Shore Footed: 2017 New Jersey Marathon (State #47)

It’s hard to PR these days.

New Jersey Marathon Starting Line

They say that you reach your peak after seven years of running. While I can’t name with any due certainty who “they” are, there seems to be widespread agreement on this theory. Something potentially stalls after seven years of consistent training and a self-propelled drive to improve. It could be aging, burnout, or the ignition of a very specific gene that targets your VO2 max with surgical precision. Regardless, this theory exists and as someone who is still very much on board with running and improving my times, I refuse to succumb to it.

But despite the inspirational aphorisms to the contrary, running is very much a physical activity. After this much time, running through my late 20s and early 30s, what many scientists and laypeople alike would consider the tail end of someone’s athletic prime, my best times become harder and harder to best. So when I decided to re-focus my training in 2017 to once again try and qualify for Boston, I knew I had to do something new, something different, something that those familiar with my training habits would consider radical.

I joined a running group.

Thanks to Fleet Feet Chicago’s Boston365 running group, I honed my speed like I never had before. We would gather on Wednesday nights in the parking lot of Lincoln Park Zoo, rocketing through intervals in dense pelotons, and reconvene in the hilly suburb of Barrington on Saturday mornings for long runs. As the weeks went on, I expanded my comfort level with explosive speed, setting an aggressive PR at the 8k distance in late March. But I wasn’t quite enjoying the same surge in improvement with long runs.

Everyone in the group was training either for the Boston Marathon or another race held shortly after. I had chosen the New Jersey Marathon in Oceanport as my spring race, the event that was going to bear the brunt of all my training. It not only takes place in a state I have yet to run, but I quickly learned that it is considered one of the flattest races in the country.

Smiling through mile 6

The race began on the grounds of a raceway in Long Branch, a few miles west of the coastal town of Oceanport. Shaking off my last minute nerves, I put on my sunglasses to block the eastward breeze keeping us cool. It was game time. I had put in four months of solid, uninterrupted training for this race, each of which broke that month’s mileage record. I had run 50% more miles leading up to his race than in the same time period before my standing marathon PR. I had masterfully eaten a reliable stream of carbs in the three days prior and hadn’t even sipped a beer in ten days.

So it was with great confidence that I knew literally anything was possible.

Anyone who has ever run a marathon will tell you that nothing is guaranteed. The distance is so long that it gives ample opportunity for anything to happen. If you start too fast in a 5k, you will probably only suffer for one mile, and even then the decay won’t be as pronounced. If you overdo it in a half marathon, you might not know it until mile 9. But over the course of 26.2, you could be riding high for 15 miles before you even get a hint that this glory chase is actually a fool’s errand.

Mile 20 at the Asbury Park Boardwalk

And that is mostly what happened to me. When you’re trying to qualify for Boston at my age, you have to run a marathon in about 3 hours, 8 minutes. That, therefore, requires that you pass the half marathon mark in about an hour and thirty-four minutes. Thanks to gray skies and a cooling sea breeze, I was able to confidently run the first half of this race about a minute slower. Many times during that first half, I evaluated my form, my breathing, my turnover, and cadence, feeling emboldened by how easy it felt to carry a 7:09 pace this far into a race.

Two miles later, I got the first indication that this wasn’t my day. As I ran through black asphalt ocean-side neighborhoods, I glanced at my watch and saw that my pace was ten seconds slower than my target pace. That would normally not be an issue were it not for the noticeable uptick in perceived effort. This early in the race, I knew there was no way I could keep up the pace. Had this slowdown happened after mile 23, I could dig deep into my grab-bag of clichés and save the day. But at mile 15 you’re not even past the psychological halfway mark.

Mile 24

I was therefore faced with that frustrating decision: do I keep going as fast as I can, whatever that pace may be, and dip my attitude into a vat of acid for the rest of the race, or force myself to slow down gradually, at my own pace, and still somehow enjoy the experience?

Salvaging the race and finishing with a semblance of a smile felt like the better option. I know what it’s like to snarl through the second half to finish with an unimpressive time. It shines a pool of light on the decision some elites make to simply drop out of a race around 30k rather than finish. If you’ve been training for months to murder your PR and you can tell this early that it’s not going to happen, what is the real reason to fight against the strain?

Mile 26.1, oceanside

The only real reason was simply because! Life is for the living! Leave it all on the field! Nut up or shut up! But you can’t make that decision until you’re actually running the race and can feel the blood pounding in your head and lungs, realizing that every mile will only get worse if you continue to resist the ever mounting weight in your legs. When you’ve run 36 marathons, you learn to take these days in stride, pun fully intended.

All of this is to say, I took it easy in the second half despite running smoothly through the race’s early miles. It seemed that my group runs had imbued me with great speed but not with the necessary endurance to keep it going. Moving forward I might try and break one of the foundational rules of long-distance training, and actually run some of my longer distances at race pace, rather than just the last few miles. My subpar performance in New Jersey (a 3:41 for those who care) hasn’t killed the quest to BQ, just delayed it until the fall.

Surprise race participants Chris (remember him?) and debut marathon slash birthday girl Melissa

As for the race itself, I really enjoyed it. It was easily one of the flattest courses I’ve ever run, especially the second half. What begins in tree-lined residential neighborhoods on wide roads eventually became a tour of New Jersey’s many seaside communities, from Long Branch to Asbury Park, Allenhurst, and Monmouth Beach.  Several miles were run on dew-soaked wooden planks, which felt elastic after seventeen miles of black asphalt. The smells of sea salt mixed with cotton candy as runners passed through each new community, the crowds lining the shore growing as the miles ticked up.

With state 47 behind me, I have just West Virginia, Alaska, and Hawaii to visit to bring my 50 states journey to a provisional close. In between now and then, I’m letting myself be lured down a new path, one with its own language, maps, and cultures, not only to explore uncharted terrain but to reignite the flame of athletic discovery and re-draw at further distances the lines that we call our limits.

Ever onwards.

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End of Year Recap (2016)

After the quantum success of 2015, it was only natural to expect some sort of reversion. Statisticians call it “reverting to the mean.” It’s like how the tallest male in a family is unlikely to have children taller than him because he is an outlier, or how some sports teams are unlikely to follow up a surprise victory with a repeat performance. Last year saw exponential improvement, which meant a slew of brand new PRs. Almost as if to tamper my own expectations from the beginning, because deep down I knew I’d risk breaking myself to improve on 2015’s vast strides, I determined that 2016 would change the course of my running path from speed to endurance.

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The year began with a monster goal: to finally vindicate my only DNF by finishing a 50-mile trail race. Three years earlier, I dropped out of my first ever attempt thanks to a last-minute injury. Although it’s melodramatic to say I’ve been “haunted” by that failure, it has lurked quietly in my mind, like a flickering light that’s too high to fix. Wanting to earn the title of ultrarunner once and for all, I felt determined to attack this challenge, throw everything I had at it in an unrelenting pursuit of glory.

The problem with that path is that it leads to an unsurprising pit of injuries. Despite my excitement and alacrity, by the first day of March, the walls echoed my curses every time I got out of bed to shower or stood up at my work desk. My right IT band was not happy with my reckless ramp-up to ultra distances and it took me two whole months to get back to normal. Unfortunately, that brought me just shy of ten days before the big day.

Silurian Spring 25k (March)

Silurian Spring 25k (March)

Whatever bad luck I suffered leading up to the Ice Age Trail 50-Miler, it fell prey to ten straight hours of pure running magic. I ran comfortably, through fields, over coiled roots, and up the dirt face of more than one bluff to finally conquer the distance. At no point in the race did I feel remotely fatigued or defeated, and I had the perfect 45-degree temperatures to thank for it. The day’s constant chill was unusual, as if trapped by a giant, glass dome.

This was the race of 2016. Even if the rest of the year I had fallen completely apart and stopped running altogether, I would remember it for this one accomplishment. Upon crossing the finish line, for better or worse, I felt invincible. Longer distances were no longer as intimidating as they were that morning. The selective amnesia that plagues most runners was strong, and for several weeks, I was considering events I had previously thought crazy.

Ice Age Trail 50-Miler (May)

Ice Age Trail 50-Miler (May)

The glow of May was so strong that the rest of the year felt like it was in its shadow. From the highest high I plummeted to new lows in Omaha, where I went from 8-minute miles to walking around mile 18. Dehydration, sunburn, and a subpar summer training plan had spelled doom for me in the Cornhusker State. After years of running marathons, I had an insouciant expectation that I would simply finish, no problem, maybe even under 3 hours and 30 minutes.

That did not happen. Instead, I ran my second slowest marathon ever, the world around me literally spinning at mile 24. Three weeks later, I put in a considerably better performance in Newport, Rhode Island, but I still felt like the distance was breaking me in the last 10k. I felt like I was losing the endurance from my marrow, hearing my in-laws’ admonishment with every tired step:

Wait ‘till you get older.

Mad Marathon (July)

Mad Marathon (July)

The confidence that I had carried with me all year had faded with these two performances. On paper, they made sense. Last year, I was focused and disciplined. Every workout was aimed directly at Berlin. Weekly workouts were tailored with specific goals, months had overarching purpose, and each season was part of a carefully calculated regimen. Like a transparent, steampunk machine, my program was chiseled and welded to (near) perfection.

After washing off the salt from my trail-worn legs, 2016 lost its compass. My only real goal was to add more states to the map. In previous years, I’ve used races in new states as milestones en route to a time goal. But without a time goal, I lacked the motivation to wake up early to run before work, or to push the pace during long runs. Running became perfunctory, something I did out of obligation; something I had to do, not something I wanted to do.

Rock 'n Roll Half Marathon (July)

Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon (July)

But then I ran a 50k on a whim. I hadn’t put in the necessary training, but I signed up anyway. As if to close the year how it began, the race took place in perfect running conditions and I ran up and down the path three times, strong and confident. I was back in a warm, happy place, letting my legs do the work, air rushing through my lungs, surrounded by equally driven people.

Big Ten Network Big 10k (August)

Big Ten Network Big 10k (August)

As I look forward to 2017, I have decided to pursue another unfulfilled challenge: to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I tried to achieve a fast time in Berlin in 2015, but I was unable to make it happen. I’ve signed up for a weekly training group whose sole purpose is to earn that envious time, which is a big step for someone who uses running as a means to disconnect from the world. My hope is that it will reinvigorate my drive to improve my running times, and at the very least, allow me to post a competitive time this spring.

Omaha Marathon (September)

Omaha Marathon (September)

It becomes more obvious as I think about it, but maybe adding a group component to my training is exactly what I need now. After hitting the paths solo for almost eight years, I’ve reached another dreaded plateau. My 1:29 half marathon PR is two and a half years old, and it will be two years this May that I ran my 3:16 PR in Fargo. I don’t expect to improve my times every year, but as I write this, I’m not remotely close to either mark. But though I enjoy the physical act of running, the community is what keeps me connected to the sport.

So perhaps it’s time I actually run with people without bibs.

Newport Marathon October

Newport Marathon (October)

My enthusiasm, of course, is not enough to inoculate me against injury or my own bullheaded drive for improvement. Every year that passes is a year of experience – wait ‘till you get older – and a year of surprises, good and bad. And with each surprise is a new lesson learned, a new toolkit for solving problems. I just need to stay focused and committed.

Chicago Lakefront 50k

Chicago Lakefront 50k (October)

If you’re reading this, I want to thank you for humoring me every so often as I try and translate my passion into writing. If we’ve run together, read each other’s stories, or have yet to share the path ahead, I hope you chase exciting goals in 2017 in and out of running shoes. This sport, and so many others, affords us the opportunity to be together and to improve ourselves. With the world quickly drawing ugly lines between us, we need to embrace every friendly gathering and strive to help everyone reach their own finish lines.

Onwards to another year, one foot in front of the other.

Rhode Runner: 2016 Newport Marathon (State #46)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Wind-Up Hurt Chronicle: 2016 Omaha Marathon (State #45)

I woke up very early, as usual, and sauntered to the hotel mini fridge to grind a Clif Bar like a camel chewing cud, washing it down a Blue Machine smoothie. The 2016 Omaha Marathon was almost three hours away, and I didn’t want to wake up Mike in the next room by turning on the TV, so I put on some headphones and let the finger-tapped gothic musings of Katatonia wash over me. After four songs, I went back to sleep.

(left to right): Mike, me

(left to right): Mike, me

Hours later, Mike and I were following the crowds to the TD Ameritrade Arena. Within minutes of arriving, the speakers cracked alive with the sound of a nervous official who told us that there had been a nearby shooting, shocking the crowd into silence. We waited, slack-jawed and a little on edge, for the rest of the report. But even before reassuring us that our personal safety was not in jeopardy, he broke the news that the race start would be postponed by an hour. To make matters worse for many runners, the delay would also mean a last-minute course change.

The collective groan spread across the crowd faster than a 400-meter repeat. In that moment, I merely shrugged at the delay, though I was fully aware that it meant it’d be four to five degrees warmer than expected. Mike and I had walked around Omaha the day before under a cloudless sky in hopes of finding a local gem. We found Bob, a pedestrian bridge named after Bob Kerrey, former Governor and Senator from Nebraska, and I came home with a slight sunburn on my forehead.

But despite the sunburn, the delay, and the warm weather, I let no nerves invade my morning. It was another marathon, just like the thirty-three others I had run before, in a new state. Unlike many runners around me, who were loudly bemoaning the possibility that their times today wouldn’t be honored by the Boston Athletic Association, I had no time expectations. I was there to run 26.2 miles in whatever time I could.

Mile 1

Mile 1

An hour late, we were on the road. Two miles later, we were out of downtown Omaha and into newly built residential neighborhoods. Without a time goal, I decided to experiment with my breathing, opting for a faster intake earlier in the race. The farther we ran, the greener the path became. Around the 10k mark, we entered a park, whose leafy cover allowed us to forget that, just like the day before, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

And then, a mile later, we reached the river. A concrete path two people wide ran between the river and several industrial silos, whose petrochemical perfume stuck to me like an unwanted GU aftertaste. However, the mephitic odor wasn’t what I most lamented about this stretch. It was, instead, the complete lack of shade. From this point until the turnaround six miles later, where we would retrace our steps all the way back to the start, there would be no more protection from the sun.

Mile 5

Mile 5

Up until the half marathon point, I had been running comfortably, knocking out 8-minute miles as if on autopilot. But right at that turnaround, something happened. It was as if my body had decided to completely forget that I’ve been running marathons for almost seven years. All my experience on the roads, with the repetitive plod of feet across many hours, was harshly erased. My body crossed into a parallel universe, where my memories of running were intact, but my body didn’t make the transition.

Mike and I crossed paths just beyond the turnaround. He asked me how I was doing, and I replied that I felt like I was at mile 22, not just beyond 13. I was still running in the 8s but I could tell I was on borrowed time. Ten minutes later, like a wind-up toy that had only been cranked to reach fifteen miles, my body shut down.

This had never happened to me before. Like any long-distance runner, I’ve bonked before. I’ve bonked as early as mile 18, but every time, it’s been a slow descent into fatigue. Even in Berlin, where I ran the first half too fast, I still managed a slow deterioration. But in Omaha, it was a complete shutdown. I stopped to walk, shaking my shoulders and slapping my back, and tried to pick it back up. But within a quarter mile, I was gassed.

My body was either unable or unwilling to run, and I didn’t know which scared me more.

Miles 7 through 19 were this exposed

Miles 7 through 19 were this exposed

Mike passed me at mile 19. He offered a few kind words of encouragement while pulling away from me. The last of it he spoke to the air, as I couldn’t run fast enough to keep up. Many more runners would pass me after him. With each one, I’d try and kick forward, trying to get back into a gallop. As if in a dream, I was unable to sustain it. My walking breaks grew, my pace crashed, and my attitude soured.

What the hell was happening.

Mile 13.3

Mile 13.3

I had no singular reason for why I had crumbled so quickly. I had eaten plenty the day before, had put in the requisite miles during the summer, and had run a very hilly 3:42 just two months prior. Objectively, it wasn’t even that hot. There were times when I actually shivered during those last miles. The wind had picked up, licking the sweat off my head and reminding me of how dry the air felt.

But there I was, walking the last two miles of the Omaha Marathon in their entirety as if I had never run before. My last attempt at running had left me seeing stars. A race photographer had stationed himself just a mile from the finish to capture everyone’s last dash toward the finish. I didn’t even bother with histrionics and shuffled past him with my hands on my hips, disappointed and dizzy. What tiny stores of energy I still had were saved for running the bases of TD Ameritrade’s baseball diamond, a sputtering toy too far removed from his last confident stride.

Mile 26

Mile 26

I stopped the clock at 4:22, my second slowest marathon to date. Mike was at the finish line to capture my unsightly finish, which started an afternoon of nausea and exhaustion. I found a patch of shaded grass and let my feet stop moving, loudly proclaiming to Mike that I had just finished the kind of race that could get me to reconsider running altogether. I was in no mood to read about silver linings or to exhume the bright side of anything. That race was a sucker punch to the ego and my self-worth. It’s one thing to push yourself to your limits and earn a deserved finish. This was not that. This was a sudden implosion, an inexplicable and precipitous failure of all systems.

Or was it inexplicable?

In the first half of this post, I formatted a few phrases and sentences in bold. As if to console my wounded self-esteem, I looked back at all these reasons as perhaps individual Jenga pieces that I removed over the course of the weekend. Perhaps it’s because I refuse to believe that I’m simply not in marathon shape, or that sometime in August of this year the gene responsible for sucking at running was switched on.

Finishers. Notice the dark, ghostly veil draped over me? It's the shadow of death.

Finishers. Notice the dark, ghostly veil draped over me? It’s the shadow of death.

But either way, it shook me. Whether it was because of a series of subtle mistakes or one big, ineffable change in my body chemistry, I can’t say. But I do have another go at the distance on October 9 in Rhode Island. Whether I decide to tempt another potentially disastrous run or play it safe will depend on what happens between now and then. Either way, I will start the next one without the insouciant bravado of races past, where a sub-4-hour finish is basically guaranteed.

Onwards. With trepidation and even a little reluctance … but onwards, nonetheless.

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