State 30: Louisiana (2013 Rock ‘n Roll New Orleans Marathon)


Despite signing up a few months in advance, the Rock ‘n Roll New Orleans Marathon was an impulse race for me.  I had originally planned on running something in Baton Rouge (where there are two big marathon options) but something about the Big Easy called to me.  Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a famous city in a state that I never have a reason to visit.  Given that there are no other marathons in New Orleans besides the one run by Competitor Group, I felt somewhat resigned to it.  You may have read my previous thoughts on the Rock ‘n Roll series of races, but if you haven’t, the basic idea is that I’m not a big fan.  While they do provide a well-run race, they don’t vary much from city to city and they tend to strangle your wallet.  But I was willing to keep my race snobbery in check for this event.

0223_1_expo 03I was up at 2:40 AM Saturday morning to make my early flight to Baton Rouge via Houston.  I couldn’t find any awards flights to NOLA so I flew into its less glitzy neighbor and drove out from there.  Once on the coast, I went straight to the Expo, which was enormous as expected.  The first showroom was completely dominated by Brooks, with the second one being your typical giant expo with thousands of people oozing their way between tables and tents.  Brooks had randomly chosen me to do a focus group (which was just a covert term for “profitability experiment”) that let me choose whether I wanted the race shirt or a $25 voucher on their in-expo merchandise.  The shirt this year was black, which I don’t like, so I opted for the money.  They had a decent assortment of non-tech cotton shirts, and given how rare it is that any race offers cotton apparel, I bought one.  I’m actually running out of regular t-shirts these days.

0223_1_expo 06I caught a talk by Frank Shorter in the second showroom.  I had seen him last month at the Disney Marathon, where he gave short, encouraging remarks to the runners from the stage right before the gun.  Today he was talking to a row of half-filled seats, with maybe thirty people in attendance.  I thought it was indicative of the field when the person largely credited with fueling the running boom, the source of all this marathon mania, a pivotal figure in the history of American distance running wasn’t commanding the entire room with hundreds of starry-eyed acolytes waiting for an autograph.  This is definitely me being a snob again, but I couldn’t help but wonder what percentage of runners today had even heard of Frank Shorter let alone be able to recognize him.

I had been up for far too long so I left the Expo and went to my cousin Walty’s apartment.  As a junior at Tulane, he’s been living in New Orleans since last summer and was gracious enough to let me stay at his place.  He lives in a very nice apartment complex called the Saulet, located in the Lower Garden District.  However, I’d be there alone as he was out in Costa Rica for his cousin’s wedding.  So I fell on his couch and slept for an hour.  I woke up starving but dinner plans weren’t happening for a while.  Just weeks earlier I learned that our college friend Meghan was also in New Orleans continuing her quest to avoid the job market by being a lifelong student.  I threw an email out there to see if she’d be interested in catching up with someone that she probably last saw at the Keg of Evanston during Big Cup Night, which was also known as “Monday night.”

0223_2_neworleans 03Thankfully she was available, so we planned for dinner in the Marigny, a neighborhood just northeast of the city, teeming with people.  Jazz was spilling out of almost every restaurant, brass bands were playing in the street corner and large groups of people stumbled their way through sidewalks enjoying the (lack of) open container laws.  Restaurants shared walls and dimly lit awnings with tattoo parlors and every other person was either blissfully buzzed or just plain weird.  We ate at the Praline Connection because one of the items on their menu read “Spaghetti and Meatballs: Traditional Italian dish to which we’ve added our soulful touch.”

It was exactly what I wanted from this weekend and the evening validated spending the rest of the day on a highway, in an expo and on a couch.

PR’ing Ain’t (Big) Easy

My alarm went off at 4:30 AM and in the haze that accompanies a rude awakening, I walked across the room, turned it off and went back to bed.  Something in my head, a mental residue from whatever Dadaist dream I was having, told me I should just go back to sleep and that everything would be fine.  It only took a few seconds for my true faculties to come to life and exile whatever saboteur had briefly hypnotized me.  Perhaps voodoo was still alive and well in the city and I had fallen prey to a nighttime enchanter.

Thirty minutes later I was in a parking structure near Harrah’s, about a half mile from the start of the race.  It was 5 AM and chilly outside, so I reclined the seat and listened to XM 90’s on 9 for an hour.  During this time, I not only learned how awful the 90s could be (“It’s not called Alternative Rock 90’s on 9” as Steph would later mention), but I also contemplated how I was going to attack this race.  My goal was to replicate my Des Moines PR but faster.  In order to do that, I would have to run the first half at an 8-minute pace and then pick it up in the second half.  With cool temperatures and a flat course, I was confident that I could make it happen.  But there were other reasons to be so brazen.

This happened for about an hour.

This happened for about an hour.

For one, there were several omens.  I realize that “omen” sounds ominous (omen-ous?) and has negative connotations, but I refuse to use the word “sign” because that would involve some sort of religiosity on my side, which, as some might have guessed, has no place in my life (and yes, I’ll concede that omens and signs are the same thing, so really this paragraph should be just a silly footnote and not a serious thing but just humor me would you?).

  • Walty’s apartment was on Race Street.  Not a huge WHOA but still, what are the odds?
  • 90’s on 9 played Melissa Etheridge’s “If I Wanted To” which had the line “I could run fast as a train.”  Ms. Etheridge doesn’t routinely make the top 10 list of pump-up jams, but this line raised a confident eyebrow.
  • I switched to the Pearl Jam XM station and heard “Rearviewmirror” which is arguably their best song.  Who cares, you ask?  It was the last song I heard before putting on my game face to kill this beast and lo and behold, Pearl Jam’s lead guitarist Mike McCready was not only running the half marathon, he also played the national anthem on guitar.

Sure, none of these mean anything and they shouldn’t.  But there was one X factor at play and it was written all over my face: the beard.  I contemplated shaving for the event because all athletes (except one-time second fastest marathoner ever Duncan Kibet) are clean shaven.  However, I had raced with a beard twice and both times the results had been quite favorable.  I PR’d at the 2011 Holiday Half (beard evidence) and ran a 1:41 in Miami under muggy conditions (beard evidence).  I “researched” this topic furiously and will spare you the extremely high-level knowledge that I force-fed my brain.  Instead, I dumbed down this infinitely tortuous matter and ground it to a palatable mush in the form of this diagram:


In the words of Jesse Pinkman, PhD: “Science, bitch.”  Thousands of years of bearded men being successful couldn’t be wrong, so I decided to follow in their hirsute footsteps and join the pantheon of shaggy greats.  But first I’d have to listen to far too many sponsor ads while waiting for the race to start.  Finally, after hearing Mr. McCready scratch out the national anthem with the help of judicious whammy and echoed feedback, the elites were off.

0224_1_neworleansmarathon 02The half marathon was actually quite exciting.  Leading the men was the famous trio of Great Britain’s Mo Farah (10,000m and 5,000m gold medalist), Ethiopia’s Gebre Gebremariam (2010 NYC Marathon winner) and Kenya’s Martin Lel (multiple London Marathon winner).  The women’s race would be contested by Americans Shalane Flanagan (2008 Olympic Bronze Medalist at the 10,000m) and Kara Goucher (fastest American woman at the half marathon).

The rest of us mortals would share the road with thousands of others, on our way to achieving our own goals.  We were barely two miles into the race when we turned onto St. Charles Avenue, a boulevard divided by a grassy trolley line where the day before I had seen so many people running.  The road was cracked; trees seem to sprout out of the road in crooked stems like witches’ hands and all around were buildings whose architecture was as old as the city itself.  It was a beautiful run, despite being a simple out-and-back.  Somewhere along the way, we saw the leads on the other side of the boulevard with Gebremariam leading Farah by just two strides.  Several minutes later, the lead women ran by with Flanagan bunched up amongst her East African competitors.  Once we reached the Loyola University campus, the rest of us turned around.

St. Charles Avenue without runners

St. Charles Avenue without runners

With the trolleys and claw-like trees behind us, we were heading back to the heart of the city, passing Poydras Street where the starting line was, and toward the famous French Quarter.  Many a balcony was populated by eager locals, cheering for the colorful mass of people flooding their streets (though I guess I should be careful with such a metaphor when talking about this city).  Mile 10 was somewhere in this part and I crossed it in 1:20:33, just slightly over the 8-minute pace I was trying to execute, but only by about 4 seconds per mile.  So far, things were going according to plan.

The course makes its last turn for the half marathoners onto Esplanade Avenue, leading them on a 3-mile straight shot to their finish line.  This road was very similar to St. Charles.  It was cut down the middle by a row of trees, the road had its fair share of cracks and potholes and all around us were 19th century mansions.  On the road itself were thousands of half marathoners chugging along past the nefarious 11-mile mark, panting their way toward the finish.  It’s a strange feeling being surrounded by people running on counted breaths while I still had more than half the journey ahead of me.  I sometimes felt a little guilty when I’d gingerly pass someone who was three heaves away from fainting.  That’s what you get when you make the split so close to the end, I suppose.

Much love to the guy behind me for that priceless pose.

Much love to the guy behind me for that priceless pose.

Right before mile 13 the course reached the corner of City Park, a huge green area in the middle of the city.  Marathoners split left while everyone else ran straight into the park, towards the drowned-out sound of a thumping bass.  There were several people standing after the split, with more than one shouting that we were “almost there.”  I couldn’t stop myself from yelling back, “We can hear you!”  But we were definitely the minority at this point.  With roughly four out of five people abstaining from running an additional 13.1 miles, the field thinned out considerably.  Not long after the split, we entered City Park through a separate entrance and I ran over the half mat in 1:44:25.  Operation Let No One Pass You was officially under way.

I was feeling good so far.  We ran around the perimeter of City Park for the next two miles, heading north toward Lake Pontchartrain.  The sun had been out all morning but the course was protected by a reliable canopy.  This was extremely helpful for me because I lost my running shades in the last week and would be squinting hard later.  I had dialed up my pace to 7:40, passing runners who had either opted for a more consistent pace or were already slowing down.  It was a bit early in the second half to start questioning this move, but somehow the pace auditor let himself in.

Was I feeling like this in Iowa?  Could I keep this up?  My legs are fine, but my feet are starting to ache.  My breathing is fine but I’m definitely sweating more than I was in the first half.  Is this too early?  Did I bank enough time in the first half to “coast” the rest of the way?

“Nice kicks,” I said as I passed someone wearing a shiny pair of Kinvara 3s, mostly as a distraction from the creeping doubts that were invading my otherwise zen-like run.  At the 25k mark, City Park was behind us and we had entered an upscale neighborhood just shy of the lake.  A short uphill later and we were at the coast (I did, in fact, need a reminder that New Orleans is below sea level).  The lake in front of us was so vast that it looked like the ocean.  From there we would have another out-and-back section along Lakeshore Drive with the faster marathoners already on the return.  We would have a refreshing headwind but absolutely no shade for the next five miles.  It was around this time that I felt like I was on autopilot.  My body would have enjoyed stopping, make no mistake, but almost out of momentum and electrical impulses, I pushed onward, crossing the 20-mile mat in 2:36:44, just a minute faster than my PR.  One glance at my watch and the auditor was back.

Can I keep up this pace to the end?  A 50-minute 10k would put me a minute slower than my PR, so I can’t go over 8 minutes per mile.  Don’t go over 8.  Don’t go over 8.

There were two more miles on the coast before we would head back inland toward City Park.  This stretch included several hills, none of which I was anticipating.  I somehow managed to get through them without damaging my pace.  On top of those physical obstacles I was trying to not let the many psychological challenges of marathon running get to me.  One that few people talk about (because it’s probably just me) is seeing the runners still on the “out” stretch of an out-and-back.  Many were grimacing, pushing themselves forward, fighting against the tantalizing desire to stop.  I would look at them on occasion and think: they still have 8 miles to go.  Later in the race, that number would be higher.  For some reason, perhaps the simple concept of association, I would embrace those numbers as if they were my own.  I have 8, 10, 12 miles to go.  It was a completely unwanted thought but just seeing the pain on their faces was enough to rattle my confidence and fog up the chamber where I kept my mantra.

Don’t go over 8.  8 miles to go?  No, don’t go over an 8-minute pace.  Don’t go over 8.  8 what?  What mile is this?

City Park, the finish line in the distance

City Park, the finish line in the distance

We were now back in City Park and I had been trailing a runner with a bright orange ING Miami shirt for quite some time.  Every time I would come close enough to pass him, I would reach an aid station and walk, letting him put some distance in front of me.  When I finally came shoulder to shoulder with him, I turned and thanked him for pacing me, but his reply was lost in two explosive gasps.  I decided it wasn’t a good time to start a conversation, so I pushed ahead.  Operation Let No One Pass You was still, as of that moment, going as planned.  In fact, I passed mile 23 feeling far too fresh.  Even the auditor was at a loss.  Perhaps even he knew that I wouldn’t have a shot at a truly fast marathon for a while.  Or maybe it was that clouds had reached the Gulf and obscured the sun, sending a legitimate chill through my skin, which was covered in both sweat and water from the last aid station.

It's a fine line between long-distance runner and homeless person.

It’s a fine line between long-distance runner and homeless person.

I was doing my best to keep a powerful pace without glancing at my watch.  My PR in Des Moines was possible because I had no idea what pace I was running.  I simply ran what felt right.  While the first half of this race was dependant on precision, the second half was more of a blind attempt to focus on the road ahead and not let the numbers dictate how I felt.  I knew that I was staying faster than 8 minutes per mile, that was certain.  But just how much faster I didn’t know.

I reached the 40k mark in 3:13:09, dangerously close to my PR.  I would have to keep up the pace for the last 1.4 miles if I wanted New Orleans secure the top spot on my marathon list.  I could hear the music of the finish line, but I had no idea where it was.  The last of the marathon course winds in and around several of City Park’s pedestrian paths, often with no indication as to which way we’d face the finish.

Finally, I saw the entrance where the half marathoners had left us hours ago.  I was almost there.  After a sharp left turn, we were running on a wide road toward the New Orleans Museum of Art.  The road leading up to it split into a cul-de-sac, hugging the building and once again splitting the field of runners.  Half marathoners went right, marathoners went left, both groups reunited at the other side of the museum.  At one point, we were only separated by a barricade and I heard one of the half marathoners say to her running partner, “Just 0.1 left – make it last!”

Hell no.  Let’s end this thing.

Finisher's Medal with Beaded Necklace

Finisher’s Medal with Beaded Necklace

Right then the course split us again, sending each distance to its own unique finishing banner.  There were two people ahead of me right before that split.  I passed them and kept up the pace with the end in sight.  Up ahead, in the final 400 feet, there was no one separating me from the finish line.  I fantasized that I was the leader and that I had just passed my last competitors, throwing my hands in the air triumphantly when the announcer called me by name.  I threw my head back quickly to make sure no one was going to make Operation Let No One Pass You a last-minute failure, but I had left them behind.  My calves were on the verge of cramping, as if they had a mind of their own and just seeing the finish line could make them start to give up.

But they managed to hold on for that last dash, which ended with a loud scream as I PR’d by exactly two minutes – 3:23:12, running the second half in 1:38:47, beard and all.

Rock On or Roll Over?

I hobbled through the finisher’s chute with medal, liquid diet and banana in hand until I found the gear check trucks.  Clutching my bag and various running accoutrements, I collapsed on the side of a tree with the post-race party jazz blaring behind me.  I would learn later that Mo Farah won with a course record, just one second ahead of Gebremariam, and that Shalane Flanagan came in second despite a PR.  I didn’t want to stay long at the post-race party because I wasn’t waiting for anyone and didn’t want to walk too much on ground-up feet.  So I followed a large group of runners toward the shuttle buses and I found a Disney-esque line leading up to them.  Not long after, I was back at the start, heading toward my car and that glorious post-marathon shower (seriously, is there no better feeling?).

Buffalo Shrimp Po' Boy from New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company

Buffalo Shrimp Po’ Boy from New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company

Two hours later, I had showered, napped, and made my way back to St. Charles Avenue to visit New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Company for a huge shrimp po’ boy.  While I was unable to truly dive into the local cuisine the day before, I felt I should eat something fried after the race and the sandwich hit the spot.  Were I to have spent more time in the Crescent City, I would have definitely been a little more adventurous with my selections.  But as I had a flight in Baton Rouge to catch, that will have to wait for another time.

So how was my Rock ‘n Roll experience?  Truth be told, I liked it a lot.  The expo was enormous, the course was beautiful, I got to see several running celebrities doing what they do best and the colorful, beaded medal celebrates two huge New Orleans staples: Mardi Gras and Jazz.  Running this race was like the first time I saw Avatar.  I didn’t see it when it came out because it looked dumb, overblown and everyone had already seen it.  But when I finally saw it, I couldn’t help but enjoy it.  It wasn’t the best movie ever nor was it the most creative or insightful, but it was well-made, epic and tons of people liked it enough to merit repeat viewings.  Sure, it’s still pretty expensive and they’re always finding new things to charge you for (like runner tracking, premium parking packages and VIP entries).  But if all you want is to sleep soundly knowing you signed up for a well-run race, it’s not a bad way to go.

And so went my last shot at a fast marathon for a while.  I’m taking a few days to recover before continuing the trail regimen, which will include a few fun primers in the next couple of months.  But for now, I’m going to shave and enjoy having reached a new milestone.  Thirty states down – 60% done with the goal!

Marathon_Map 038 (LA)