Loops and Troops: 2015 Veterans Marathon

As I waited for the cannon to boom in the tiny town square of Columbia City, Indiana, I forced warm air into my gloved hands and slapped my hamstrings to keep them from shaking. Although a cloudless sky surrounded the rising sun, it was just below freezing and I had already shed the hoodie Steve had given me earlier that morning. As a veteran of the US Armed Forces, my father-in-law had decided to join me for the Veterans Marathon and Half Marathon, but a bone spur aggravated by running both the Chicago and New York City Marathons relegated him to strict spectator duty this chilly morning.
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2015-11-14 07.51.07After a moment of silence in memory of those killed in Paris the night before, the organizers gave thanks to the veterans in the crowd, who gathered to greet and salute each other just ahead of the start line. The town’s cherubic mayor gave a few words of encouragement and the starting cannon thundered through the air, releasing about 450 runners into the town’s sleepy streets.
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The race was a 13.1-mile circuit that began in the town square and cut between plots of farmland. Marathoners would run the circuit twice, so I was treating this first lap as a preview. In between, we would run past a few country homes, barns, and grain silos. It was the exact opposite of my most recent marathon, the massive, machine-like Berlin Marathon, where every turn was a raucous celebration. Today, I was treated to the exact opposite … and it’s strange to say, but I enjoyed it almost as much, probably because it allowed me to zone out, to stop thinking.

Columbia City, Indiana

Columbia City, Indiana

I was completely focused on my stride, my breathing and energy levels. I didn’t have to worry about sidestepping past slower runners, quickly reading clever signs, or absorbing the cosmopolitan sights around me. It was just about running until you were done. Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy this straightforward, unencumbered approach to the sport, whose apotheosis is the endless desert run. But every now and then, something would shake me out of my reverie.
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“Ugh,” I said aloud as the air around me took on the acrid smell of manure. I caught up to a runner with a bandana and had locked in with his stride. “Makes you want to run faster just to stop smelling this, right?”
His reply, which was a grunted “yeah,” hinted that he wasn’t available to talk.
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I rounded the bottom of the race, which looked like a coat hanger, and sped back north to the finish line. This portion of the race, like almost every other stretch, was surrounded by yellow farmland and patches of forest shedding the last of their autumn colors. I passed a couple who I had been tailing for over a mile and hadn’t stopped talking the entire time. As I slowly passed them, the young woman noticed me.
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This is what most of the race looked like, except with a clear, blue sky

This is what most of the race looked like, except with a clear, blue sky

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“Man, I’m so jealous of that stride,” she said, her friend laughing.
“It’s all in these legs,” I replied and took a few leaps for effect. “But if you were to sit down next to me, we’d be very similar heights.”
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It’s true. My body doesn’t exactly follow the divine proportions, unless god is a mosquito. At some point in my development, my legs and arms stretched out more rapidly than my torso, and I’ve had these stilts ever since. Some days I regret not becoming a runner sooner, as I technically have had this lanky frame since high school. I often wonder if I am destined to struggle as a swimmer on the day I inevitably tackle a triathlon. It was a lot to think about ten miles into a marathon and thinking is usually reserved for afterward.
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2015 Veteran's Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2015 Veteran’s Marathon Google Earth Rendering

For example, I do a lot of it after a race doesn’t go my way.

I sulk for a bit, and let me head droop just enough to give me a dull ache in my neck. I try and tease out what I did wrong during training or what I could have done to guarantee a strong performance. Through all the excuses, I pick one or two and render swift judgment. I didn’t do enough long runs, or I should have cross trained more often. Surely these two culprits are to blame; next time I will make sure they don’t hamper my path to speedy victory. After a sensational implosion at Berlin, where I missed my target time by 26 minutes, I had plenty to consider. Ultimately, I decided that it was jet lag, combined with a hubristic first half that I couldn’t keep up.
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Halfway done

Halfway done

But there was also that unnerving voice in the back of my mind that I couldn’t quite tune out. It was a frightening perspective that asked, in a sober and defeated tone, what if I’ve hit my limits? What if my standing marathon PR, which I earned in Fargo this May, was a complete fluke? What if my ambitions are too far beyond my abilities? Is this as far, or as fast, as I go?

I had signed up for this race wanting to silence that voice. Although I spent the week after Berlin with Steph in Munich and later Brussels, happily eating sugar-cratered waffles and full-bodied Belgian brews, I knew I hadn’t lost all of my fitness. I built it back up in aggressive fashion during October and chose this tiny race as an act of vindication. As I ran over the timing mats of the first loop, I passed Steve and threw two happy thumbs up. I left the only crowd of the day behind me as I ventured back through the path already taken, determined to prove something to myself.
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I ran past the now familiar landmarks; the warehouses, silos, and manure-caked fields were right where I had left them. Though I’ve run two other double-loop marathons, I don’t like them. There’s something paradoxically challenging about knowing exactly how far you have left to go. Even if you have a watch and it tells you how far you’ve run down to the hundredth of a mile, visualizing it makes it worse. Seeing “23.2” on your watch can become a hieroglyphic, a meaningless symbol that simply changes over time. However, zooming through that mental course like a hawk only to return to reality’s deteriorating plod can really leaden your legs.
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Train tracks, then the poop fields, coat hanger, big hills, neighborhoods, and then we’re done.
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Oh man, that’s a lot.

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But again, I was trying not to think. I was keeping my head up, staring ahead and waiting for the next turn. The more I thought about the road ahead, the heavier my legs felt. The hills were far worse this time and every glance at my watch revealed a slow drop in pace. I couldn’t feel it in my legs or lungs, but running had officially become hard. Two out of three participants had stopped running at the half marathon mark, so I had no one to chase. With five miles left in the race, I was far from done. It was time to simply survive, the chorus of Symphony X’s “Legend” playing on repeat in my head:
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“Rise and fall, although I fight like hell
There’s just no certainty …”
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Just shy of the finish line

Just shy of the finish line

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There were a few people I could chase, notably the first female. She was wearing a bright pink fleece zip-up, which made her an easy beacon to follow. We seemed to be losing energy at the same rates though, as she stayed just about a third of a mile ahead of me for the rest of the race. I slogged up the toughest hills and through the remaining bouts of déjà vu before reaching Columbia City’s small town square. With City Hall visible, I tried to keep going at an aggressive clip without my calves buckling. I saw Steve again as I reached the town plaza, but this time I didn’t have any positive gestures. I had just one loop around City Hall to run before earning a finisher’s time. Though my second loop was a few minutes slower than the first, I was proud of my 3:17 finishing time, my second fastest marathon ever, just a minute shy of my all-time best.
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It was a great run, though not perfect. I had to struggle to keep an 8-minute pace for the last 10k after cruising at a 7:19 for the rest of it. I began to lose steam right around mile 21 as a product of running a maximum distance of 18 miles in the interim between races. Maybe I need to do more 20-milers at marathon pace, or expand my interval distances to 2-mile repeats. There might be some use in stretching my progression runs to 10 miles or beyond. More hill runs, that’s a must. Maybe I could take a crack at strength training …
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veterans-marathon-medalAnd before I knew it, I was back to overthinking the result without really savoring the fact that Berlin had been a fluke, not Fargo. Despite the hills and short ramp-up, I ran within striking distance of a time I had suspected was an outlier I might never again approach. But now I’ve added a new time to the sample, adding a companion to the statistical improbability. Maybe the 3:17 is my new normal, like 3:26 was three years ago or 3:40 in 2011. Sure, it wasn’t the BQ I had declared I would earn at the start of the year, but it is an indication that I’m moving the standard in the right direction. My goal is still to achieve that Boston mark, but it won’t be done in large, magical improvements, but instead with steady, incremental change.
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With my Indiana-shaped medal hanging in my collection, the Veteran’s Marathon has brought the 2015 long distance season to a triumphant close. With my 2016 goals still unannounced, it’s time to rest, relax, and nurse these proud, aching legs. Onwards!