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!

The Meb Mob: 2015 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon

The morning of July 19, 2015 was very sticky. Intense thunderstorms had ravaged Chicago a few days prior in brief, but powerful bursts, with temperatures rising and dropping like the needle of a Richter scale. So as I walked to the Team Chance Charity Tent, I knew instantly that I would run the day’s half marathon at a conservative pace, perhaps throwing in a tempo mile or two. With the humidity reaching an uncomfortable level and sweat oozing out of my pores by just walking, it was a no-brainer. But as I neared the speakers of the starting line, I heard something that would change the day’s plan.

“And today we have US Olympic Silver Medalist and 2014 Boston Marathon Champion Meb Keflezighi pacing the 1:30 half marathon group.”

Well, shit.

How many times do you get a chance to run with the gods of the sport? Last year I caught a quick glimpse of the elfin Shalane Flanagan as she stomped through a few pre-race strides near our orange charity tent, but I didn’t get to run with her. She was blazing the trail 20 minutes ahead of me, ultimately winning the women’s race. This year, the organizers brought a professional speed demon and national hero not to compete, but to participate with the throngs of competitive amateur runners like me. There was no way I could pass up the opportunity.

Of course, that didn’t mean that Meb’s 1:30 pace sign waved away the moisture in the air or lowered the mercury, which had reached 80 before any of us had heard the starter’s siren. It was by far one of the warmest starts to a half marathon in recent memory, destined to be a race where it feels like your skin is melting into your shoes. A few minutes before the start, a group of volunteers escorted Meb into my corral, just a few people ahead of me. I knew he wouldn’t be tall, but it was still surprising to see just how short most elite marathoners are. As soon as he arrived, the corral buzzed with energy and he instantly began chatting with the fawning runners around him.

2015 Chicago Rock n Roll Weekend Chicago, Il     July 18-19, 2015 Photo: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun Victah1111@aol.com 631-291-3409 www.photorun.NET

That’s me in the very back with the red sleeveless shirt
Photo credit: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun, Victah1111@aol.com, 631-291-3409, http://www.photorun.NET

I decided early that there was no way I could run the entire race with him. My half marathon PR is 1:29:42, so to run just one second per mile slower would require near perfect conditions. So for the first four city-lined miles, which cut through River North, State Street, and both the Theater and Financial districts, I stayed within three people of the indefatigable Meb Keflezighi, winner of the 2009 New York City and 2014 Boston Marathons, 2004 Olympic Silver Medalist, and all-around nice guy. He was as gregarious as I expected, talking to multiple runners at any given time, sometimes in Spanish, but always with an optimistic, cheery tone. Having defied the odds by staying strong and remarkably consistent well into his late 30s and now early 40s, he’s already a running legend.

There was a veritable peloton surrounding Meb, which I called the “Meb Mob,” with runners weaving in and out of the core to try and get a quick chat with the Eritrean-born athlete. As we reached mile 4, he was in the middle of regaling a nearby runner with stories of last year’s Boston Marathon. I decided then that I couldn’t continue this pace much longer without suffering an early bonk. So after four memorable miles, I decided to slam the brakes.

2015 Chicago Rock n Roll Weekend Chicago, Il     July 18-19, 2015 Photo: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun Victah1111@aol.com 631-291-3409 www.photorun.NET

Again, me in the back in the red.
Photo credit: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun, Victah1111@aol.com, 631-291-3409, http://www.photorun.NET

The Meb Mob pulled ahead and I reduced my speed to my original goal of 8-minute miles. I was already drenched in sweat and more fatigued than I hope to be so early in a half marathon, so now it was time to simply endure. Almost immediately, every runner behind me zipped by as they continued their strong surge to finish in the 1:30s.

The next three miles took place within the city of Chicago, which featured more skyscrapers than spectators or bands. I don’t care much for on-course entertainment or distractions, but the sparse crowds and musical acts seemed to clash with the Rock ‘n Roll brand of event production. This was supposed to be a raucous party with fans and electric guitars competing for screams. In fact, the Expo the day before featured a soundtrack more akin to a rave than a rock concert, and the headlining act for the post-race party was Andy Grammer. I realize that rock songs in the Billboard Hot 100 are like parents at a prom, but it’s still disappointing to hear an EDM-remix of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” strung out across a half mile stretch of speakers where last year I heard Metallica’s “Sad But True.”

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

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

I kept my pace through the next three miles, which run down South Michigan Avenue, away from the city. There would be no more crowds until the end of the race, save for volunteers at aid stations and a few gimmicky entertainment spots. I could hear squishing sounds all around me as we continued hammering the pavement on waterlogged shoes. The sun was out, rising before us as we headed east towards Lake Michigan. The next aid station seemed a bit threadbare, which spelled doom for slower runners. Without a volunteer to hand me a cup, I ran to the table and picked one up only to taste Gatorade in its purest, least diluted state. Though I clenched my cheeks and puckered for about a minute, it must have helped because I wasn’t feeling as gassed as I was when I left the city. In fact, I began to notice that I was no longer being passed. My consistent 8-minute pace was now the speed of the drained, flagging runners who had gone out too fast in the first half.

Just before we reached Lake Michigan, the course turned left, back toward the city. This is where I was treated to a good four minutes of Whitney Houston, which I only appreciated for the lyric “I wanna feel the heat” because the damp, warm air had slithered into my clothes. What little shade there was would soon be compensated by the McCormick Center service tunnel, which was bedecked in psychedelic colors, strobe lights and thundering speakers. It made that energy-pulling void a little more bearable, especially since it heralds the final 1.5 mile dash to the finish. Once out and under the race’s iconic inflatable guitar player’s crotch, we visited the last aid station before jumping on Columbus Drive.

It was a beautiful day for existing. Not as ideal for running 13.1 miles.

It was a beautiful day for existing. Not as ideal for running 13.1 miles.

The finish line beckoned, almost 0.7 miles down a straight line. All around the banner were trees, and behind them the city’s imposing skyscrapers erupting out of the ground. It was challenging to know when to start kicking here because everything ahead felt like a mirage and so much farther than expected. But I had covered the last mile at a tempo pace, so I felt comfortable in my new speed. I looked at my watch and saw I was close to finishing under 1:40, so I turned on the afterburners and pulled ahead of everyone I could see. The crowds got thicker, lining the seven-lane Columbus Drive until it was a deafening roar of cheers. I pushed all the way to the finish, leaving behind me a trail of salt and sweat, stopping the clock of my third Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon at 1:39:12.

It took me about forty minutes to cool down. I drank cold water, filled a damp towel with ice and rested it on my head, stood still in a southbound breeze – nothing was effective at halting the mutinous sweat from escaping every pore. I sat in the shade and let my heart rate lower, dabbed water on my ears and rubbed a cold sponge on my forehead. Eventually, but very slowly, I began to feel fine.

Team Chance

Team Chance

But though I might have been uncomfortable during the race and a little afterward, I made it out okay. For some people, this isn’t always the case. In the McCormick Tunnel, I saw a group of medical officials huddling around a runner who was lying on the dark pavement, looking shell-shocked and distant. But even he would still turn out alright. Some families don’t have this guarantee. This year, I was honored to be invited back as the running coach for the Jackson Chance Foundation, who once again assembled a lively and supportive charity team for the race. The foundation raises funds for families in the neonatal intensive care unit so they can afford the parking and public transit necessary to spend more time in the hospital with their critically ill infant. It’s an incredibly noble and generous initiative that provides real, direct and tangible help to those enduring incredibly painful situations.

For more information on the charity or to donate, please visit www.jacksonchance.org.

Post Race: Media Maratón Correcaminos 2015 (Costa Rica)

Most people – Americans mostly – have a hard time fathoming that addresses don’t exist in Costa Rica.

It’s true. The traditional concept of addresses that most people understand and learn at a very young age – a unit number, building name, street name, city and zip code – does not exist there. This singular realization drops more jaws and raises infinitely more eyebrows than the awe-inspiring fact that the country has 5% of the world’s biodiversity in spite of having only 0.03% of the surface. Or that the country abolished its army in 1949. Or that over a quarter of its land is protected national parks and sanctuaries.

Those astounding figures seem to pale against the incredulous notion that if you want to mail something by post, you have to literally write out long-form descriptors of where the letter is going. In other words, instead of writing “123 Main Street” on an envelope, you would pen “400 meters west of the Santo Domingo Supermarket, House with Green Fence.” On the surface, this sounds insane (and some news outlets have written hilarious articles on the topic). But think about it: before the awesome power of GPS was breathed into our phones, the average address wouldn’t really get you anywhere unless you already had a detailed understanding of an area.

Without the omniscient power of Google Maps, “5170 Forest Avenue, Eugene, OR 97405” wouldn’t mean anything to you. Sure, it’s a place in Oregon, but without a map or an atlas, you’ll have some trouble finding it. But remember what it was like when your parents had to drive you to your friend’s house for the first time? The conversation they had, where they mapped out where each road was and shared common knowledge of major landmarks, is exactly what the addresses are still like in Costa Rica. So, in a way, an address is just a code that you have to decipher. Costa Ricans just choose to write out the answer and if you want to know where anything is, just ask the post office.

So, it is with reverence for my native country’s silly quirk that I will describe the 2015 Media Maratón Correcaminos experience.

From la Plaza de Deportes in Tres Ríos, 6.4 km west, towards Curridabat.

Km 0: Over three thousand runners line up in Tres Ríos

Zero-k: Over three thousand runners line up in Tres Ríos

Although the race begins at 6 am, it’s already very bright in Cartago. The sun typically rises even before 5 am in the Central Valley’s damp and chilly morning, which means the cool air won’t last for much longer. Though the temperature is perfect for me, I can see most everyone else in thin jackets and tights, some even shivering as the humid chill slithers into the eager crowd’s bright orange race shirts. I can’t help but smirk – many of these runners don’t know true cold.

A few minutes after 6, the race hasn’t started yet, which prompts many runners to begin whistling and taunting the organizers. In the US, runners merely glance at their watches with the occasional eyeroll or scoff. Here, it was a party, replete with yells of “demole!” I fondly remember this part of the race from the last time I ran it three years ago because it is a humorous showcase of the Costa Rican culture of pura vida. Not longer after, we are released into the curved roads of Tres Ríos, beginning our 21-kilometer journey to the heart of San José.

5k: The first four miles feature a lot of elevation loss

5k: The first four miles feature a lot of elevation loss

The first four miles are all downhill. There are a few spectators out, lining the chipped sidewalks, but for the most part it’s a sleepy morning punctuated by the bright orange rush of runners. I scream through those opening miles at a 10k pace, lunging past dogs barking in small front yards, knowing that it’s going to get much tougher in a half hour. We will head west for almost the entire race, which means the brisk winds at our back won’t provide much of a cooling effect. My shirt clings to my chest; I can already tell it’s going to be a sweaty day.

6.5k: Curri is in the distance, with most of the downhill behind me

6.5k: Curri is in the distance, with most of the downhill behind me

I pass the first aid station during a particularly steep descent and grab a boli. Instead of water cups, races in Costa Rica tend to have sealed plastic bags full of water about the size of a small baton. Although they’re not the most environmentally friendly feature of the race, they are convenient for runners who want to hydrate, but not at that particular point. It takes some getting used to – especially since you are very likely to spill most of it into your nose the first time you try to bite into one.

From POPS Curridabat, 1 km south until you reach Multi Plaza del Este and Zapote

0705_correcaminos 07Curridabat is a neighborhood of San José that I used to cross often to see friends. It was also briefly where I would go to the dentist, so I have deep feelings about the area that stir my subconscious in occasionally unpleasant ways. But today, it is the site of the first flat stretch of running, along with the first climb. The sun has just burnt through the morning cloud cover and I can feel it singeing my neck. I’m already dripping sweat with every step and with the wind as an escort, I don’t feel any of it evaporating.

Once at the top, runners turn south and descend towards the least scenic part of the race. Most of the next three miles cut through urban commercial strips and highways, which are complete eyesores when compared to the majestic cerros de Escazú squeezing out of the Earth in the distance. The course makes up for these grey tones with another three miles of a nearly constant downhill grade. Thick clouds crawl over the mountains to the northeast and I immediately feel strong again.

After you pass la Clínica Santa Rita, go through la Asamblea Legislativa and around el Parque Nacional to reach Avenida Primera.

14k: Running through la Asamblea Legislativa in the heart of San José

14k: Running through la Asamblea Legislativa in the heart of San José

My confidence is tested as the course slowly bends upward. We are in the heart of San José, staring at a gradual uphill that passes many cultural landmarks. Were this not the most grueling part of the race, I would stop to enjoy the palm trees lining the plaza of the historic Asamblea Legislativa or the Museo Nacional. Everyone around me, despite having far more experience with the heat, altitude and humidity, is also gassed. I keep yo-yoing with many runners around me as I stop to take pictures. A group of percussionists plays at the edge of the Parque Nacional and their punchy, tribal rhythms drive me forward.

15k: Paseo Colón points a straight line toward La Sabana and the finish line

15k: Paseo Colón points a straight line toward La Sabana and the finish line

Once on Avenida Primera, it’s almost a straight line toward la Sabana, where the race ends. The road is not only ever so imperceptibly downhill, but it is as uneven as lumpy mashed potatoes. Each step is a surprise and I find myself raising my sunglasses to keep a very close eye on the asphalt to avoid rolling an ankle. Block after block of concrete buildings pass as if on a conveyor belt until we reach el Hospital Nacional de Niños in the historic Paseo Colón. I reach the four lane road, which during December is an explosion of festive lights, and feel the pull of the finish line.

Upon reaching the end of Paseo Colón, go once around La Sabana metropolitan park.

17k: Runners round La Sabana, with el Museo de Arte being the first landmark.

17k: Runners round La Sabana, with el Museo de Arte being the first landmark.

La Sabana is like San José’s Central Park, a large, sylvan park in the middle of a bustling city. I am greeted by the Museo de Arte Costarricense, a Spanish-style landmark that used to be the country’s main airport. The 2.5-mile perimeter features a gym, a track, pools, a lagoon, various running paths, baseball diamonds and soccer pitches. Inaugurated in 2011 and located in the northwest corner is el Estadio Nacional, which looks like a combination of clamshell and Stegosaurus. As I round the stadium around 19.3 kilometers, I face east for the first time in the race and feel the wind push against me like a river. Everyone around me hits a wall as we try and wade through the current. With just over a kilometer left, crowds emerge on the street and the edge of the park becomes a party. Once back at el Museo de Arte, I follow the runners ahead of me into the park itself.

Deliver medal to exhausted runner with Bib 188.

20k: Not even el Estadio Nacional could hold the winds back

20k: Not even el Estadio Nacional could hold the winds back

The final stretch is tricky because the road is a sort of cobblestone path, which makes sprinting a risky feat. I unleash my last energy stores and skip toward the finish line almost on my toes, stopping the clock at 1:34:37. I look like I opted for a detour into La Sabana’s lagoon, my feet squishing in my shoes with every step. But in spite of the humidity and altitude, I managed a significant improvement from three years ago. Just a few strides away from the finish line, I wolf down my post-race gallo pinto and fruit before walking back to the finish line to see my friends finish. José improves his PR at his second half marathon by a few minutes and Gabriel reaches the finish line of the longest footrace he’s ever completed. If I keep converting my friends to the sport, I’ll soon have a real following.

21.1k: La meta!

21.1k: La meta!

In recent years, Costa Rica has made some real efforts at instituting a system of addresses. The concern is real: in emergencies, it’s much easier to say three quick words (“123 Main Street”) than guide an ambulance or a squad car to your exact location. The untold amounts of undelivered parcels also add up to lost business, missed opportunities and an overall lack of efficiency. However, if you ask the average tico/a, you’ll find that they’re perfectly happy with how they get around, even if it means referring to landmarks or businesses that no longer exist.

You might laugh at the notion of saying “By the old higuerón tree” but it’s not too far from referring to the Willis Tower as the Sears Tower or saying “Comiskey Park” when today it’s US Cellular Field. In both cases, you’re finding common cultural and historical ground to map out a city, tapping into your brain’s ability to translate a 2D concept into the real world, which is increasingly becoming a rare talent as more people rely on smart phones.

(left to right): Me, José, Gabriel

(left to right): Me, José, Gabriel

Directions in Costa Rica are a charming vestige of the past, much like record players and encyclopedias. They remind us of a time when places had a greater sense of community and gathering. Music was localized, as record players didn’t exist in cars or phones. Encyclopedias and libraries weren’t crammed into every digital machine and required travel and intent. An address was a journey, a sort of mini-puzzle that involved active listening, perception and awareness. Reaching your destination felt rewarding because navigating a byzantine grid of unnamed streets could actually challenge you.

So it’s nice to know some echoes of bygone times still exist, often resistant to change. They may not be very helpful or logical in today’s fast-paced society, but they provide opportunities to see the world around us, engage with people and remember a time when we couldn’t know every answer with a casual swipe of a finger.

These days, if something isn’t on Google Maps, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist. But if you ask around and want to explore, you’ll soon find your way.

Go Far, Go Fast: 2015 Fargo Marathon (State #43)

You’ve got this dude, I said aloud, while passing Fargo’s cheery crowd
The weather perfect, cold and dry, these early miles were speeding by
The course was flat, all hills forgot, they asked for speed and it was brought
The feat before, I rose to meet her; with race and thoughts in prose and meter

The day is yours, go for it Dan, you owe it to your training plan
Keep going strong until the coda, and scorch the field at North Dakota
As I began accelerating, my voice was loud and motivating
My twenty-ninth attempt at this, a short point two and twenty-six.

For the first time, I was participating in a race that started indoors. A time normally reserved for breathing warm air into cupped hands and feeling my hamstrings shiver, I was comfortably strolling around the climate-controlled Fargodome. The facility normally plays host to North Dakota State University football games and concerts but on May 9, it was the staging area for the 2015 Fargo Marathon.

(left to right): Joe, Ryan, me

(left to right): Joe, Ryan, me

It didn’t take me long to realize the clout this race has in the racing world. Aside from a movie by the Coen brothers, Fargo is mostly a forgettable city in a state with few claims to fame. However, the city’s titular race had gotten rave reviews from the running blogosphere and as I walked down the bleachers, I saw the legendary Deena Kastor talking cheerily with runners. She wasn’t the only celebrity I would run into. As I reached the floor, about to enter the starters chute, I was approached by an older gentleman.

“Excuse me,” he asked, “where’d you get that shirt?” He was referring to the bright RaceRaves shirt I had worn at my last fast race.
“I’m friends with the guy who started the site.”
“Mike?”
“That’s the one.”

He introduced himself as Wally, who met Mike (of RaceRaves and Blisters, Cramps & Heaves fame) at the 2013 Antarctica Marathon. Later in the race, I would also pass the indefatigable Larry Macon, who by now is probably on his 1,500th marathon. It seemed like this race regularly made many a diehard runner’s top 10 list, a quality which was not lost on the organizers, who quixotically sought to enlist Will Ferrell to run this year with an insistent #FerrellRunFargo Twitter campaign. The fact that his most recent marathon was the 2003 Boston Marathon hasn’t stopped many other organizations from trying to lure him to their events.

But the comic’s non-participation shouldn’t be interpreted as a smudge on this race’s reputation. With a marathon field of about 1,500 people, this wasn’t a small operation. Aid stations were spaced well, run by friendly volunteers and I was surprised to find pace groups of all speeds. I approached the pacer in charge of running my most ambitious time goal. He had a square jaw and a buzzcut, and was introducing himself to the eager runners around him. I told him my plan: to start behind and catch up to him. In the interim, I would join a slower group.

The interior of the Fargodome, 40 minutes before the start

The interior of the Fargodome, 40 minutes before the start

After hearing the national anthem of Canada (another first), the Star Spangled Banner and an overly long invocation, it was time to leave the Fargodome. The chill hit us all at once and I was instantly thankful for the disposable jacket I had bought earlier that morning. After about three miles of single-family residences, I reached an aid station and dropped it along with the pace group. It was time to catch the faster packs ahead. My thoughts raced in iambic tetrameter:

The pace was hot, but I felt fine, the groups ahead were all but mine
Not force nor haste would I deny, my confidence at all time highs
I tapered well, felt fresh and rested, ‘twas time to take this plan and test it,
I logged the miles, fast, slow and plenty, all thanks to wondrous 80/20

I had spent the last three months working with the 80/20 training philosophy. It basically states that you should only run about 20% of your training miles at a moderate to high intensity level. This meant that the vast majority of my monthly mileage was run at a sustainable, conversational level. The idea is that most runners run most of their miles in a danger zone — too fast to be slow, too slow to be fast — and therefore risk burnout or injury. Additionally, it means they show up to the starting line tired. The biggest challenge of this program for me was mental. With so many runs finished at a low intensity, it was challenging to simply believe that I was improving. I did so little of it at that breakneck, gutbusting pace that it was easy for my workouts and overall strategy to feel lazy. But then when it was time to run fast, I suddenly could. Almost like magic.

The course was flat, as advertised. But Fargo is very residential and it wasn’t long before every stretch of road began to blend together, as if I were living the same block over and over. Spectators, though rarely in dense clumps of supportive cheers, were always around, usually on their own driveways. I had heard rave reviews about this race, likely inspired by the incredibly friendly welcome the residents of Fargo give to runners. But I wasn’t out to read every funny sign or high-five every child bundled up in winter coats. I was there to run fast.

2015 Fargo Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2015 Fargo Marathon Google Earth Rendering

I soon learned that the course suffered from a slight bipolar disorder. It would drag on, unwavering for miles like an arrow, and then suddenly become a windy, undulating noodle as it would snake through parks on bike paths. These changes allowed me to focus on something else besides running. I had passed two more pace groups and my target pack was about a minute ahead. I’ve never run well as part of a pack, so I opted instead to reel them in imperceptibly. They were the carrot that would pull me through the rest of the race. The stick would be the promise I made to my friends the night before: that I would take any two shots of their choosing if I failed to PR.

“Looking good, Larry!” I said as I passed the famous serial marathoner in his blue and yellow Marathon Maniacs shirt.
“Thanks!” he replied.
“Keep having fun!”
“Yeah!” he snarled, “That’s it!”

Once out of the parks, we ran around a quad in Moorhead State University after the first of four out-and-backs. The atmosphere was electric as hundreds of red-clad Dragons had come out to cheer in full force beneath a green and pink canopy. It was short-lived, but the short detour was buzzing with excitement and support. We continued through the blooming greens of Concordia College’s campus before entering Gooseberry Mound Park. After two hook-shaped out-and-backs, we were done with parks and back into the hypnotic sprawl of homes. My legs were slamming against the asphalt in shoes that had never gone past eight miles, so my toes were already pretty mangled. But my lungs were working, and I was staying strong, relying completely on feel and the urge to keep that fleet pack of runners within reach.

2015 Fargo Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2015 Fargo Marathon Google Earth Rendering

I had been trailing a gentleman with a red cap and a blue 100-Marathon North America singlet, who I will call Century. As I reeled in that pace group, I pulled up even with him.

“Guess we’re the tail now huh,” Century said.
“What do you mean?”
“Every pace group has a few people right behind, like the tail of a comet.”
“Sounds right.”

I didn’t meditate on the celestial metaphor at the time as I was too busy trying to catch the nucleus. In most races, the tail of the comet is reserved for the chase pack, for the runners who couldn’t keep up and were slowly watching their hopes and dreams recede into the horizon. I soon learned that, like me, Century was unwilling to stay in the tail, so we teamed up to meet the group once and for all.

Two hours gone, with Cen’try nigh, we galloped hard and caught the guy
With Buzzcut hair and bright blue sign, whose numbers I would soon make mine,
We patiently fulfilled the chore, the tail had reached the icy core
To stay or pass, I’d have to choose, what else but time had I to lose?

“It took me eighteen miles,” I said between heaves to Buzzcut as I pulled up alongside him, “but I finally caught you.”
“Well done!” he said. “We’re at pace, maybe a little faster. Glad to have you with us!” I briefly looked around to see who this “us” was, as he was down to one other person, having shed the pack in the last five miles.

fargo-marathon-google-earth-rendering-3

I could have stayed with him but I felt emboldened by my performance. I had run faster than him to catch up, so I felt compelled to keep going and pull away. There were still seven miles left, so it was too early for unchecked confidence. But adrenaline was at the helm and barking orders, so I kept pushing. I even had the gall to smile around mile 21.

Two miles later, that smile had faded. I stopped at an aid station to hydrate only to see Buzzcut and Century blow past me. I was unsure if they surged because they were behind pace or if I was flagging. In the middle of another nondescript stretch of residential road, I looked at my watch for the first time and saw that I was slipping. I was starting to lose my invincibility. At this point in the race, I am either just a few miles from imminent triumph or in the middle of an ugly collapse. Today, it was a little bit of both.

My legs were leaden, losing power, and just like that my thoughts turned sour;
The speed I had stopped climbing higher, perhaps I missed a 20-miler
I blamed the flight of yesterday, for crushing me in on’rous ways,
Or was it tape’ring far too long, that made a dream of running strong?

Lone marathoner in the chute

Lone marathoner in the chute

I kept Buzzcut and Century in my sights. I could have kicked and caught them but I knew I would dig my own grave in the process. So I kept my new pace as we ran through Fargo’s historic district, passing the art deco theater whose large, green sign was the inspiration for this year’s medal. It was also a welcome change from the infinite corridor of homes. I was less thankful for the dwindling energy, which was forcing me to watch my rabbits pull farther away. Another mile later, I was struggling to keep my head up, but I refused to relent. There was one last out-and-back to conquer through North Dakota State University. A few familiar runners had caught up to me, each one tossing a fistful of coal into the engine, breathing new life into my stride. I saw Buzzcut and Century running the back portion on the opposite side of the street. Though I was feeling the pull of the finish line, there was no chance of catching them.

I reached mile 25 and engaged the afterburners, picking it up for the compulsory strong finish. I approached the Fargodome only to find that I had to run partially around it before finishing. I pulled up alongside the half marathon walkers and pumped my arms, fighting for every second gained. Just beyond the barricades and spectators, I could hear the muffled echo of the finish line announcer. Every part of me was tense and begging for reprieve, from my shoulders to my toes. But as I was funneled into the arena entrance and heard the announcer loudly congratulate Buzzcut on his pacing duties, I surged.

I stomped the ground, my legs a hammer; lunging for the finish banner
Miles behind me, long and plenty, conquered thanks to 80/20
Arms aloft, the goal achieved, my time in Fargo took the lead
My legs and lungs survived the test, with 3:16 my per’snal best

Finishers!

Finishers!

I gave Century a proud fist-bump when I encountered him just past the finish line. With a large tower-shaped medal resting on my chest, I quickly found my friends Ryan and Joe (“No shots for me today, boys!”), who had finished the half marathon an hour earlier. It was Ryan’s third half, after running Shiprock and Indianapolis with me last year. However, it was Joe’s debut at the distance, which he crushed to the tune of 2:04. He hosted me three years ago when I ran Grandma’s. This time, he played the roles of host and participant because, in his words, Ryan and I are terrible influences. With the race behind us, it was time to drive back to Minneapolis for some burgers at Blue Door and beers at Nye’s.

The 2015 medal is modeled after the vertical sign of the historic Fargo Theater

The 2015 medal is modeled after the vertical sign of the historic Fargo Theater

As you might imagine, I was pretty proud of myself. In fact, I was elated, but for reasons far beyond the thrill of having a brand new personal best. This was another quantum leap in training. My last two marathon PRs had improved my times by tiny margins between one and two minutes. This time, not only had I knocked six minutes off my best, but I had done it with a training program that I had found counterintuitive and even lazy. It was as if I had a huge test, and I only studied once a week in short, frenzied bursts instead of spending long hours at the library. But if the last two months of race performances have been any indication, maybe this oddball strategy is working for me.

The road to a Boston Qualifying time won’t be easy. The bridge between my current abilities and a 3:04 is twice my improvement from this race. It’s still an intimidating chasm that I’m facing, the preparation for which will likely dominate my summer. But Fargo has shown that I’m faster than I think, that I might be doing something right, and that a BQ might someday be a reality. It has slightly bridged that impassable gap, created a ledge on that insurmountable peak. In other words:

I once felt Boston out of reach; that yearly ritual runners preach,
Made for the fleeter-footed type, was not for me, my legs weren’t right,
But now I have a different view, conducive to a fast BQ
Though now I rest, Berlin is near, my task ahead made now quite clear.

Marathon_Map 056 (ND)