State 33: Washington (2013 Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon)

My desire to run the 2013 Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon, a relatively small race in central Washington, was borne out of escalation and frugality.  Last summer, I ran two half marathons in two states over one weekend, which meant that it was only a matter of time before I attempted the same feat with two full marathons.  Having already committed to the 2013 Portland Marathon on October 6, I then decided to save money on my 50-states quest by only flying to the Pacific Northwest once.  Within minutes of finding the Leavenworth Marathon, an event that takes place the day before about 5 hours away, I asked Otter if he’d be interested in a double.  As we’ve all learned, his impulsive thirst for adventure easily outmatches his restraint and reason, so by January, we had our two huge challenges for 2013 clearly mapped out: run a 50-miler and then double-up on marathons.

The 50-miler was a success … for Otter.  He crossed the finish line of the North Country Run with a kick in his step, literally dancing across the finish line, while I chose to drop out just before mile 40 due to a knee injury.  My biggest justification (or reason or excuse) for doing so was to minimize the chances of canceling the marathon double, just six weeks away.  It wasn’t the easiest decision to make, but I kept reminding myself, often loudly, of the main goal: run all fifty states.  After coming to terms with it, I rested, cross-trained, and built up my mileage back to the usual load.  My knee was responding positively, not a single twinge or stab to report.

The marathon start was remote and beautiful

The marathon start was remote and beautiful (Google Earth)

After a painfully long Friday, I arrived at the Coast Hotel in Wenatchee, Washington, into which Otter had already checked us.  I brought with me our bibs for Portland and a pair of objects that would put a completely new twist on our marathon experiences.  But before I say what they were, I must take step back.

Running two marathons in two days is, by many accounts, a little nuts.  To the average person, running just one marathon is excessive and even for serial runners, they’re simply difficult.  So to do two consecutively requires a little more training, an affinity for fatigue, and the stamina to continue pushing yourself when every muscle is ushering you towards collapse.  However, even with all of these discouraging factors, there are many people who double-up anyway.  In fact, many nutcases go beyond two.  There was even last year’s infamous Quadzilla in Seattle, which hosted four marathons over the four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend.  The Mainly Marathons series one-ups them by routinely hosting up to five consecutive marathons in five different states all around the country.

So it’s not at all uncommon.  But what I have noticed is that, for the most part, whenever intrepid runners double-up, they tend to run each race at a very conservative pace.  In other words, really slowly.  I don’t mean to disparage anyone’s accomplishments because it still takes a lot of dedication, endurance and mental willpower to cover 26.2 miles twice in one weekend.  But for me, the marathon has always been there to push me to my limits, forcing me to cross every finish line with nothing left, each drop of sweat and spit forever grafting itself on the experience.

Pacers ready to go, picture courtesy of Otter

Pacers ready to go, picture courtesy of Otter

But I’m also not stupid.  There’s no way I could gut it out as fast as possible two days in a row.

I therefore decided the best way to challenge myself over the weekend without dying was to run both marathons in under four hours.  The four-hour mark was my target at my first ever marathon (which I missed by 3 minutes and 21 seconds), so it felt appropriately difficult.  So after a five-hour drive from Portland, I met up with Otter with a pair of homemade pacer signs, one with a Triforce inspired by the Legend of Zelda emblazoned with “3:59” and the other boasting a Michigan State Spartan head showing “3:58.”  Why the minute difference?

Because that way one of us could sprint the last 0.2?  Because it’s a conversation starter?  Because Otter is obnoxious?

And yet, the pacing signs weren’t simply the product of an urge to do something new.  We both knew ourselves very well – we never stick to our race plans.  If we ever say we’re going to take it easy during a race, adrenaline inevitably takes over and we push ourselves to run fast.  If there’s ever a reason to take it easy, we kick it to the curb and step on the gas.  But with an additional race on Sunday, we knew we had to find a way to anchor ourselves to a 9-minute pace.  We achieved that by becoming the race’s only unofficial pace leaders.

2013 Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon Google-Earth Rendering

2013 Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon Google-Earth Rendering

For the full Google-Earth map, please click here.

The next morning we boarded a bus around 6:15, which left the tiny town of Leavenworth and climbed Icicle Road to the marathon start.  We would be running about ten miles downhill from the start to the city, with the half marathoners (all 1500 of them) not starting until two hours later.  It was dark and chilly as we wandered around the start, drawing attention with our pace signs from the 300 other marathoners.  Several of them asked why we were the only pacers, whether we would run even splits, and why Otter’s was a minute faster.  But mostly we smiled and reciprocated everyone’s enthusiasm to run down a rugged canyon carved by Icicle Creek.

The race started on time with very little pomp or circumstance.  There was a slight uphill to contend with before the long downhill.  Otter and I spent those first five minutes gauging our pace, spending equal amounts of time enjoying the view and checking our watches.  It didn’t take long to settle into a comfortable stride between 8:55 and 9:05 minutes per mile.  With the vast majority of the field waiting for the half marathon to start down in the city, I was unsure if we would gather enough runners to warrant being pacers.  I even mentioned it about a mile into the race.

“Dude, look behind us,” Otter said with a proud smirk.

leavenworth-marathon-01As if trying to furtively evaluate the attractiveness of someone sitting behind me at a restaurant, I turned somewhat awkwardly to see that there were about seven or eight people all bunched up immediately behind us.  Sure, it was still very early in the race, but it looked like our signs’ gravity was working.  I couldn’t help but smile.

Down and down we went, hovering steadily at 9 minutes per mile, doing everything possible to avoid a screaming pace.  We were soon talking to the runners around us, getting to know our 4-hour harem.  There was Jeff in the yellow singlet, who quit smoking two years ago and took up running as a substitute, choosing Leavenworth as his first marathon.  I met Mary and Nora, two childhood friends from Juneau, Alaska, running their third and second marathons respectively.  They also pitched the Frank Maier Marathon to me as a potential race.  We also met Bean (whose real name is Mark Bieber and has a brother named Justin), whose 3:19 PR makes him a speed demon and an unlikely runner in our group.  It was a great group of newcomers and veterans, all more than willing to share their life experiences, none moreso than my co-pacer Otter.

“When we decided to do this,” I told Nora as we continued downhill about six miles in, “I told my buddy back there that I wouldn’t be much of a cheerleader.  I just can’t bring myself to be that pacer who yells inspirational things and rallies everyone into battle.  Which is why he’s here.”  It was common for me to eavesdrop on him talking about a race or an unrelated yet colorful story, receiving hoots from whomever was next to him at the moment.

“… that was my first marathon, and it sucked …”
“… and then my friend just hits the ground …”
“… but of course I decided, f*ck that, so I …”

leavenworth-marathon-02While we had started chatting with our group, the mountainous scenery and breathtaking views were not lost on us.  We would frequently pair a loud “whoa!” with a quick fling of our pace signs to our sides, pointing out a snowcapped mountain or a dew-drenched rock.  Hours earlier at the start, we were thrilled just to see stars.  On more than one occasion, someone from our pace group would chuckle and we’d have to remind them that we flatland city boys didn’t have such monumental vistas in Chicago.

I was having such a fun time with this group.  In both training and races, I’m a solo runner.  Even on the rare occasion that I join a pace group, I don’t really do much talking and inevitably bail on the group within a few miles.  But the banter and fun demeanor of our little pod was making for a singularly unique running experience.  It’s one thing to run in a group where you’re the follower or no one’s the leader.  But in this case, we were leading the group, setting the pace and everyone was having a good time.  Since we could have counted the number of spectators up until this point with one hand, it was fun to have people to talk to.

I was legitimately saddened that it didn’t last.

Somewhere between miles 21 and 23.

Somewhere between miles 21 and 23.

Once we hit mile 10, the downhill stopped.  No longer aided by gravity and wanting to keep even splits for the entire race, running the same pace quickly became taxing.  After a short out-and-back over a paved road and around a cemetery, we passed a few spectators in costume.  We saw Tigger, a few Sumo wrestlers and Gumby, whose normally pinched helium voice had been replaced by a hungover drawl.  A mile later, we were in a forest, running on pine straw and sand, climbing up gently rolling hills and zigzagging through sharp turns.  Our pace was no longer a cakewalk and we dropped everyone but Bean.

“What made you want to pace this race?” he asked us.
“We’re running Portland tomorrow, so we wanted to keep our speed in check.”
“You guys are running Portland tomorrow?” he judged incredulously.  “That’s insane.  I’m getting wasted after this.”

Chugging through mile 24

Chugging through mile 24

After several winding turns through forest trails, we entered the Fish Hatchery where our packet pickup had been three hours earlier to behold a huge crowd of runners under a large yellow “Start” banner.  I scarcely had a chance to enjoy the flood of half marathoners before a bullhorn went off.  We had reached the half start in just under two hours and our races officially converged.  It felt like we had invaded a completely different event.  Just two minutes ago we were three people plodding through the woods, now surrounded by hundreds of fresh faces.

I thought the infusion of so many half marathoners would make our pace group grow again to what it once was.  Surely among so many runners we would be able to attract a group with two hours as their half marathon goal.  But over the course of the next 13.1 miles, we didn’t manage to pick anyone up.  Keeping a solid 9-minute pace, we weaved in and out of neighborhoods, through the tiny town of Leavenworth, on dirt trails alongside Icicle Creek and back onto paved roads where I had my first mid-race beer sip.  Otter and I would remark on how incredibly varied the race was.  It wasn’t until miles 20-24 that we got just a little bored.  This section consisted of two eerily identical out-and-back segments, to the point where I commented that it felt like a Twilight Zone episode.

Finishing a pinch too fast

Finishing a pinch too fast

On the way back from each section, we made sure to keep our eyes open for our marathon friends.  We saw Jeff, chugging along confidently and not too far back and Nora gave us a shout-out before zipping by us.  Bean’s wife was running the half marathon and she passed us during one of these sections.  She didn’t feel at all ashamed about leaving her husband in the dust and he chided her for running only half the distance.  In retrospect, it was really nice of him to stick with us, especially since he was capable of running so much faster.  Had he not stuck around with us for the entire race, we would have just been a couple of weirdos waving sticks at pretty things.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” I said to Bean as we scuffled over the soft pine straw we had visited 14 miles earlier and waking the underused muscles that let you run sideways. “But why are you running with us?  You can run so much faster.”
“Yeah, but it sucks.”
I laughed.
“No, I’m serious,” Bean said as we approached one of the final miles.  “It’s much more fun this way.  Running fast is painful.”

He definitely had a point.  The last miles of any marathon are awful no matter how good you feel.  But today we had found a happy medium.  We weren’t exactly phoning it in by finishing under four hours, the aches and pains in our legs certainly bearing witness to the struggle.  But we weren’t killing ourselves doing it either.  It was, dare I say it, fun.  It certainly helped that we were running a beautiful race surrounded by mountains and forest, put together by volunteers and local supporters who were cheery and happy to be out there.

Left to right: Otter, Bean, me

Left to right: Otter, Bean, me

We emerged from the trees and back toward the fish hatchery, where the bright yellow banner awaited us.  A crowd had formed on both sides of the chute, multiplying the total amount of spectators we had seen all day by fifty.  Though we had only brought one person to the finish line (and he could have easily done it without us), I was proud of our pacing duties.  Sure, we were a little fast at 3:56 and 3:57 respectively, but we ran evenly the entire way.  If I ever pace in an unofficial capacity again, I’ll make sure to add an “ish” next to the time.

leavenworth-marathon-07Although we really wanted to stick around and cheer for our marathon friends, our hotel checkout was within the hour, so we couldn’t stay for long.  With our shiny bottle-opener medals and finisher t-shirts draped on our shoulders, we found our car and drove back to the hotel.  We didn’t have the post-marathon luxury of doing and eating whatever we wanted.  In order to not melt down at tomorrow’s race, the next 12 hours would be crucial.  We had to force food into our systems, stay hydrated, drive five hours to Portland without too much muscle atrophy, hydrate again and eat some more.  With so much to think about, coupled with nervous uncertainty, I didn’t get a chance to realize that my knee never once complained.

Marathon_Map 042 (WA)

2013 Race Schedule

I don’t usually have a perfectly solidified race schedule so early in the year.  At any given point, I have a few races set in stone with a select group waiting in the wings, either because I haven’t registered or because they have yet to graduate from “flight of fancy” to “official commitment.”  However, this year I am very confident that it has been completely mapped out through November.

The reason for my confidence actually stems from a comment Otter made to me a few days ago.  He said that (almost) every race on his radar has a purpose.  I looked at my own race calendar and had a similar epiphany.  With a few exceptions, the big races on my schedule were meaningful stepping stones of some sort, which made it easier to ink these events into my otherwise palimpsest of a calendar.  Though I haven’t officially registered for all of these, I decided to at least publish the schedule to keep me from flaking out on any of them.  And so, with great excitement and hope that I encounter no sudden injuries, this is the path that 2013 will take:

February 24, 2013
New Orleans, Louisiana

The Disney World Marathon was supposed to end my marathon-a-month streak and mark the beginning of my ultra regimen.  However, on something of a whim, I decided to go for the Rock ‘n Roll New Orleans Marathon.  If you’ve been following my adventures, you’ll find this choice of race a bit odd.  True, I’m not the biggest cheerleader for Competitor’s RNR series, but I refuse to run Louisiana in any other city and this is its only marathon.  The timing for this event wasn’t entirely whimsical though.  It has not escaped my notice that every marathon I’ve run since Des Moines has been slower than the previous.  Perhaps spacing them so close together has made it so I’m never fresh enough for a faster time.  So this will be my last shot at a fast marathon for a long time.

March 16, 2013
Willow Springs, Illinois

I first saw the Paleozoic Trail Run on ultrarunner Jeff’s blog.  While the signature event is a 50k, the shorter 25k option looked like a great race to test our trail skills leading up to longer races.  I sent a link to Otter and he showed great interest, signing up almost immediately.  I was surprised at his enthusiasm, given that he has a loose rule about never signing up for inaugural races.  But here’s something intriguing, if not intimidating about their tagline: “Finish or Fossilize” which written on a T-Shirt is alone worth the registration fee.  Located just thirty minutes southwest of Chicago, it’s an easy race to reach and will surely give us a taste of the challenges to come later in the year.

March 24, 2013
Charlotte, North Carolina

I originally wanted to run the NC Half Marathon in 2012 to continue a series of races that all had race tracks (Pomona Raceway, Kentucky Derby’s Churchill Downs and the Indianapolis 500) but airfare was unusually expensive and nobody else seemed interested.  So I tabled the race for 2013.  As of this writing, a group of 5 of us are registered and ready to start our engines.  While this race isn’t a building block of any kind, it will be the first half marathon I run since August and the last on my calendar for quite some time.  In other words, it’s my last shot at a fast half (perhaps even a PR), possibly until 2014.  Posting a record time will depend on the weather, but North Carolina can expect a bloodthirsty performance from me regardless.

April 20, 2013
Olathe, Kansas

You can’t run a marathon in  Kansas without it having some theme related to the Wizard of Oz.  Held three weeks before my first 50k race, I decided to use the Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz as a training run.  By this point I will have spent a lot of time on trails and will simply want to strengthen my legs and steel my stomach.  My goal for this race will therefore be to run conservatively, practice my food intake and finish comfortably (in other words, avoid throwing up).

May 11, 2013
Ottawa Lake, Wisconsin

The Ice Age Trail Runs include a 50-miler and two shorter distances, a 50K and a half marathon.  In order to continue training for a much longer event later in the year, Otter and I decided to sign up for the Ice Age Trail 50k as our first venture past the 26.2-mile barrier (and no, I’m not counting his 26.5-mile Route 66 Marathon as an ultra, no matter how pedantically he tries to suggest it).  Running this will be similar to my first marathon; the next big event, the one where once again I’ll be unsure of the outcome and all excitement is slathered with a thick layer of trepidation.  While pictures from the event look gorgeous, I’m sure my face afterward will be far from comely.  It will be the single hardest race I’ve ever run.  That is, until …

August 24, 2013
Wellston, Michigan

… this guy.  I still don’t know how an undertaking as massive as running fifty consecutive miles could start with something as simple as a webchat at work.  You’d expect things like this to happen after a bear with a broadsword orders you to do it or if a band of marauders captures your children and leaves them fifty miles away, hungry and afraid.  But somehow I found myself receiving an email saying I was registered for the North Country Run 50-Miler, wondering how it was possible that I had signed up.  50-milers are for crazy people and I just run marathons.  In fact, I still can’t truly process what this is going to be like, but it will likely change me, for better or worse.  Given its date, there’s a good chance it’ll be warm and humid, so I’ll have to double-down on training and nutrition to ensure that I don’t donate my body to the dirt beneath the Manistee National Forest.

October 5, 2013
Leavenworth, Washington

This marathon isn’t a milestone of any sort by itself (besides being my first in the state).  In order to understand its significance in this story, you have to move to the next race.

October 6, 2013
Portland, Oregon

I doubled-up on half marathons in 2012, which meant that it was only a matter of time before I tried the same with the full distance.  Just like the North Country Run, it started off as a suggestion, which grew into an idea and finally became a commitment.  Given the distance, I will have to practice both steady discipline and measured food intake in order to successfully complete both races without hating myself too much.  There will be additional challenges, such as avoiding atrophy on the drive between cities and eating enough to both replenish and restock.

November 17, 2013
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Assuming that I survive everything so far, I’m aiming to run the Philadelphia Marathon because … well, because I want to.  It’s not part of a greater plan nor is it supposed to teach me anything.  It’s simply because after all the year’s meticulous orchestrations, I want to run something simply because I want to.  Isn’t that why we run in the first place?

Given that I haven’t signed up for all of these, there’s still a very real chance that this schedule may change.  However, I’ll do everything possible to stick with it and hold myself accountable.

But more importantly, I’ll need advice from all experienced runners on trail running, nutrition and doubling-up.  I’m going to face these challenges directly with little but intuition and my “stick-to-itiveness” as my wife once noted, but I will definitely need as many tips and tricks as possible.  All insight and anecdotes will be appreciated.