harsh, but epic landscape.

Twin Lakes

The next aid station was in the middle of a tiny town by the Twin Lakes reservoir.  Since there was no place for 800 vans to park, crews were parking on the side of the highway leading into town, the farthest car about a mile away.  After hauling our supplies to the aid station, it was time to wait for Jay.  He eventually showed up, but the change was apparent in his stride.  While he had zipped into Fish Hatchery with confidence, he was dragging his feet as he rounded the 40th mile into Twin Lakes.  He emerged from the checkpoint with a huge slice of watermelon in hand and a cup full of salted potatoes.  And then he sat down.

“My quads are killing me,” was the first thing he said to me.  Though I’d expect one’s quads to be hurting after running 40 miles, it was tough to ignore the remaining 60 ahead of him.  I walked with him to our crew station, where he sat back down.  He wasn’t talking as much and his enthusiasm was waning.  Though still hadn’t eaten enough and the caloric deficit had caught up to him, he ate a reassuring amount of food at this aid station.  He threw back another pouch of baby food and some rice cakes in addition to the watermelon and potatoes.  Kunal helped him re-bandage his hands from the spill he had taken earlier while Kris kept putting more food in front of his face in hopes that he’d bite.  He was eventually up and back on his feet, shuffling towards the Hope Pass climb, ostensibly the toughest part of the race.

Kunal patches Jay up at Twin Lakes

Ninety minutes later we were at the Winfield aid station at the 50-mile mark and the turnaround.  In between us and Jay was Hope Pass, the race’s highest point at 12,600 feet, rising dramatically from the earth with little subtlety or moderation.  Jay would later describe it as walking up a black diamond ski slope, terrain so steep that the most you could do was power hike.  Waiting in the campground we were completely surrounded by enormous peaks like frozen tempestuous waves of earth.  It would be awhile before he would conquer the summit, so his crew did what it had been doing all day – wait in the van and eat, eat, eat.  We had stuffed the car with croissants, peanut butter, apples, grapes, carrots, hummus, Clif bars, bagels and other energy-rich foods, all of which were being eaten at any given point in the day.  We were hoping Jay was doing the same.

By the time he showed up, he was looking halfway decent.  He had found a walking stick and was cruising into the aid station with it, his stride having deteriorated very little in the last backbreaking ten miles.  However, he was pretty far behind his expected pace and in danger of not making the next cutoff time.  Each station shuts down at a certain time and all runners who reach them afterward are pulled off the course for safety reasons.  Though Jay was looking much better than expected and was eating with surprising alacrity, we knew he would have to pick up the pace to make the cutoff times on the way back.  He knew this too, but his quads, which he described as “dead,” weren’t going to help him hustle back up Hope Pass.  I couldn’t imagine the pain he must have been in.  It reminded me of something else Dr. Hill had said during the pre-race check in.

“There was one year where my family offered my Tylenol,” he said, recounting one of his several Leadville finishes.  “I didn’t want Tylenol, I wanted narcotics!”

Kunal (left), Chirag (center), gigavan with hoarder-like stock of supplies

I wonder if Jay would have accepted narcotics at this point.  The Winfield station is so character building because you’ve just finished the worst of it but have to turn around and do it again.  This time though, Jay would have Kunal with him, his first pacer of the day, keeping his spirits high and his stomach full.  His attitude and eating habits at the station had certainly injected us with a rush of optimism, but the fact that he was flirting with the next cutoff time was ominously floating in the air.  By the time we reached Twin Lakes again, it had started to get dark.  I changed into warmer clothes, plopped in the van’s backseat and listened to music, ready for my pacing leg to start.  It wasn’t long before we were engulfed by pitch darkness.  Car headlights and tiny, bouncing headlamps piercing the wall of trees next to the road were the only companions to the stars.

We put together Jay’s gear and walked it to the aid station.  Once our mountain of stuff was settled, Chirag went to meet up with his friend Dimple and Kris rooted herself at the trailhead, waiting for her brother to emerge from the black of night.  I sat with the gear and watched as runners entered the aid station to the cheers of a handful of people.  Footsteps were rough and grainy against the dry dirt path and applause was muffled by gloves.  The closer we got to the cutoff time, the higher the frenzy rose around Twin Lakes.  Volunteers and crew members alike were on phones and walkie-talkies, speculating as to when the race would make the call and shut it down.  Every runner with a bib who entered town was met with rabid yells to keep going, to dig deep, and for the love of god, make that cutoff time.

Jay refuels at Winfield (50 miles), wear and tear clearly visible

“I will commit, I won’t quit,” Cole Chlouber said, leading the congregation of racers and crew members in the event’s mantra the day before.  “When the going gets hard and the time comes – and I promise the time will come – when the legs are dead and the head’s done, when the lugs are burning, that time, believe.  Believe with me and dig deep.  Take one more step.  Turn that step to two, soon there’s an aid station.  Keep digging.”  Son of race co-founder Ken Chlouber, his words stuck to every runner, old and new, ready to embark on an unforgettable run.

It is said and repeated in endurance circles that races of this nature are mostly mental (and yes, there’s a pun to be made there).  At several points, the body will break down and tell you to stop by hurting everywhere.  But they say that you have to overcome that pain, embrace it and transcend it if possible.  Because no one aside from the physically gifted will run this far or this long without putting themselves through some serious agony.  Every runner that I saw at this station, runners who had put over sixty miles of punishment on their minds and bodies, must have repeated Chlouber’s words to themselves more than once to reach that point.  With forty miles still to go, they’d need every ounce of inspiration available.

“It’s simple,” Chlouber continued.  “Believe in you.  The power is in each and every one of you.”

I eventually joined Chirag and Kris by the trailhead, where distant flickering lights were transforming into tired runners and fellow pacers.  Eventually one light came towards us without the steady bounce of all the others, like a drunk firefly still reeling from a bar fight.  Once it was ten feet in front of us, we realized it was Kunal.  “Whoa, hey guys,” he said in a slight stupor before telling us Jay was a few minutes behind him.  He barked out some food requests and Chirag and I hustled back to the car.  We brought the gear back just in time for Jay to materialize with his trusty walking stick.  He was still putting one foot in front of the other and smiled when he saw us, but we all knew the painful truth.  He had missed the Twin Lakes cutoff time.  The race was over.

We packed everything into the trunk of the van with the usual Tetris-like precision and made room in the back for Jay.  You could almost hear his joints crack and split as he slowly slid into the backseat like an old man with boulders strapped to his feet.  It didn’t take long for him to fall into a woozy sleep.  Chirag and Kunal left Twin Lakes to head back to the city with their friend Dimple, who was kind enough to have driven out to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.  Despite not having run a single mile that day, I passed out on the ride back to Beaver Creek, leaving Kris to make the midnight drive with just an iPod and her thoughts.

“Sure, it’ll hurt,” Chlouber went on.  “But only for thirty hours.  But quit, and that hurt’s not going to stop.”

Dead to the world

Except Jay didn’t quit.  He ran until his legs were screaming but he kept going.  He reached the point where he felt effectively dead and he still got back up and kept fighting forward.  Before the race even began, he said he wouldn’t quit unless he were pulled off the course.  He ran just over sixty miles, a 100K if you will, and was still able to laugh about it afterward.  If there’s something I’ve learned about him over the years, it’s that he’s a perennial optimist.  I’ve never seen him panic or even fuss over something.  And here he was, having missed the cutoff of the biggest race of his life, smiling and cracking jokes.  As if running for nineteen hours weren’t inspirational enough …

An hour later, we were back at his house in Beaver Creek.  It took him twice as long to get out of the car, his legs having locked into place.  He somehow made it up the stairs into the living room, where I found him face down on the floor.  There was no real cause for concern though.  Rather than painfully hoist himself up another flight of stairs to shower, he decided it would be best to sleep on the hardwood floor and deal with hygiene at a later time.  His bib was still attached to his shorts, and he would find out in the middle of the night that he still had a tube of Perpetuem solids in his pocket.  On occasion, one of his two bearded collies would come and lick his salty face, prompting absolutely no reaction from their exhausted master.  I doubt they knew that he had just gone through one of the longest days of his life.

3. The Inaugural Dan Solera Beaver Creek Summit 14-Miler

If it’s true that you are what you eat, then the next morning I was a carbohydrate, plain and simple.  I had spent all of Saturday eating grains and fruits at regular intervals but didn’t get to use them.  So Sunday morning I decided to run from the base of Beaver Creek to the summit via the Cinch catwalk.  It was seven miles of a winding, rocky dirt path to the top.  And then I ran back down.  Beautiful vistas, familiar runs made new and exciting by the absence of snow and lots of heavy breathing at 11,000 feet.  My summer 2012 altitude challenge was complete.

I returned to find Jay sitting at the kitchen counter, talking with Kris and his parents.  Aside from the fact that he had an extremely stiff and slow gait, you would never guess that he had spent the entire previous day running up and down the Rockies.  The aches and pains that Saturday had provided were being slowly remedied by Sunday’s food, couch cushions and early birthday treats.  Though I wasn’t able to pace him, it was still an amazing weekend in Colorado.  Over the years, I’ve gotten to know Jay and his family pretty well, and every encounter with them is full of great stories and delicious food by the truckload.  There’s never a dull moment with them because, let’s face it, their particular brand of lunacy is as contagious as it is genetic.

Happy birthday Jay!

Preview: Summer Altitude Challenge 2012

Over the last six months I’ve run several races, most of them fast, and all of them at or near sea level.  As a resident of Chicago, I don’t have many options when it comes to running at altitude or even up hills.  The entire city is as flat as flat gets, with only the tiniest slopes providing hill-like challenges.  Honestly, I’m alright with that.  I appreciate a nice flat, fast course.  Every time I finish a race with a fast time, it boosts my confidence and gives me a reason to continue training at high exertion levels.  Plus, it validates all of my training efforts in simple minutes and seconds.

Last year, I switched things up several times.  I started by running my first international half marathon in San José, Costa Rica.  It was near the end of their dry season, at 2 PM, and at around 3,800 feet.  It was challenging, among my slowest half marathons, but I loved it.  A month later, I ran a half in Fort Collins, Colorado, which topped out at almost 5,700 feet before descending to around 5,000.  It was a lot cooler in the Rockies than Costa Rica, so my time was marginally faster.  But the thin air and the hills got to me and by the second mile I was feeling gassed.

This year, I’m going to once again throw in some altitude races, but this time we’re reaching new heights.  Because I don’t have the opportunity to run or even exist at these altitudes, each new race will be a challenge.  Additionally, each race has a higher altitude profile than the one before it (the funny thing is, I didn’t plan all of these myself and they just happened to line up that way).

1.)    Four Thousand Feet

The first race is the Media Maratón Correcaminos in San José, Costa Rica.  Much earlier this year, my fiancée Stephanie and I decided to organize a trip with her parents to get to know my extended family and the country they call home.  We picked the dates to make the most of the Fourth of July holiday.  My racing compulsion kicked in eventually and I decided to check and see if there were any races there we could do, especially since Steve (my future father-in-law) was a big racer not too long ago and is looking to make a comeback.  Lo and behold, one of the country’s biggest races was happening that Sunday, July 8.  Once again, I did not pick the weekend because of the race; I promise you all it was the other way around.  No one believes me, but well, there it is.

The race is a point-to-point that begins in Tres Ríos and finishes in La Sabana.  This should be neat because there are very few true straight lines in San José (as any foreigner in the passenger seat will attest) so the course should prove very labyrinthine.  Steve will be running the 10k and will therefore be receiving a running tour of the capital.  It’s not much to look at until the end, but he said he’s doing it mostly for the shirt.

2.)    Six Thousand Feet

Two weeks later on Saturday, July 21, I will be toeing the line at the inaugural Idaho Falls Half Marathon.  This race is yet another point to point that starts at 6,000 feet and in six miles descends to around 4,800, where it remains flat until the end.  I will be looking to breathe in as much air as possible in the little time I will spend there before starting the race.  It will also most likely be the first race that I run with a hydration backpack, the reason for which is to avoid dehydration.

But that much is obvious.  Everyone wants to avoid dehydration, even those who aren’t runners.  So why the extra precaution?  Why not run every race with a Camelbak if that’s the concern?  Well, there’s a bigger reason.  A while ago, when I set off to run at least 13.1 miles in every state, I realized that I didn’t necessarily have to do it in 50 trips.  I could offset some of the costs by doubling-up once I developed enough of an endurance base.  I thought, maybe this year I’d be able to pull it off.

There’s a pretty useful, albeit slow-loading tool hosted by Running in the USA that shows back-to-back races within driving distance of each other.  After scanning some dates, I first found the Idaho Falls Half Marathon and a few hours away by car, the Madison Montana Marathon in the Gravelly Mountains.

3.)    Nine Thousand Feet

“Run Yourself Ragged” reads the top banner of this race’s website, followed by a proud “Highest Road Marathon in America!”  The race organizer of the Madison Marathon claims to have extensively researched this and has yet to find a road race higher elsewhere.  Many trail races breach 10,000 feet, but you’d be hard pressed to find a paved road race that high.  But for some reason, I was overcome with a sense of adventure, and it consumed me enough to commit to both races.  It’s only a little insane, name because I’ve never done any running higher than 6,000 feet.  But I convinced myself that the Idaho Falls race will somehow prepare me to run this one, despite the fact that I’ll have put 13.1 miles on my legs leading up to it.  I’ll just call it a warm-up run.

And that’s why I’m planning on running the Idaho race with a hydration pack.

The Montana race’s website, though, has a great way of getting you to forget the daunting altitude challenges.  In its gallery, it has many pictures of the course, which are undeniably breathtaking.  It’s very difficult to not get caught up in the majesty of Montana’s rugged mountain landscapes while flipping through each new shot.  If ever I doubted my decision, a few minutes perusing through these pictures would instantly re-energize me.  There’s a downside to this, in that there are definitely bears (BEARS!) in the area and they’ve been spotted more than once near the course.

But even after committing to both races, there were still moments of trepidation, where I would question whether I’d be able to finish Montana.  In fact, as I write this, I still believe there’s a chance that I’d have to walk the course.  What truly tipped the scales and made it happen was an unlikely email from a friend.

I first met Jay Zeschin in college when he pledged my fraternity.  I quickly learned that he was no ordinary guy.  Not only did his music tastes practically invent the word “esoteric,” but he turned out to be a wizard on skis .  Several years and ski trips later, he became an ultrarunner by finishing the Sageburner 50k in 2011, and a mere two months later, the Leadville Silver Rush 50-Mile Run.  When he told me he wanted to run the Leadville 100 Trail Run this summer, I told him he was certifiably insane.  When he asked me to be part of his pace and gear crew, I signed up.

I guess that makes me crazy too.

4.)    Nine Thousand (+) Feet

The Leadville Trail 100 is a beast of a race.  Held every year in Leadville, Colorado, it’s considered one of the toughest foot races out there.  As if running 100 miles nonstop weren’t enough of a challenge, the race’s lowest point is over 9,200 feet, with runners breaching 12,600 feet over Hope Pass twice.  The idea that someone would have the stones to commit to something so far beyond the realm of sanity is truly mind-boggling.  So when someone decides to do it and then asks you to be part of a privileged group of people, whose purpose is to keep them going, you throw everything down and give a resounding “Absolutely I will.”

And it’s not until after you’ve had your moment of pride that you realize, $#!& this is going to be tough.

I can only hope that my three races at progressively rising altitudes will help me out in pacing Mr. Zeschin through the ups and downs of Leadville.  I’m sure he’s bringing with him more seasoned ultrarunners, so I might get lucky and receive a less grueling part of the course.  I’m not banking on that, so I’ll definitely be doing lots of stair climbing and hill workouts in between now and then.  With this race, my summer race series and altitude challenge ends, making way for the fall, where I hope to return to sea level and courses as flat as ironing boards.

State 11: Colorado (2011 Horsetooth Half Marathon)

The cadence of my breathing is a great indicator of how hard I’m running, indicated by the rate at which I inhale and exhale a full breath.  At the beginning of every training run and most races (except the shorter ones), I run a 4/4, which means that I inhale during four strides or foot strikes and exhale during the following four.  I can usually carry this pattern for about four miles at race pace and then I switch to 3/4 (inhale for three strides, exhale for four), then to 3/3, and so on until I reach what I consider to be my last gear: 2/2 (though there have been some last-minute sprints where I breathe at 1/2).  In most half marathons, I hit the 2/2 breathing threshold between miles 8 and 10.  So far, the earliest I’ve reached 2/2 was at mile 5 at the 2010 ING Miami Half Marathon.
 
So why was I at 2/2 before even the first mile marker at this race?
 

The Westin at Avon - free thanks to Jason's love affair with Starwood hotels

There are two reasons for this: my activities prior to racing and the actual race course.  In order to properly explain the former, we’ll have to backtrack a bit to March 17, 2011.  A group of my friends and I went to eat dinner at Burger Bar and Jason brought up the topic of spring skiing.  Thanks to his bottomless trough of Starwood points, he suggested going to Colorado for a weekend of mid-April skiing on a budget.  A week later, he sent an email to a small group of us and in 24 hours, enthusiastically booked a free room and cheap flights.  Although the trip would be thirteen people shy of the excursion I organized in early January, excitement levels were up and the weather looked promising.  It definitely helped that we got lucky with the dates: we coincidentally booked flights for Beaver Creek’s closing weekend. 

This is what the majority of slopes looked like. Coming down the mountain are Nick, Steph and Jason (in that order).

We arrived at the Westin in Avon just past midnight on Thursday after the requisite Good Times food stop and narrowly avoiding a speeding ticket.  Friday was spent at Beaver Creek, enjoying a dramatic mix of perfectly groomed snow and sheets of unyielding ice.  But what impressed me the most wasn’t the range of snow conditions, but the paucity of visitors.  It felt like going to school on a Saturday and walking normally crowded hallways with an almost unsettling solitude.  But with the waits for lift lines reduced to near zero, how could I complain?  I asked a lift operator if this dearth of skiers was normal.  She said yes, because everyone is sick of winter by mid-April.  Well, Colorado’s impatience can be damned because the timing served us very well.

(Left to right): Jay, Brian, Jason, Steph, Me, Nick

But I personally got doubly lucky with timing by finding a half marathon for that Sunday.  By Friday’s end, I had logged about 20,000 vertical feet of skiing, which meant I would be taking it easy on Saturday at Vail if I was to survive a half marathon on the following day.  But perfect conditions, wide open bowls and tons of unexpected snowfall prevented us from skiing anything less than another 20,000 vertical feet (Jay put it best by saying it was “puking snow”).  But all that would have its price: by Saturday night, my calves were extremely tight and my quads were very sore.  In other words, that’s the first reason I was heaving every two steps at the first mile marker of my nineteenth half marathon.

Here is the second reason:

Ouch.

Those are some nasty hills.  However, I knew about them going into the race so I adjusted my expectations accordingly.  For those who are unfamiliar with Colorado geography, Fort Collins is about three hours away from Avon, where we were spending the weekend.  Similar to Denver, it sits in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, with elevation going from flat to jagged very quickly.  Any race in or around this area would be challenging, but given the chance to run a scenic, mile-high half marathon in cool, dry temperatures with the finish line at the New Belgium Brewery, who would say no?

A lot of people, apparently.  Jason, my trusty companion in half-marathons, was more focused on the slopes and our crazy Denver outdoorsman Jay Zeschin was also set on seeing the ski season to the very end.  This meant a 3-hour drive at 4 AM with nothing but the open road, an eclectic mix of rock/metal albums and the imminent sunrise.

The start line - in just over a mile we would be at the top of the dam

The Horsetooth Half Marathon started at Colorado State’s Hughes Stadium, 7 miles west of I-25 and just under one of the many rocky dams that surround the Horsetooth Reservoir.  I arrived over an hour early, so I grabbed my bib and dashed back to the car for a power nap.  Temperatures were perfect – in the upper 40’s with a cool breeze.  Once 8:30 AM arrived, I was on Dixon Canyon Road, facing the slope of the steep canyon that we would soon be scaling.  After a beautifully austere rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by a lone trumpeter, the race began its first ascent.  And now we’re back to me, hobbling upwards, gasping for air with twelve miles left to go.

The first half of the race runs north on Centennial Drive, along the rolling edge of the Horsetooth Reservoir, which is a thin recreational lake that unites the flat and mountainous parts of Fort Collins.  Right before climbing the second half of the first hill, appropriately titled “Monster Hill,” runners are treated to a spectacular view of the reservoir to the left and the vast sprawling plains of eastern Colorado to the right.  I had only a minute to take it all in before I was forced onto the tips of my toes for the most grueling climb of the day.  Even though I was only sixteen minutes into the race, by the time I reached Monster’s summit at just below 5,700 feet, I felt spent.

Monster Hill - the dam on the right is the same dam that can be seen from the starting line in the previous photo

Fortunately, I had two miles of downhill running to catch my breath and get my heart rate down to a level below life-threatening.  While doing so, I noticed something peculiar.  In most loud urban races, you get very few secluded moments where all you hear are running shoes plodding along the course.  In this case, running along the ridge of a manmade lake, I could hear not only everyone’s footsteps but also their breathing.  After all, we had all just scaled Monster Mountain together and we were all panting in unison.  It was a pretty fun moment of athletic communion.

But whatever transcendental feelings I felt were soon replaced by disorientation.  The second climb of the day, Dam Hill, looked almost exactly like Monster Hill – both preceded by a thin, flat stretch at the top of a dam and then a steep climb up the west face of a mountain.  It felt like being in a Twilight Zone episode, as if we were coming back to the same area despite running in a relatively straight line.  Once past this hill, I faced the longest, steepest downhill of any race I’ve ever done, switching involuntarily to some dangerous heel striking to avoid falling on my face.  Once past this sudden plummet, the course changes gears and cuts through bucolic pastures and the unmistakable odor of manure.

Halfway through, the race banks southeast through more farms right before the third, last and least of the day’s climbs, Bingham Hill.  It continues on Bingham Hill Road until detouring to cross over the Poudre River via a bike path.  As we crossed over the river on a wood and steel bridge, I suddenly felt awkward and a little dizzy.  My feet felt heavier than usual, as if gravity had increased its pull on me.  But then I realized it wasn’t me, it was the bridge.  The combined foot falls of hundreds of runners had caused it to wobble slightly up and down, which was confusing my stride.  It was an odd feeling and I was glad to get off it and back on terra firma.

At mile 11, the course meets the Poudre River on the left and more bovine bowel movements on the right, making its way towards the winding paths of Lee Martinez Park.  Once there, you could feel everyone’s pace pick up as they began to feel the finish line approaching.  After hugging Old Fort Collins Heritage Park, runners bank left over the Poudre River for the last 0.1-mile stretch.  I crossed the finish line in 1:51:52, grabbed my medal and souvenir New Belgium pint glass, and made my way to the food tent.  I wolfed down several orange slices, lost my water bottle, took a few pictures, and hopped on the buses to take me back to Hughes Stadium.

On the way back home, I stopped in Denver to get lunch and briefly catch up with a friend from high school, Melissa Mora.  I last saw her in the summer of 2004, right before she left San José to study at CU-Boulder.  During the delicious home-cooked meal, which was interrupted only by her dog Max begging for food by resting his jaw on my legs, we managed to sum up the last seven years of our lives in easily digestible nutshells (you can see Max’s tail in the picture on the left).  Not only was it great to meet up with her, it was a fun distraction from the second 3-hour drive before me.  I wish I could have stayed longer, but the rest of the day’s hours had been punctiliously planned and I had to get back to Avon in time for check-out … and the third 3-hour drive of the day.  Fortunately, Jason was behind the wheel this time, so armed with his blazing speed we got back to DIA with plenty of time.

Yes, I know, these race reports are getting a bit long.  But if you’ve made it this far into the entry then I thank you for the interest, and at the same time pat myself on the back for somehow keeping you sufficiently transfixed.  And now, with unnecessarily tight calves, I have two weeks until the Cincinnati Flying Pig and the definitive rematch between Otter and Laura.  Stay tuned!