State 25: Montana (2012 Madison Half Marathon)

I woke up at 1:15 in the morning in Rich and Shari’s guest bedroom, my clothes from the weekend strewn throughout the room, mixed with random electronics and a few granola bars.  Rich and Shari were a nice couple that I had met on and they were nice enough to host me for my very first half marathon double.  The first race of the weekend was the inaugural Idaho Falls Half Marathon, which I had run the day before.  As I tiptoed my way out of their house and into my Nissan Sentra rental, I couldn’t ignore my quads, which were definitely aching from the steep downhill of the race’s first five miles.  There was nothing I could do about that now, so I set phasers to Google Maps and started the 150-minute drive north to Ennis, Montana for the fifth annual Madison Half Marathon.

Clover Meadows

As you can imagine, the entire drive was pitch black, especially after leaving the main road and entering Montana.  I’ve always had this idea of the Big Sky State in my head as a huge mountainous expanse teeming with wildlife and civilization all but abandoned.  Right as I entered the state, I saw two large, sculpted figures on the shoulder of the road, and as they turned and my headlights caught their eyes, I realized they were elk.  I slammed the breaks in both surprise and awe, slowing down just enough to see them leap into the darkness.  An hour later, I entered the ghost town of Ennis, a town that seemed to encompass just five square blocks.  So far, stereotypes confirmed.

The Madison Marathon, called such because it takes place in Madison County, bills itself as the “highest road marathon in the country [possibly the world].”  There are definitely higher road half marathons (such as Mt. Evans), but for the full distance, all higher races are trail runs.  Given the elevation profile, it’s not the kind of race I normally run.  But for some reason, I was overcome by some intense, gung-ho spirit of adventure in the spring and I convinced myself that running this would be a good idea.  It was as if my runner’s id had taken over my planning, with my ego and superego choosing which credit card to use for registration.  Tacking on an additional half marathon the day before was just a garnish for this unusually ambitious palette.  When I planned out the preliminary logistics, I assumed that the race would start and end in Ennis, and that I’d be able to drive to the start and hop in my car shortly after finishing.

Wrong on all three counts.

Gear Check (awesome)

I learned shortly before leaving Chicago that this race requires a lot of logistical handling.  First, runners should arrive in Ennis by 5 AM to board the shuttles.  The field of roughly 200 runners is then transported over ninety very shaky minutes to Clover Meadows campground, where both races finish.  It’s a circular clearing of land with many tents hugging the tree line (one of which was the official gear check) and Montana’s smooth peaks in the distance.  However, this isn’t the race start.  After letting runners go to the bathroom, organizers whisk the eager athletes back onto the shuttles for another 40-minute drive even farther into the bowels of the middle of nowhere.  Since I had gotten no real sleep (and as of this writing, have yet to experience a good night’s rest since four nights ago), I slept through both rides.  I’m sure I missed out on some pristine views, but trust me, I would get plenty of that soon.

Game face, with a huge helping of trepidation

After what felt like an eternity, we arrived at a large field, surrounded on all sides by rising mounds of grass with yellow and red flowers popping from the underbrush.  It was a beautiful place to start a race.  Too bad it got soiled by a perverse firing squad of male runners with an urgent need to urinate.  As if avoiding an invisible fence, upwards of thirty guys lined up in a perfectly straight line and peed on the grass.  Before anyone reflexively shouts out “Ew, boys,” I will let you know that the ladies were doing the exact same thing on the other half of the field, but with more foliage to protect them from wandering eyes.  I guess this is normal in small, mountain races.

For me though, it was all a bit unusual.  Not only was this completely different from any other race I’ve run (except, perhaps, the XTERRA Trail Run), but everyone around me seemed to carry themselves with a certain insouciance that I did not share.  I was very nervous and felt a little out of place.  My legs were tired, I had just as much experience with altitude races as I did with semiconductors and there was no apparent way to bail on the race should my body break down.  Had I, like George Oscar Bluth, made a huge mistake?  Maybe.  But I was doing my best to ignore all of that.  I made small talk with the people around me and thought I recognized a few faces from the previous day’s race.  There was a tall African American runner with a bright orange Syracuse shirt that I swore I had seen on Saturday but with a different Syracuse shirt.  I didn’t want to be accused of racial insensitivity by assuming it was him, so I didn’t ask.  Fortunately, he brought up the race with a nearby runner, and I jumped into the conversation, feeling quite validated.

Korsmoe gets us started. The hill behind him was a fiend.

On the back of a pickup truck, race organizer Sam Korsmoe belted out last-minute details in a carefree, almost sardonic tone.  It was a fitting start to this unusual race.  A few minutes later, the race had officially started and a few hundred athletes of dubious sanity were on the first climb of the day.

The first, and most demoralizing climb of the day.

Son of a bitch, I thought as I slowed to what nobody can reasonably call a running pace.  My feet were scrambling over each other like a clumsy duck, and within 0.1 miles, I was reduced to a walk.  I wasn’t comforted by the fact that everyone around me was also walking on the steep, dirt path.  I could only focus on feeling “broken” so pathetically early in a race.  I looked at my Garmin and saw that my pace was in the 14-minute range.  Fantastic, I thought.  Of all the paces I thought I’d register today, 14 was not one I wanted so soon.  This is going to suck.  Really, really badly.

Projected finishing time: 3 hours and change plus some time in the emergency room.

If you click to enlarge, you’ll notice just how long this downhill was.  Black Butte Mountain in the background.

Many frustrated strides later, I began to suspect that the day wouldn’t be all pain and torment.  In fact, I learned that the first mile is notoriously difficult while the second is much friendlier.  Since it’s all downhill, I was cruising down it and despite my aching quads, managed to log a 7:36 split.  So maybe I was too quick to judge this race.  Plus, I had started to note how much everyone else was walking, despite looking like total badasses.

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

The endless ascent … that eventually ended.

But as you might have already guessed, these optimistic thoughts were short-lived.  The next three miles were easily the most difficult of the entire day.  With very little downhill reprieve, we climbed and climbed, winding our way from one outcropping to the next.  From the base of the climb, you could see the laughably long and serpentine path to the top.  I had compiled a batch of murmurs from eavesdropping and I concluded that the top of the climb at mile 5 was the highest point in the race, so that the remaining eight miles would be “downhill.”  It was an optimistic thought, for sure, but it didn’t make my legs any lighter.  I would look ahead to see several people walking, so I would run to pass them, only to have them rubber-band past me when my legs would start to fail me.  At several points during that climb, I couldn’t help but think, if I’m this tired and winded now at just three miles, how am I going to feel at mile 11?

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

But all things, even painful, exhausting ones, come to an end.  I soon found myself standing next to Monument Ridge, where I happily took out my camera to immortalize the moment.  The longest continuous climb of the day was over.  After punishing my legs for so long on the uphill, the next stretch was refreshingly easy.  Even slight uphills weren’t a big deal and I found myself rising over them confidently.  Since my prime directive was no longer avoiding death, I decided to take in the breathtaking scenery.  Atop Monument Ridge, no cardinal direction was bereft of inspiration.  I wanted to take pictures of every single angle.  In retrospect, I wish I could have immersed myself more deeply in my surroundings.  But since we were running on dirt and loose gravel, I kept my sight mostly focused on the ground three feet ahead of me so as to avoid slipping on a rock or rolling an ankle.

Monument Ridge, with Black Butte Mountain in the background

By mile 6, I was in a groove and loving it.  I would stomp out the flat sections to the tune of 8:40 per mile, scorch the downhills under 7:30 and run/walk my way up the climbs at considerably slower speeds.  All of these strategies together averaged at about 9:40 overall.  I definitely felt like I could keep this up for the rest of the race.  Check this out, I thought.  I’m actually doing this and with a good amount of grace and strength.  I don’t know if it’s a reflection of my self-confidence, but this scenario did not play in my head that morning.

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

There was a standalone cooler just past mile 6 with a cup tied to it.  The race organizers had urged runners to bring their own water because the course would have very limited support.  They also pointed out that these lone coolers could only have water because Gatorade would attract bears.  Bears.  I’d be lying if I said that this passing comment didn’t unnerve me a bit.  But once on the course and hammering out the miles, Pooh, Smokey and the Berenstains weren’t on my mind at all.  I also assumed, probably foolishly, that since you could see so much of the landscape ahead of you, a sneak attack just seemed unlikely.

“Aw, man,” I said as I turned the corner to behold this forthcoming climb (the diagonal one slicing across the hill)

Every turn revealed miles of new terrain, the curtain drawn to show the distant course draped over the green Gravelly Mountains like a dusty rope.  Miles 7 through 10 were, believe it or not, a blur.  They weren’t easy and had their fair share of climbs.  But I had gotten into a pace that I could hold for what felt like forever.  I was also approaching a mindset where all of my actions felt automatic.  There was something different about this race and it wasn’t just that large mountains had replaced buildings.  There was less emphasis on the act of racing and more on the simple and joyful exercise of running.  You could probably say the same thing about the dreadful XTERRA run from last July, but I was so miserably hot in that event that I would have spit at anyone who tried to moralize the experience or draw out something positive from it.  But here, I was very much in tune with my body and the world around me.  I was almost waiting for my brain to finally leak out that mysterious fluid that turns regular runners into the truly barbaric and humbling breed known as “ultra runners.”  I kept running, but that euphoric moment didn’t happen.

But I got one step closer to it.

My confidence was stoked by every person I passed, many of them looking like they could smoke me on any course.  But here I was, a city boy with negligible experience at altitude, keeping up and actually enjoying it.  I kept on looking at my pace and wondering, am I really going to finish this race faster than the XTERRA Trail Run?  I ran the numbers a few times and confirmed that yes, I was on pace to finish considerably faster.  I’m not sure why I used the South Carolina race as a benchmark, but it probably had to do with degree of difficulty and that I signed up for it knowing it would be a kick in the jaw.

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

The last five miles of the race I spent passing and being passed by the same four runners.  I didn’t chat with any of them because I try to keep my running conversation to simple phrases like “I could get used to this!” or “Beautiful day!” and the oft used “Your girlfriend called and said you need to run faster.”  Speaking of, it really was a beautiful day.  At the start line, I overheard one runner complain that it was going to be hot.  I’ll concede that those running the full marathon were probably treated to warmer temperatures.  But I could write loving sonnets about the humidity or the complete lack thereof.  I could feel the sun beating down on me, but between breezes and sweating properly, I felt invincible.

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

By mile 11, the course had much more tree cover.  By now I was shooting nervous glances into the woods, remembering the “BE BEAR AWARE” signs plunked throughout the course (though I wonder if there was ever a meeting where someone suggested changing them to “BE BEAR-Y AWARE”).  Fortunately, my race experience was not tainted (or improved?) by any ursine encounters.  Instead, I kept my head down and continued on my way towards the finish.  There would be one more pesky uphill to conquer before reaching Clover Meadows, but I had become an expert at tackling them by then.  By no means was I springing up the slope, but the attack had become a calculated series of moves.  I’d divide the climb into segments: short, walking sections followed by long, running stretches and then a brief moment of anticipation where you hope there’s a downhill on the other side.

Not long after this last climb, I saw a gathering of people in a circular field, which I later recognized as Clover Meadows.  I should have kept running uninterrupted to the finish, but it was a slight uphill to the banner, so I decided to walk for about six seconds before mobilizing all my efforts upward.

Actual finishing time: 2 hours, 8 minutes, 30 seconds.

Though I had spent months hyping up this race in my head, the finish was very quiet and serene.  Korsmoe was standing next to the banner, writing down bib numbers and corresponding finishing times.  A few runners who had already finished the half were applauding for incoming runners and on occasion, a dog would bark.  It was a race being run by and for people who like the physical act of covering distance and not so much for those who want a big, elaborate circus with streamers and celebrity appearances.  Don’t get me wrong, I love big races.  But I could just as easily get used to this style of racing.  I just wish I didn’t have to sit in what feels like a big, orange maraca for over two hours just to reach the starting line.

As a residual benefit of this race, my confidence looking ahead to the Leadville Trail 100 as a pacer for my friend Jay has burgeoned.  This race definitely served as proving grounds for whether I could handle running at altitude and I think I passed the test comfortably.  If I could finish a half marathon at 9,000 feet on tired legs, then I could probably run a segment of Leadville on fresh legs … right?

Halfway done!

Preview: Summer Altitude Challenge 2012

Over the last six months I’ve run several races, most of them fast, and all of them at or near sea level.  As a resident of Chicago, I don’t have many options when it comes to running at altitude or even up hills.  The entire city is as flat as flat gets, with only the tiniest slopes providing hill-like challenges.  Honestly, I’m alright with that.  I appreciate a nice flat, fast course.  Every time I finish a race with a fast time, it boosts my confidence and gives me a reason to continue training at high exertion levels.  Plus, it validates all of my training efforts in simple minutes and seconds.

Last year, I switched things up several times.  I started by running my first international half marathon in San José, Costa Rica.  It was near the end of their dry season, at 2 PM, and at around 3,800 feet.  It was challenging, among my slowest half marathons, but I loved it.  A month later, I ran a half in Fort Collins, Colorado, which topped out at almost 5,700 feet before descending to around 5,000.  It was a lot cooler in the Rockies than Costa Rica, so my time was marginally faster.  But the thin air and the hills got to me and by the second mile I was feeling gassed.

This year, I’m going to once again throw in some altitude races, but this time we’re reaching new heights.  Because I don’t have the opportunity to run or even exist at these altitudes, each new race will be a challenge.  Additionally, each race has a higher altitude profile than the one before it (the funny thing is, I didn’t plan all of these myself and they just happened to line up that way).

1.)    Four Thousand Feet

The first race is the Media Maratón Correcaminos in San José, Costa Rica.  Much earlier this year, my fiancée Stephanie and I decided to organize a trip with her parents to get to know my extended family and the country they call home.  We picked the dates to make the most of the Fourth of July holiday.  My racing compulsion kicked in eventually and I decided to check and see if there were any races there we could do, especially since Steve (my future father-in-law) was a big racer not too long ago and is looking to make a comeback.  Lo and behold, one of the country’s biggest races was happening that Sunday, July 8.  Once again, I did not pick the weekend because of the race; I promise you all it was the other way around.  No one believes me, but well, there it is.

The race is a point-to-point that begins in Tres Ríos and finishes in La Sabana.  This should be neat because there are very few true straight lines in San José (as any foreigner in the passenger seat will attest) so the course should prove very labyrinthine.  Steve will be running the 10k and will therefore be receiving a running tour of the capital.  It’s not much to look at until the end, but he said he’s doing it mostly for the shirt.

2.)    Six Thousand Feet

Two weeks later on Saturday, July 21, I will be toeing the line at the inaugural Idaho Falls Half Marathon.  This race is yet another point to point that starts at 6,000 feet and in six miles descends to around 4,800, where it remains flat until the end.  I will be looking to breathe in as much air as possible in the little time I will spend there before starting the race.  It will also most likely be the first race that I run with a hydration backpack, the reason for which is to avoid dehydration.

But that much is obvious.  Everyone wants to avoid dehydration, even those who aren’t runners.  So why the extra precaution?  Why not run every race with a Camelbak if that’s the concern?  Well, there’s a bigger reason.  A while ago, when I set off to run at least 13.1 miles in every state, I realized that I didn’t necessarily have to do it in 50 trips.  I could offset some of the costs by doubling-up once I developed enough of an endurance base.  I thought, maybe this year I’d be able to pull it off.

There’s a pretty useful, albeit slow-loading tool hosted by Running in the USA that shows back-to-back races within driving distance of each other.  After scanning some dates, I first found the Idaho Falls Half Marathon and a few hours away by car, the Madison Montana Marathon in the Gravelly Mountains.

3.)    Nine Thousand Feet

“Run Yourself Ragged” reads the top banner of this race’s website, followed by a proud “Highest Road Marathon in America!”  The race organizer of the Madison Marathon claims to have extensively researched this and has yet to find a road race higher elsewhere.  Many trail races breach 10,000 feet, but you’d be hard pressed to find a paved road race that high.  But for some reason, I was overcome with a sense of adventure, and it consumed me enough to commit to both races.  It’s only a little insane, name because I’ve never done any running higher than 6,000 feet.  But I convinced myself that the Idaho Falls race will somehow prepare me to run this one, despite the fact that I’ll have put 13.1 miles on my legs leading up to it.  I’ll just call it a warm-up run.

And that’s why I’m planning on running the Idaho race with a hydration pack.

The Montana race’s website, though, has a great way of getting you to forget the daunting altitude challenges.  In its gallery, it has many pictures of the course, which are undeniably breathtaking.  It’s very difficult to not get caught up in the majesty of Montana’s rugged mountain landscapes while flipping through each new shot.  If ever I doubted my decision, a few minutes perusing through these pictures would instantly re-energize me.  There’s a downside to this, in that there are definitely bears (BEARS!) in the area and they’ve been spotted more than once near the course.

But even after committing to both races, there were still moments of trepidation, where I would question whether I’d be able to finish Montana.  In fact, as I write this, I still believe there’s a chance that I’d have to walk the course.  What truly tipped the scales and made it happen was an unlikely email from a friend.

I first met Jay Zeschin in college when he pledged my fraternity.  I quickly learned that he was no ordinary guy.  Not only did his music tastes practically invent the word “esoteric,” but he turned out to be a wizard on skis .  Several years and ski trips later, he became an ultrarunner by finishing the Sageburner 50k in 2011, and a mere two months later, the Leadville Silver Rush 50-Mile Run.  When he told me he wanted to run the Leadville 100 Trail Run this summer, I told him he was certifiably insane.  When he asked me to be part of his pace and gear crew, I signed up.

I guess that makes me crazy too.

4.)    Nine Thousand (+) Feet

The Leadville Trail 100 is a beast of a race.  Held every year in Leadville, Colorado, it’s considered one of the toughest foot races out there.  As if running 100 miles nonstop weren’t enough of a challenge, the race’s lowest point is over 9,200 feet, with runners breaching 12,600 feet over Hope Pass twice.  The idea that someone would have the stones to commit to something so far beyond the realm of sanity is truly mind-boggling.  So when someone decides to do it and then asks you to be part of a privileged group of people, whose purpose is to keep them going, you throw everything down and give a resounding “Absolutely I will.”

And it’s not until after you’ve had your moment of pride that you realize, $#!& this is going to be tough.

I can only hope that my three races at progressively rising altitudes will help me out in pacing Mr. Zeschin through the ups and downs of Leadville.  I’m sure he’s bringing with him more seasoned ultrarunners, so I might get lucky and receive a less grueling part of the course.  I’m not banking on that, so I’ll definitely be doing lots of stair climbing and hill workouts in between now and then.  With this race, my summer race series and altitude challenge ends, making way for the fall, where I hope to return to sea level and courses as flat as ironing boards.

Wisconsin/Illinois (2011 Madison to Chicago Ragnar Relay)

When I first heard about this race about two years ago, I was intrigued to say the least.  Steph’s dad ran it and brought back some war stories, and Laura ran last year’s race with nine of her friends to much acclaim.  I was recruited to participate, but it was the same weekend as the North Shore Half Marathon and I wasn’t confident in my abilities to run both.  This year, I decided that I would make it happen.  So when I was asked to be a part of a team, I agreed without blinking.

This race, which was originally called the MC200, is now the Madison to Chicago Ragnar Relay Race, part of the Ragnar series of relay races.  In groups of 6-12, racers take turns running continuous “legs” from one checkpoint to the next, a total of 197 miles, stopping only for a few seconds to exchange the snap bracelet that marks the runner.  When you’re running, you’re following the designated path laid out ahead of time by the organization, usually in the form of blue stands with arrows.  For the remaining 90% of the time when you’re not running, you’re in the van with the rest of the team, eating, trying to sleep, or joking around.

By late 2010, the team had been put together.  Individually, we were Dan, Jason, Jessie, Danny, Katie, Phipps, Jack, Stephanie, Annie, Laura (different Laura) and Leah.  As one, we were Team “Run ‘n Tell That” (so hide yo kids, hide yo wife, and hide yo husbands ’cause we racin’ err’body out here).  Of the eleven people that together composed our runner’s circus, I only knew Jason well, having only briefly chatted with a handful of the rest of the team.  Jessie and I shared a few races in 2010 and she got me into the ING New York City Marathon.  I had met Danny at a trivia night and spoke to Phipps at a party.  We tried many times to put together a bar night for everyone to get acquainted but we never really followed through until the night before we were to drive out to Madison.  In other words, I was very eager to meet everyone, all the while hoping they’d be a fun group to cram into two vans for nearly thirty hours straight.

Lef to Right: Back (Jack, Me, Jason, Danny, Phipps, Laura, Jessie, Annie), Front (Katie, Leah, Steph)

As the race date drew near, excitement levels skyrocketed and, unfortunately so did the weather.  That week, the Midwest and South were roasting in record high June temperatures.  Despite having a gym membership, I decided to run outside anyway as a figurative middle finger to the weather gods.  They must have seen my gesture and cowered at my might, for the weekend was a runner’s paradise.  Never did the temperatures breach 65 degrees, nor did a single raindrop fall for more than ten minutes.  But let’s not jump too far ahead.

We arrived at the start of the race around 11:15 AM on Friday, ready to go.  The start was a few miles just outside of Madison on the shores of Lake Monona.  Ragnar had taken over a small park with many orange tents, flags, and a huge inflatable Start Line.  It wasn’t the usual sea of people that you see at most race starts because the organizers were sending teams off in waves, with each half hour releasing about twenty teams.  Jason was our first runner, his leg beginning at noon.  Once we saw him take off, leading the pack, we rushed to the first exchange, where he would hand the baton to me.  This was the first taste of our van dynamic, with Phipps at the wheel, nervously anticipating every turn while Jack cantankerously gave him directions.

And we're off! Notice Velk on the right in the yellow.

My First Leg / Team Leg #2 (Friday, 12:32 PM – Madison, WI)

I started on the other side of Lake Monona heading south, then east through a few quiet subdivisions, lastly onto Cottage Grove Road to meet up with the rest of the team at my checkpoint.  It was roughly a 4.4-mile leg and I finished it in 31:18, snapping our orange bracelet onto Phipps.  As far as the course was concerned, there was little to report.  It started off urban, then moved into residential and finished alongside a busy road.  However, this was my first relay leg and something caught my attention:

There is a huge difference between training and racing.  If I run at a fast pace while training, I get tired quickly.  My breathing becomes erratic early on, my legs start giving up with the slightest suggestion of slowing down, and that voice that screams at you to “just keep going” is faint.  But when you’re surrounded by thousands of people, all aiming for the same target, there’s a palpable energy in the air that lets you do wild and crazy things that you wouldn’t have thought possible on your own.  With this race, it was a mix of both.  I was effectively alone, with only one or two runners in the horizon … but it was a race at the same time.  That magical drive that lets you somehow run fast without dying was there, without the swarm of bobbing heads.

We sleep when we can, where we can

My Second Leg / Team Leg #13 (Friday, 10:31 PM – Wales, WI)

Nine and a half hours later, it was time for my second leg.  After seeing so many people start and finish, I was getting antsy.  My last run seemed like it happened months ago and I was dying to get back on the pavement.  This should not at all discredit my van – we were having a great time getting to know each other and laughing at inappropriate jokes.  But we were also here to run, and it had been a while since I had pulled my weight.  By now it was pitch black and we were in the lot of a community park in Wales, Wisconsin.  I had a headlamp and a blinking red LED light securely attached to my visor, ready for Jason to emerge from the darkness.  Everyone was wearing sweatshirts as temperatures had dropped to the low 50’s, but with humidity in the 90’s, I stayed away from additional layers.  A volunteer’s voice cackled in the two-way radios, “Eighty seven!” (our team number) and a few minutes later, I was dashing down East Brandybrook Road, chasing down runners at a 5k pace.  Since we were still on a main road, there were streetlights illuminating our path.  But less than a mile into it, we entered a park trail no wider than fifteen feet.

I will never forget this leg.

Full Map (click to see my distances)

Going into the park, there were two runners ahead of me, one of whom was belting Elvis songs at the top of his lungs.  I passed both of them and continued hurling myself into the woods, their receding headlights casting my enormous shadow into a tunnel of darkness.  It didn’t take long to put some considerable distance between us.  I could see a faint, red LED light ahead of me, so I decided to try and catch that runner.  A few minutes later, that light had mysteriously vanished and the air became full with a thick mist.  With the light catching on the tiny water droplets in the air, I couldn’t see anything fifteen feet in front of me.  It was better than seeing absolutely nothing, but I’d have to react quickly if something suddenly showed up in front of me.

And where did that red light go?

Getting ready for night runs

Running through this area was like that old Windows screensaver, Starry Night, but on speed.  The fog rushed towards me like thousands of white insects.  By mile two I was completely drenched, most of it from the water in the air.  But I wasn’t paying attention to that.  I was starting to get worried.  I kept looking back, hoping to see a bouncing headlamp following me, but no one was there.  Ahead there was no one, that red light I thought I saw having disappeared.  Did I miss a turn?  Is this pitch black route taking me nowhere?  Did that red light make a turn that I missed?  The Ragnar organizers brag on their website about how well their trails are marked, but runners deviating from the path, sometimes for miles, were not unheard of.  I didn’t want to be that person, and certainly not in the middle of the woods without a phone or clue as to where I was.  I was running fast too.  If I had been going in the wrong direction, I wouldn’t be able to run quickly back.  And aren’t there wild animals in these woods?  Feral, starved animals, searching for a midnight snack?  If mosquitoes love me, then why not bears?

So in this mounting wave of concern for my wellbeing, I decided to turn around.

It didn’t take long to find the faint, heartening glow of someone else’s headlamp, nodding in my direction.  Once I confirmed that I wasn’t flying headfirst into oblivion, I turned back around and continued on my path.  I checked my watch and found that I had been keeping a 6:55 pace for the leg.  I’m not ashamed to admit that a big reason for that was an instinctive desire to be out of the woods, out of the darkness.  Not long after I passed my turnaround, I found a Ragnar water station with a reassuring sign telling me to keep going straight.  A few strides later, I turned into Sunset Park, gave Phipps the reins, and marched my way to the safety of the van.

The scenery was often sparse.

My Third Leg / Team Leg #24 (Saturday, 5:07 AM – Crestview, WI)

Before I could start my third run, we had to get some sleep.  It wasn’t until around 2 AM that the six runners in our van (me, Jason, Jack, Phipps, Leah and Katie) had finished our second legs, handing off responsibilities to the other van (Jessie, Annie, Danny, Steph and Laura).  At that point, we were in Martin Luther High School in Greendale, Wisconsin.  They had opened up their locker rooms, cafeteria and gym for some generous rest and relaxation.  For the six of us, sleep was more important than hygiene.  So we took our sleeping bags and pillows into the gym and settled among the numerous rows of perfectly silent bodies.  Despite the maple floor of the basketball court, I managed to get some rest.  When my alarm rang two hours later at 4 AM, we were the only people left in the gym.

After a quick hustle, we met up with the other van and sent Jason off on his third leg.  By this time, the sun was rising through the grey haze that had descended on the area and refused to leave.  Thirty minutes later, it was time for my third leg, which started on 6 Mile Road, near Crestview, Wisconsin.  Beforehand, I was excited for this leg because it was the first leg of the entire relay to reach Lake Michigan.  However, it took two and a half miles down an unbending road with no interesting landmarks other than farmland to get there.  At 5.3 miles, it was my longest leg so far, but I decided to maintain a relatively fast pace (7:04) until the finish.  Like my first leg, this one was unremarkable, characterized solely by beholding Lake Michigan around halfway through.

My Fourth Leg / Team Leg #35 (Saturday, 2:22 PM)

Waiting at a Checkpoint

The time between my first and second legs felt like days.  The time between the next legs felt like two hours.  The third gap between legs was just disorienting.  We were all trying to shoehorn naps in between checkpoints, messing up an already frazzled sleep schedule.  We stopped for breakfast at Emily’s Pancake House early that morning and the combination of flapjacks and Gatorade was not sitting well in my stomach.  Add to that the steadily growing aches in our legs and it was apparent that we were eager to see the finish line.  Fortunately, our attitudes hadn’t soured and the car rides in between checkpoints were still as zany as they were the day before.

By the time my fourth and final leg was to start, we were in Illinois’ North Shore neighborhoods.  We had driven through Kenosha (home of the Wisconsin Marathon) and Jason had just run through Highland Park (home of the North Shore Half Marathon) and parts of Glencoe, ready to send me off on the relay’s second longest leg (8.2 miles).  I started going southeast on a trail alongside to the Metra rail tracks, which run parallel to Green Bay Road in a sort of ditch.  Much like my third leg, I ran about 3.5 uninterrupted miles of unchanging scenery.  The railroad tracks were predictably straight and every station looked exactly the same.  There was even a runner in a red tank top about a half mile ahead of me, running my exact same pace almost mockingly.

The handoff!

Just before the fourth mile, I was finally given some reprieve from the train tracks by being ushered into Kenilworth, one of the most affluent neighborhoods on the North Shore.  For the next two miles, I’d be chasing that red runner through the perfect lawns of Kenilworth and later Wilmette, passing him just blocks before reaching Northwestern University’s Ryan Field, home of the Wildcats.  After that, it was a race to keep ahead of him on Central Street, heading east towards the undergraduate campus.  It was fun to run past Hinman-Lincoln, 584 Lincoln, the dilapidated Fraternity Row (including a forlorn Pike House with its north wall completely flush with ivy), Kemper Hall, SPAC, and finally the lakefill.  In these last checkpoints, our team had gotten into the fun habit of flanking our runners with flags, conducting them to the checkpoint through a loud tunnel of hands, and I was no exception.  Finishing just seconds over an hour, I fumbled with the bracelet as I handed it off to Phipps, but he had no problem picking it up and starting our very last leg.

(And as for the guy in the red tank – he had run for three legs straight.  So even though I passed him, he’s definitely the bigger man and I salute him.)

Bottle opener, medal and bragging rights all in one

An hour later, we were all in Montrose Harbor, overlooking Lake Michigan just a few miles north of Chicago, waiting for Phipps to put this crazy endeavor to an end.  We parked ourselves about 400 meters from the finish line and joined him for the final stretch.  He was winded, tired from his near 8-mile leg and in no mood for conversation.  But he didn’t break stride, proudly leading the team of long-distance Antoine Dodson’s onto the blustery sands of Lake Michigan to finish the 197-mile, 29-hour journey.  After receiving some bottle-opener medals (which Otter called “the manliest bookmarks ever”) and drinking a surprisingly not-free beer, we made our way back to Phipps’ apartment to divvy up supplies and head to our respective apartments for much-needed showers, naps, and recoveries.

As I mentioned earlier, going into this I didn’t know anyone on my team very well except Jason.  If you think about it, there was some risk involved in acquiescing to join this adventure.  Seriously, you’re talking about spending almost 30 hours straight in close quarters with sweaty strangers.  It could have been an awkward, even painful situation if they had been boring, throwaway people.  But thankfully, I had the complete opposite experience, not just with the members of my van (also known as “MANVAN” or “the Chicago Marathon Van”), but with the rest of Team Run ‘n Tell That.  Not only were they a fun-loving, hilarious batch, but they were very generous people and excellent athletes.  My guess is that you have to be at least a fun person to agree to something as nuts as a 200-mile relay.  Or maybe their good nature was due to a collective delirium.


Either way, I had fun.  So much fun, that I’m thinking of putting together an ultra team (only 6 people) for 2012.  Time will tell if I follow through on that promise or if it’s just post-race elation talking.  Until then though, there’s no shortage of races in the future.  Onwards!

Wisconsin (2010 Madison Mini-Marathon)

In February 2010, Leo Garcia and Lindsey Finn got married. It was a small ceremony on Southport, in the decorative private room of Qué Rico. Though small, it was far from quiet. Nearly every guest was handed the microphone, willingly or by force, to deliver an improvised speech inspired by the newlywed couple’s exchange of vows. I was lucky to have both the microphone and an acoustic guitar handed to me by surprise, allowing me to serenade the misfits with an amateur rendition of that late 90’s one-hit wonder, “Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry. I didn’t pick the song on the spot. A few weeks earlier, Steph and I found ourselves at an open mic with Leo and Lindsey and their Improv group “Jessica”, where I was thrust on-stage to play and sing whatever songs came to mind. When you’re three or four beers deep, you tend to forget how to play a lot.

But I digress. It was a great time and Leo and Lindsey’s longtime Chicago friend, Ryan Hopker, officiated the wedding, gracing the evening with a charming and humorous tribute.  So, at the risk of sounding like Michael Scott, you could say Ryan and I had the most “screen time” of the wedding if you don’t count the bride and groom. There’s no real relevance or significance to this – just a fun way to segue into the weekend I spent with these three hooligans while running the second annual Madison Mini-Marathon.

Ryan, Lindsey, Leo

After a loquacious drive to the state’s capital and a pit stop at an Olive Garden for some last-minute face-stuffing, we settled in our hotel room. Leo let me know that cots were made illegal in Wisconsin around the same time as Prohibition and as such, I’d have to share a bed with Ryan, whom I had technically just met four hours earlier. But since the conversations in the car ride ranged from nationwide referendums on gay marriage to making fun of the three different waitresses we had at Olive Garden, I’d say the ice had already been confidently broken.

The four of us made it to our start corrals early the next morning, ready for the 7 AM start. The weather cooperated halfway, for while the temperature was hovering at 70, the humidity was – this is an actual, reported figure – 100%.  By mile 2, my sunglasses were so fogged up, that I took them off and held them for the rest of the race.  It also doesn’t take a long walk around Madison to notice the city’s hills. It wasn’t going to be a day for PR’s, but that didn’t stop Leo from booking from the start at a cheetah’s pace. The course starts on Langdon Street, just a few blocks away from the shores of Lake Mendota.  From there it turns onto Wisconsin Avenue and heads straight towards the famous Madison State Capitol. After a dash down the ostensibly more famous State Street, the course begins to take runners away from the University of Wisconsin campus by hooking onto a pedestrian path and eventually a residential neighborhood.  The course would soon reach the marshy shores of Lake Wingra, replacing the urban rush of the city with the serenity of a mountain trail run.

Also, the hills of a mountain trail run.

Any true trail marathoner will laugh at my definition of “hills”, because the vertical gain on this course wasn’t anything to highlight.  However, when you’ve been training in Chicago, the slightest change in slope is a climb. The hills of Arboretum Drive were gradual, fortunately, but by Mile 6, the humidity was starting to weigh me down and my once ambitious pace started to languish.  After rounding out Lake Wingra, the course once again enters the tree-lined streets of Madison neighborhoods.  Water stations were spaced out roughly every two miles and I was worried about the gap between miles 7.5 and 9.5.  Fortunately, a budding philanthropist had a little tray of Gatorade in Dixie cups on his front yard with his parents, looking on the runners with as much curiosity as confusion.  Without his important contribution to my hydration, who knows how much more my pace would have suffered?

Around mile 10, the course re-enters the University of Wisconsin campus via Walnut Street, passing the McClimon Memorial Track, the Nielsen Tennis Stadium and … the Class of 1918 Marsh. I suppose the majority of those graduates will be more likely to remember the end of the First Great War than their honorary swamp. After a brief out-and-back detour, we were back on the shores of Lake Mendota, running on damp gravel for the remaining few miles. Even at mile 12.9, it still looked like we were in the middle of the woods. After a quick, but surprising uphill, the course veers right, shooting runners onto Park Street, where they hug the Memorial Union for the final 0.1 mile sprint. With my finishing time of 1:44:29, I took my medal, drank my complimentary finisher’s beer, and searched out the rest of the party.  Upon getting everyone together, we learned that two of us were bleeding, but I won’t say who or where.

The rest of the weekend was a fun combination of New Glarus beers, Middle Eastern cuisine, 90’s rock anthems and the joys of a meager 1% sales tax. That, and trying to convince Lindsey to run a full marathon. Leo unequivocally says he will never run one, so I’ve decided to coax his wife instead.  We’ll see how that turns out.

As I was finishing up the half marathon plan for 2010, two things were happening. First, I had started preparing for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Runs were getting longer and mornings earlier.  But the other development was that I had already been planning further adventures in 2011 …