State 38: Maryland (2014 Maryland Half Marathon)

I was tired at the start of this race. It wasn’t because I had done anything strenuous the day before, nor was it from lack of sleep or the marathon I ran last weekend. I was yawning at the start of the 2014 Maryland Half Marathon because I was simply running this race to cross off another state, and for little else. The real reason for flying from Chicago to the Northeast was to run the Delaware Marathon the next day, but in the interest of frugality, I had chosen to add this race to save on travel expenses.

Start / Finish Area

Start / Finish Area

As I stood waiting for the minutes to count down to the start, I wondered with a slight grimace if my parsimony was cutting out some of my enjoyment of the sport. Some of my favorite activities are special precisely because they happen infrequently. I have a three-month window for skiing and Chicago’s merciless winters don’t allow for beer garden gatherings with friends for much of the year. Since I typically run between 16 and 24 races every year, few of them have the special haze that comes with months of daydreaming. I think of groups like the Marathon Maniacs, who run one or two marathons every weekend for the entire year and wonder how they can enjoy races if they’re a staple of the everyday, like eating or brushing your teeth.

So instead of writing about my performance at a milquetoast half marathon, I have decided to focus on three key lessons I learned during this 13.1 stretch of Maryland neighborhoods.

* * *

And we're off!

And we’re off!

Don’t Get Cocky

As you become more comfortable with the marathon distance, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that its shorter brethren is a walk in the park. I liken it to running eight miles during training – since it’s much shorter than a typical long run, you go into the run thinking it will be a quick, effortless jaunt. But if you start with that attitude, you’ll soon find yourself bored or worse, tired and humiliated.

Long stretches of gently rolling hills

Long stretches of gently rolling hills

Sadly, I was going into this race with this kind of thinking.  I wasn’t running for a time or the thrill of a race, nor was I expecting Mother Nature to put up a fight.  But it was a warm morning, the air was thick, and the course ahead was stubbornly hilly. I stepped over the start mats with a slow, slumped stride, as if running were punishment for not doing the dishes. There was nothing particularly special about this race that grabbed my attention months ago. It was simply on the Saturday before the Delaware Marathon. Convenience alone got me to sign up for it.

I soon realized, after dragging myself through that first mile, that if I wanted to successfully navigate the hills, heat and humidity, I’d have to overcome my own attitude. That process began by recognizing the challenge that lay ahead and to never assume that any given race is in the bag. Hubris is dangerous because it sets up unnecessarily high expectations, and the looming threat of an injury is increased by perfunctory form.

Each Run Should Have a Purpose

Whether you’re running three miles on a weeknight or a half marathon, you should have a purpose every time you lace up. Many people might disagree with me here – how often does a 4-miler really have its own unique mission? I’d like to say, hopefully every time. There exists a debate on “junk miles,” or miles that you run conservatively to rack up a bigger weekly total, and I’m on this side of striking them from your training program. Running miles simply to rack up mileage isn’t as effective as targeted miles. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of perspective. Four miles at marathon pace can either be four junk miles for the hell of it, or four miles to recover from the previous day’s hill repeats.

Lots of old residential neighborhoods

Lots of old residential neighborhoods

When each run has a purpose, it makes training much easier. So you could say there was a hypocritical conflict of interest when I decided to sign up for this event in the first place. By squeezing in a half marathon before a marathon, I was basically creating junk miles that would tire me out for the next day’s run, going completely against this ethos.

And then it hit me: these aren’t junk miles at all. I actually need to start the Delaware Marathon on tired legs. After this 39.3-mile weekend, my next big race is the Bighorn Trail 50k, where I’ll face the debilitating effects of mountains and altitude. The best thing I could do for my legs at this moment was to run long while tired. Suddenly, this impromptu, hilly half marathon was not a footnote but a bullet point.

Even in a Training Run You Can Still Challenge Yourself

And lots of new residential neighborhoods.  All in all, mostly neighborhoods.

And lots of new residential neighborhoods. All in all, mostly neighborhoods.

But that didn’t mean that it was suddenly time to run with zeal like a lissome gazelle. Had I decided to tackle this race at the threshold of my abilities, I would put myself at risk of dehydration and injury, neither of which would help me get through the next day. So instead, I mapped out a plan. I would keep a relaxed pace until mile 9, and then crank up the speed to a tempo until the finish. This not only made the race fun, it made the finish much more worthwhile.

Last year I ran the Garmin Marathon as a training run leading up to my first 50k and the finish line was all but celebratory. It felt like I had walked through an aid station and simply decided to stop running. I finished the race, but didn’t give myself a moment to feel pride

Last ditch effort

Last ditch effort

because by playing it safe the entire way, I had somehow cheated myself out of a meaningful experience. By actually kicking through those last four miles, I made the race itself count for something other than a conscious attempt at tiring out my legs.

It became a fun experience, a chance to run with new people in a new place.

It’s strange to have to re-learn such fundamental lessons. Racing is why I got into this sport so you would think that it would be at the forefront of my runner’s psyche. I thought this 50 States project would keep me excited about running, but it seems like I let myself forget that the true purpose of the sport is, quite simply, to run. The race is the carrot, and dipping race times are the stick. But both of them come together to push me out the door five times a week and quickly course air through my lungs and blood.

* * *

Fun weekend with Laura and the Fam

Fun weekend with Laura and the Fam

I crossed the finish line just over 1:41 and went to meet up with my college friend Laura and her mom. Not only were they generously hosting me for the weekend, but Laura had signed up for the Delaware Half Marathon the next morning, so the two of us had very important pre-race rituals to perform, including but not limited to two hours of bottomless mimosas and three miles of exploring Washington DC’s Museum Campus.  It would be our fourth half marathon together and we each had our own hopes and doubts about them.  She had PR’d at all three of her half marathons (but the most recent one happened almost exactly three years ago), and I was aiming for a respectable performance on tired legs.

The next day would prove interesting.

Are there any unexpected lessons you’ve learned during a race?  Perhaps some old, obvious ones that you had forgotten over the years?  Have you ever run a race “just for the hell of it” and ended up unexpectedly enjoying it?

Marathon_Map 048 (MD)

2014 Race Schedule

In 2013, I mapped out the vast majority of my races for one purpose: to ramp-up to the North Country 50-miler.  While that race wasn’t as successful as I had hoped, the training leading up to it was more than worthwhile.  2014 won’t be quite as structured as I don’t have a singular epic event that will dominate my every interval run.  There is an ultra in the mix, but it won’t require as much all-encompassing focus as last year’s top race.

2014 will be about filling in some of the gaps.  With the South completely done, there are just three areas left to finish: the west, the northeast and the two pesky states not attached to the remaining 48.  This year I will be running two of the four remaining “western” states, but mostly I’ll be tackling the Atlantic Coast.

And so, while this list is far from exhaustive or definitive, it is how I envision my 2014 looking from a race standpoint.  I haven’t signed up for all of them – in fact, I have only signed up for two – but I don’t envision them selling out anytime soon.  Yes, I realize those are famous last words, but this is just to serve as a disclaimer.  Please let me know if you will be joining me for any of the races below, as it will definitely motivate me to sign up sooner!


February 2, 2014
Miami, Florida

2014 will start with my very first charity marathon.  On November 25, 2013, my uncle Daniel Robert Bonilla died from complications stemming from glioblastoma multiforme, a malignant and extremely aggressive brain tumor.  He was there with me in 2010 and 2011 when I ran the half marathon distance in Miami, so I decided that in 2014 my twentieth marathon would be in Miami in his loving memory.  Given Miami’s propensity for intense heat and humidity, even in the first weekend in February, it will be a challenge to finish this one in under four hours without succumbing to dehydration.  Although it won’t be easy, I hope to channel Tío Daniel’s lasting memory and legacy with every step.


April 6, 2014
St. Louis, Missouri

I ran the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon in 2010 with my cousin and enjoyed it, despite Olive Road squashing my speed with its seemingly interminable incline.  Like Miami, I decided to return this year and run the full marathon, thus shading another nearby state in red.  Although I don’t have speedy ambitions for this race, I will try and run aggressively and build a solid base to  threaten my PR later in the year.


May 3, 2014
Shiprock, New Mexico

I’ve run three desert races, one of which was a marathon, and have loved all of them.  Given the climate and the course’s net downhill elevation, this one seemed like a no-brainer.  I’m still a little unsure as to how hot it will be in early May, but I don’t plan on killing this course, so I’m not too worried.  Plus, if I fly into Albuquerque (just under 3 hours away), it will give me a chance to visit all the sets of Breaking Bad, like everyone is doing these days.  Forgive me for following trends.


May 10, 2014
Fulton, Maryland

Admittedly, I’m at the point in my 50-states quest where I no longer have a reason to run certain races.  Some of these races simply exist in states that I have never visited, so I find one and decide to run it (which is made most apparent by the fact that each race is basically the name of the state in which it is run).  But in the interest of trimming the budget, I decided to once again double-up on states.  However, unlike my Pacific Northwest Double-Marathon Weekend of 2013, I won’t be doing 52.4 miles this time.  Instead, I will be running 39.3 – a half marathon on Saturday in Maryland, followed by …

May 11, 2014
Wilmington, Delaware

2014-Marathon-Layout-Vert-with-CC-logo… a full marathon in Delaware on Sunday.  This is another race that I don’t know that much about, but fit nicely with my schedule.  In fact, a lot of these states don’t have particular significance to me but I do have friends who live in the area, so I will no doubt make it a point to visit them in the process.  There have been very few races that I have simply run without some sort of personal attachment and I don’t intend to make this pair succumb to that fate.  That way, when I’m done with my 50-states journey, I’ll have great stories for each one.  Even Delaware.





June 21, 2014
Dayton, Wyoming

Dayton, Wyoming is a tiny western town with a population that barely cracks 1,000.  But it’s the closest example of civilization that I could find to the Bighorn Trail Run course, which peaks at around 9,000 feet.  Sometime last year I realized that my two ultramarathons were being run in states that I had already completed, so I figured that my next huge race should at least net me another state.  If I’m going to put hundreds of miles running hills on the treadmill, I might as well get a new state out of it.  Pickings were slim in the flat states, so I decided to go crazy and do one at altitude.  Along the way, Otter, Marla and Jay (80% of the North Country crew) joined as well.

October 4, 2014
Bristol, New Hampshire

NHmarathongrayscale.jpgI will definitely regret doing another 39.3-mile weekend if the first one above doesn’t go well.  Regardless, my trips to New England will once again be minimized with a double-up.  Saturday will start with a half marathon in what is regarded as “the most beautiful race in the Northeast” (and one I have hitherto never visited) followed by …



October 5, 2014
Portland, Maine

logo… a marathon in Portland, Maine.  Curiously enough, it will be happening on the exact same day as the marathon in the other Portland, which I ran in 2013.  With this state done, I will be at forty-two states, with the potential for a forty-third in November.  I haven’t made any commitments but I do anticipate squeezing out another run in the last two months of the year, leaving just a few empty spots on the map before the last states to ever join the union are run in 2016.

So there you have it, my 2014 race schedule.  It’s pretty straightforward, focusing mostly on marathons with the half distance only making an appearance (for now) as a prelude to the full distance just 24 hours afterward.  I was originally going to run the 50-mile distance at Bighorn to vindicate my DNF from this past year, but then I ran 4 miles at 4,000 feet and, while wheezing from oxygen debt, decided that an additional 46 at twice the elevation might not be what some call “intelligent.”  So while some may call us crazy, there is still a point at which the runner’s ego hits a wall.  The 50-mile distance still taunts me though, but I will likely table my next attempt for another year.

What’s on the 2014 docket for you?  What’s the one big race that will monopolize your training?  Is there a race that you would love to run this year, but for whatever reason, you can’t?  Mine is Berlin.  Goddamn I want to run that.