Rhode Runner: 2016 Newport Marathon (State #46)

Like someone who accidentally drinks a cocktail laced with kryptonite, I feel like I’m losing my superpowers.

2016-10-09-06-53-14For years, I was able to control the weather. If I wanted to ensure a dry morning for thousands, even millions of people, all I would have to do is sign up for a race on that date. Weather forecasts were impotent against my talents. Even hours before sunrise, charlatan clairvoyants would augur the coming of tempests, and I would dash them with a simple wave of my hand. They called me the Diviner of Dryness, the Denier of Drizzle, Prohibitor of Precipitation.

But then I ran the Mad Marathon in July, whose pristine wooded hills were beset by rain for most of the race. However, it felt like a refreshing mist, an almost welcome addition to an already beautiful journey. It turned an otherwise rural path into a fey peregrination through mystic lands. It was almost as if I had refused to concede my powers, and instead pretend as if I had, just for a moment, allowed the rain to join me for a run in an act of peaceful communion.

I must have angered the cosmic forces whose joint abilities hold sway over the gathering of clouds with this impudent display, because they decided to make an example of me during the 2016 Newport Marathon. Five days before race day, the seaside city of Newport, Rhode Island, was in the potential path of Hurricane Matthew. But though its path would eventually move east into the Atlantic, much to the delight of many people with actual concerns for their well-being, the rains stayed staunchly in the forecast.

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And they stayed, resolutely, for the entire day. Even as I flew back to Chicago that night, it was still raining in the area. I would later learn that locals were thrilled with the prolonged downpour, as it certainly helped many parts of New England that had been suffering an unusually harsh summer drought. It was a slight consolation for enduring the wettest race I’ve ever run.

2016-10-09-07-43-26The race started at Easton’s Beach, a thin strip of land separating its eponymous Bay and Pond under grey skies that threatened to spoil the area’s beautiful coastline and quaint commercial streets. Before the starter’s pistol, runners were either huddled in an empty parking structure or shivering in line for the bathroom, tiptoeing around the rapidly growing puddles, only delaying the inevitable. As the opening notes of the National Anthem rang, we oozed reluctantly out of our concrete shelter and into the shower.

The race course is divided between the towns of Newport and Middletown, which together make up the largest island tucked in the Ocean State’s many bays and inlets. For the first four miles, we ran through Newport’s picturesque town center and neighborhoods, almost on our toes to avoid any splashing. We eventually reached the shore and began skirting the island’s perimeter, where we beheld several massive homes. Moneyed tycoons of the Gilded Age built mansions in the area that rivaled European palaces, which today are open to the public as museums to excess and profligacy. I would have taken several pictures of them but my phone was too wet to respond to swipes.

2016-10-09-07-52-30Our path took us alongside several of these impressive estates, from Marble House to Rosecliff and the Breakers. Along the way, even the roads themselves felt prestigious. It was a remarkably beautiful course and for most of it, I had almost forgotten about my sagging clothes and waterlogged shoes.

I was brought back to reality by the awful realization that the marathon course was going to literally run right next to the half marathon finish line. There’s something inherently difficult about watching four out of five runners stop what they’re doing, rest their hands on their legs, and march towards the buffet tables, beaming and proud, while you’re only halfway done. It’s not the distance itself, but the psychology of knowing most everyone else is breathing a sigh of relief. Even diverting the half marathon at mile 12.5 would make the rest of the race easier. But even if you divert your attention and defiantly look away, you can still hear the announcer congratulate them on their accomplishment. And honestly, a tiny voice in your head definitely wishes the accolades were for you.

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That nagging voice grew much louder just a minute later. Marathoners run past the finish line and then loop around the parking lot and back onto the road connecting Newport and Middletown, heading east. Right at that moment, as if someone had pulled a lever, we were struck by a fierce headwind. The second half had begun.

newport-marathon-02The rain pattered against my shirt and shorts, ricocheting off the soaked fabric as if I were wearing a tarp. Long ago, I had taken my energy gels out of my pockets and clenched them in my swinging fists. They were weighing down on my shorts and I was tired of pulling them up every thirty seconds. The next two miles covered an uninspiring stretch toward the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. Just before reaching it, we turned around and enjoyed a brief tailwind, which would escort us toward seaside neighborhoods.

I had run about eighteen miles and I was starting to slow down considerably. I blamed the wind, which had been pushing aggressively against me for four miles. But underneath the cold exterior, I was worried that I was hitting the same gruesome wall I faced in Omaha just three weeks earlier. One disastrous bonk is an outlier, but two can be an indicator of something real. Was there something happening with my fitness and training that had gone wrong in recent months? Or was I literally just being held back by the gales and gusts of the northeast Atlantic? I kept reminding myself that if I were to suffer a similar adrenal halt, I’d face a serious drop in body temperature. It felt melodramatic, but I knew I couldn’t afford walking more than a mile of this race if I wanted to leave the state in good health.

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As I ran along mostly empty streets, the answer was clear. I wasn’t in the kind of shape to threaten or even goad my PR, but I could still hammer out a marathon. Somewhere around mile 20, I was still keeping a running cadence, enjoying the gentle climbs and the occasional pocket of spectators. The rain and wind had predictably kept many people in their homes, but every now and then I would get a quick injection of motivation from a friendly Rhode Islander braving the elements from their front yard. It was a quiet second half, marked only by the sound of winds, and the squishing of shoes.

newport-marathon-08I was back in familiar territory; those last, long miles that seem to stretch on forever, conquered seemingly only by the slow passage of time and lethargic swinging of arms. I was used to this, this was my element. Though each of those last miles was a little slower than the one before it, the fact that I was still running through them certainly helped me smile. I was hoping to finish the year with a picturesque romp through a historical town, perhaps even with a fast time for the books. But given the unbalanced year I’ve had with training, any confident, forward progress was a cause for celebration.

We returned to Easton’s beach, to the parking lot where we had started the race, now filled with umbrellas and ponchos. The winds were roaring across the waters and no amount of last-minute sprinting effort could warm me up enough to stay and enjoy the sights. I crossed the finish line in 3:44, snatched a Mylar blanket, and sought shelter. There were two large vats of chili and lentil soup being offered by the gear check. Were I not so focused on finding dry clothing and protection from the winds, I would have happily joined my fellow runners and let these delicious broths warm my hands and spirits.

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Truth be told, this race earned me very little surface area on the map. But on the road to fifty statehood, it is just as meaningful as Montana or Texas. I won’t cross off the four remaining states soon, but I can still taste the finish. Slowly but resolutely, the journey continues, one unpredictable story at a time.

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I Can Fix This: 2016 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon

This is a post about how to inject some much-needed vitality and vigor into the Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon. But first:

#TeamChance

For their third year, the Jackson Chance Foundation partnered with the Humana Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon as an official charity and asked me to be their running coach. I happily accepted and once again created running programs, led weekly runs, and provided tips on training and preparation. The foundation’s goal, in their own words:

“Jackson Chance Foundation’s (JCF) mission is to enrich the lives of families with babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) by allowing them to spend more time with their baby. JCF created the NICU Transportation Program to partner with hospitals and alleviate the transportation expenses of all families while their child is in the NICU by providing parking and CTA/Metra vouchers. The programs are fully funded by JCF. Currently, the foundation’s program benefits the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Jackson Chance Foundation is an Illinois non-for-profit, tax exempt 501(c) (3) organization.

By contributing to the Jackson Chance Foundation, you help families be with their critically ill child, thus enriching and potentially extending their life.”

For donations or more information, please visit their website.

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Another Year of Wondering, Where’s the Rock?

It was a beautiful spring and early summer for training, and throughout it I had the pleasure of exploring Chicago’s Lincoln Park with runners in tow, learning about them as people and enjoying the city’s pristine parks and lakefront path. There was actually one run where I mentioned to Alan, who would join almost every organized run, that I was looking forward to spending some time outdoors, given how lovely the weather was. The conversation paused for a second as we both realized we were doing just that, in that moment, as we logged miles under the sun.

On July 17, I lined up for my fourth running of Chicago’s Rock & Roll Half Marathon, which until recently was the only 13.1-mile race run primarily within the city’s core. Every other half marathon takes place either Lincoln Park or the lakefront paths south of the city, which are open to everyday cyclists and walkers. The race has changed since 2010 in ways that perhaps indicate broader changes in the running industry.

The first six miles of the course were unchanged from last year.

The first six miles of the course were unchanged.

The first time I ran this race, I was one of over 18,000 finishers, making the race one of the largest in the city and nation. It was the only distance offered, won in its previous and inaugural year by Kara Goucher in 1:08:04, ahead of any other competitor, male or female. There was something electrifying about it, as if the amplifiers in the marketing materials could short circuit and infuse us all with speed.

Since then, the event has seen itself diluted considerably. Although the course has improved, with less of it run on thin, open park paths and more in the city’s famous and dense Loop, the event has lost a lot of its energy. In 2014, the race gave its 13,866 half marathon finishers a half-mile stretch of speakers, all arranged to play the same hard-hitting song to motivate runners for more than the standard 30 seconds it takes to be out of earshot of a performer. I was lucky to run through that section to the galloping rush of Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” and the thundering sludge of Metallica’s “Sad But True.”  It was amazing and an instant reminder of how races can use creative solutions to not only bolster the race experience, but in this case, elevate and sharpen their brand. Plus, they got Shalane Flanagan to run it, so I was awestruck and giddy to follow in her speedy footsteps.

In 2015, only 12,025 runners made it to the finish line, a slight dip from the year before. I remember feeling like the “rock” had been left out of the experience, with electronica playing constantly during the expo, the speaker stretch now booming Whitney Houston and the organizers tapping Andy Grammer as the headline act for the post-race party. I understood that rock was either convalescent or comatose in popular culture, so I hoped they would at least change the name of the race, like they did for many years with their Nashville equivalent, the Country Music Marathon.  However, they made up for all of this by roping in Olympian and Boston Marathon Champion Meb Keflezighi to pace the 1:30 group, which I joined for the first four miles.

This year, it seemed like organizers were out of both ideas and money. There were no big name runners leading the pack, no legends to pace us, no big headline act, no half-mile stretch of motivational rawk, no abundance of bands …

Heavy rain on its way to cool off runners

Heavy rain on its way to cool off runners

If this is starting to sound petulant, let me explain that these are merely observations and not complaints. After all, I don’t really care about any of this. All I need is a 13.1-mile stretch of road or trail, a few aid stations, and a chip to record my time and I’ll finish with a smile. And an hour and 34 minutes after starting, that’s what I did. But I was left wondering. It’s not necessary that the race director hire Amy Hastings as a pacer, or that Tool play to a crowd of sweaty and tired athletes, or that every mile be dotted with cover bands playing Bon Jovi and the Killers.

But when the market is as crowded as it is lately, this race has to double down on its brand or risk runners losing too much interest. Lucky for them, the half marathon is still growing in participation nationwide. The 2015 State of the Sport assembled by Running USA states that “the half marathon continues to grow with an annual increase of 4% finishers (2.046 million, another new high) with an astounding 61% female participation.”

In 2016, however, 11,059 runners finished the Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon, almost 1,000 fewer than the year before and over 7,000 fewer than in 2010. To draw more people to the event in recent years, organizers have added shorter distances and spread them over two days, with a 5K on Saturday and a 10K run on Sunday at concurrently with the half marathon. Across all three distances, there were about 16,500 finishers, still fewer than in 2010.

It seems reasonable to suggest that the increase in participation in the half marathon is not due to a growing field at established events, but with the sprouting of new races. For example, when I started running in 2009, there were only four half marathons in Chicago. Today, there are twelve just in the city, and many more in the surrounding suburbs, the majority of which sport less expensive registration fees than Rock & Roll for obvious reasons.

(left to right) Missy, me, Alan

(left to right) Missy, me, Alan

I don’t know if this race is profitable, but I assume it is because it’s now in its eighth year. But as I ran through the course this year and saw how threadbare it was in comparison to years past, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the result of an organization cutting its costs in the wake of shrinking margins. I’m not an economist, but it seems that if the race wants to keep its bottom line healthy, it has to either draw in more people, increase its fees, cut services, or a combination.

Though I haven’t done the research, I’m sure this is not unique to Chicago. The running boom is happening everywhere nationwide and as a consequence, large, established races have likely seen some participation siphoned as interest shifts to newer races with lower fees that offer a similar experience. In order to stay relevant, Rock & Roll needs to do something to either change the game or hone their brand. In 2014, as I ran alongside Metallica’s bluesy thrash, I was reminded of how one great idea can completely change your opinion of an event.

Here are a few suggestions, some free and others unreasonable and cost prohibitive:

  • Upon registration, let runners pick their favorite genre of rock & roll (classic, grunge, metal, indie, acoustic, pop, etc.) and make different bibs for each.
  • Encourage aid stations to theme themselves according to the genres of rock established above.
  • Make Spotify playlists for each genre and share them with runners as they register.
  • Let runners sign up in groups of 3-5 as a “band.” In the results page, have a separate “band results” page that adds up every band member’s finishing time. Encourage bands to dress up and run together.
  • Upon registration, ask every runner to provide a “pump up” song and their target time. At mile 13, have a timing mat that calculates if a runner is going to break that target time, and if so, play 10 seconds of their pump up song to get them to the finish (and I realize that not everyone will get their pump up song played, much like not everyone has their name announced at the finish line).
  • The first seven miles are in the Loop, which doesn’t allow for bands or noise of any sort. Rearrange the course to add more opportunities for music and bands. Music is the brand’s raison d’être, so embrace it!
  • Convert pace cars into a mobile concerts like they do in theme parks and blare some truly sick rock for those willing to run alongside them. Release at variable paces so everyone gets the opportunity.
  • The 90s are back and with a vengeance. I can’t imagine it’s that expensive to hire Better Than Ezra, the Verve Pipe or Third Eye Blind to be your headlining act (also, I heard this year’s band play “Yellow” by Coldplay twice. I shouldn’t have to explain why this is wrong).
  • Hire Pearl Jam to play a 3-hour set afterward.

I look forward to seeing these implemented for the 2017 race. You’re welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 1

Mile 1

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

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

Mile 3

Mile 3

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

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

Mile 4

Mile 4

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

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

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

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

Mile 6, mercifully flat

Mile 6, mercifully flat

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

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

Mile 11

Mile 11, the interminable uphill

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

Mile 17, the downhill begins

Mile 17, the downhill begins

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

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

Mile 23, the hill that broke my run

Mile 23, the hill that broke my run

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

Mile 24 Beer Station

Mile 24 Beer Station

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

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

Madness Managed

Madness Managed

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

Onward.

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Dropping Down: Silurian Spring 25k

Otter started running an hour before me. Along with seventy other runners, he began the Silurian Spring 50k by running a nautilus coil around the starting line, across a damp grass field and into a gravel path just beyond our sight. I had planned on running the 31.1-mile trail race with him. It was supposed to be the tune-up, the stepping stone on my way to a redemptive trail run in May on the Ice Age Trail. This beautiful spring morning was meant to portend another series of successful training months, culminating in my first ever 50-mile finish.

Waiting to start the 25k

Waiting to start the 25k (and Lisa, if you’re reading this, thanks for lending us your car and I swear my feet never once touched the console!)

But sometimes, for better or worse, or simply because things are what they are, plans don’t pan out.

Three weeks earlier, I woke up with a feeling akin to panic, as I suddenly realized that I hadn’t been running as much as an ultra regimen would dictate. Despite one twenty-miler, I didn’t feel at all ready for the trials of the neverending trail, my legs hadn’t yet been subjected to any 5-hour gauntlets or forced to the pavement on fatigued muscles. So, almost impulsively, I stepped outside for a 30-mile run. Five hours later, I came home feeling triumphant and a bit cheeky. I ran a marathon and change on a whim with nothing but a bottle of water.

Some might say that my impudence did it. Others might say my body wasn’t ready for the prolonged distance, or that it had been three years since I had incorporated scheduled walking breaks into a long run. But regardless of the culprit, my left knee began to ache. The next day, as if to show dominion over my body, I went for a trail run in Chicagoland’s famous Swallow Cliffs. The first mile of the run was unnerving – perhaps because nerves themselves were not properly aligned – but it wasn’t long before I shook it off and ran with no issue.

But the problem is, you eventually have to stop running. And once I did, I realized something was wrong.

Start + Finish Line

Start + Finish Line

That was over a month ago. I still have a slight pain in my left knee, self-diagnosed and later confirmed by doctors as patellofemoral pain syndrome. I’ve been here before, but not for a long time. It’s what I imagine it must be like to meet the kid who bullied you in middle school but as an adult, only to discover he’s still a jerk. You remember how to deal with it, but this time, it’s somehow worse. You thought you were done with this. And the timing could not have been worse. Just as everything was lining up for another stab at the punishing 50-mile distance, everything began to fall apart.

As the Silurian Spring 50k race approached, I knew it would be stupid and dangerous to try and run the whole distance. It wasn’t easy to silence my ego. I wanted to run the full distance and prove that a pesky pain was no match for that laundry list of positive traits that supposedly characterize long-distance runners. If you read enough inspirational quotes or follow Runner’s World on Facebook, you soon feel invincible, like you’ve been inoculated against pain, as if the beautiful pictures of people bounding across mountaintops could fasten your bones and ligaments into proper alignment forever.

The 25k race, which was one long out-and-back through the Palos Forest Preserve, started out fine. I ran on the soft grass, taking short, efficient steps, landing softly and fluidly. I was acutely aware of every sensation in my legs, no matter how tiny or insignificant. Despite the uneven terrain and the occasional puddle, everything felt fine. For now.

Otter about 11.5 miles in (out of 31.1)

Otter about 11.5 miles in (out of 31.1)

Four miles into the race, I had reached a single-track trail arched by thin branches. Up until now, the race had felt like an introduction to trail racing, having started with a mile on grass, followed by a long stretch on a relatively flat gravel path, which led to a series of gently rolling hills. The course was ideal for anyone looking to leave the harshness of roads but not without a little handholding. Once on the single-track, I saw Otter running toward me, on his way back from the first lap of the 50k. I stopped to get a burst shot of him before tucking my phone away and continuing the run.

“Hey Dan!” yelled the runner behind me.
“Oh hey, what’s up?” Otter replied as their paths crossed, his voice trailing into the woods.
“My name is also Dan,” I yelled back, “I thought you were talking to me.”
“Dan … Solera?” the voice asked.
“Uh, yeah?”
“Hey buddy, it’s Paul!”

Three years ago, almost to the day, Paul and I were just a few miles away in a different part of these woods, running the Paleozoic Trail 25k. It was the first trail race that would lead to the North Country 50-Miler in August. I learned back then that running through the woods and eating Oreos at aid stations was only a small part of the ultra experience. The most meaningful part was the community. As I trained for my first ultras, I met an incredibly friendly and welcoming group of people. It was easy to become friends with them for two reasons: they were naturally affable and generous, and they were usually at every ultra near the city.

And so it was that the ultra community had found me again.

For the rest of the race, Paul and I matched strides. We ran over a few marsh-like stretches that stopped us dead, through silent stretches of brown forest, over rocky tracks and finally to the turnaround shack, where we stopped for some cookies. I learned that he too was wrestling with a nagging pain while training for a big race. Except that Paul’s injury was in his foot, and his race was the Bighorn 100-Miler. Suddenly, my issues seemed laughable.

Miles 2 + 14

Miles 2 + 14

We made our way back to the start over familiar territory. Back over uneven tracks, dead forest, and boggy strips of overgrown grass. We continued talking during this stretch, mostly about recent races we’ve run and how we were going to overcome our current injuries. I couldn’t help but notice how emphatically optimistic he was. He was so confident that I was going to finish Ice Age, you would think that I had just regaled him about how I’ve never once in my life felt pain. It was enough to forget that I was running quite comfortably.

By mile 13 we had stopped talking. Something clicked in both our brains once the trail flattened out, as if we had both smelled blood. There was an unspoken decision, almost like instinct, that demanded that we run, and that we run fast. The camaraderie was still there, but I kept glancing at my watch to notice we were running in the 7:30s, which is very fast for a trail run. Just as he would pull ahead, I would kick back up to his heels. And yet, despite this rush, neither of us really pulled ahead. I know we both had a faster clip reserved in our legs, but we refused to go for the kill. We had pulled each other for most of the race, so it would have been wrong to run away so close to the finish.

Miles 4 + 11

Miles 4 + 11

We returned to the large clearing, the finish line shack perched atop a green hill. We had to run clockwise around it like a vortex before spinning into the finishing. About a third of a mile from the finish, one of Paul’s kids joined him for the run and he motioned that I go on ahead.

I couldn’t argue with that. After giving him my heartfelt thanks for the company, I continued the spiral toward the finish line.

I stopped the clock at around 2:17 and immediately saw “Iron Lung” Jeff, another fixture of the Chicagoland ultrarunning community, by the post-race snacks. We caught up on life and ruminated on the mysteries of the sport, to which he is making a big comeback this year. He left soon afterward to join his fiancée on the second loop of her race. Meanwhile, I sat on the grass and waited for Otter. With only about 200 people between both distances, virtually every single finisher got their own personalized finish line cheer. Once Otter finished, he became a one-man bandstand, roaring for every finisher’s newly minted 50k time as if they were all his children.

(left to right): Paul, me

(left to right): Paul, me

My knee, as expected, was hurting afterward … but not as much as I was expecting. I still had to take all manner of precautions and avoided certain positions all day, but progress is progress. My performance in the woods of the Palos Forest Preserve did not convince me that a 50-mile finish was in my legs, but it didn’t drive a stake into my ambitions either. It left me in a frustrating state of ambiguity, which is where I still am today. It’s been over two weeks since I ran this race, and I’m not one to take this long to write a summary. Clearly this knee injury has managed to scramble my mind as well.

But I’m trying to stay optimistic. It helps that I really want to finish Ice Age; I set it as my goal for the year and I don’t want to let myself down again. With no other races in between now and May 14, I won’t really know how it will go until I’m already deep into the woods. Wish me luck.

Otter smashes his 50k PR

Otter smashes his 50k PR