End of Year Recap (2012)

2012 was a huge year.  A complete game changer, no question.  If I were to never run again after this year, I would say I went out with a bang.  If I continue this “hobby” for decades to come, I will point to 2012 as the year in which I realized I was capable of more than I thought possible.  Not only did I get faster, I became more confident, at times almost recklessly so.  I broke through some significant barriers, pushed myself farther and reevaluated the idea of improvement.

It is for these reasons and several others that I will have to abandon any humility I may have as I write this post.  Seriously, if self-congratulatory fist-pumping gives you an allergic reaction, stop reading now or go find an EpiPen because your throat is about to close up.  In the words of a fellow blogger, I’m sorry I’m not sorry, but I am damn proud of what I have achieved this year.  I put in a ton of time and sweat into training every single week without fail, dealing with everything from heavy snow to blistering heat.  I cut back on beers (which is more than I can say for a close friend), kept the partying down at several birthdays, woke up too early over the summer and eliminated key staples of my diet like milk and peanut butter.  In other words, I’d better have something to show for these meaningful lifestyle changes.

While not every accomplishment can be represented with numbers or drawings, that’s where I will start.

Recap_2012

On geography alone, this was a crazy year.  Thanks to miles hoarding, road tripping, doubling-up and a few perfectly timed airline deals, I was able to complete twelve states, nine of which I had never visited in my life: Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Minnesota, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Iowa, Oklahoma and Nevada.

Race Stats

Half Marathons Run: 11
Fastest: 1:30:47 (Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon, PR)
Slowest: 2:08:32 (Madison Montana Half Marathon)*
Average: 1:39:55*

*1:37:04 is the average if we remove the lung-killing Montana race at 9,000+ feet.

Marathons Run: 6
Fastest: 3:25:12 (IMT Des Moines Marathon, PR)
Slowest: 3:54:38 (Run Crazy Horse Marathon)
Average: 3:37:54

Top 3 Half Marathon Medals:

Oak Barrel Half Marathon (#1)

Oak Barrel Half Marathon (#1)

Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon (#2)

Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon (#2)

Mercedes-Benz Half Marathon (#3)

Mercedes-Benz Half Marathon (#3)

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Top 3 Marathon Medals:

Williams Route 66 Marathon (#1)

Williams Route 66 Marathon (#1)

Run Crazy Horse Marathon (#2)

Run Crazy Horse Marathon (#2)

Little Rock Marathon (#3)

Little Rock Marathon (#3)

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Worst Medal of 2012: It was actually a great year for medals.  I can’t really find one that I truly dislike all that much.  However, if I had to pick one, it would be Idaho Falls, whose generic and rusty design I forgave because of its tiny field, excellent organization and post-race food spread.

Number of fellow runners: 142,971
Biggest race: 34,301 (Shamrock Shuffle 8K)
Smallest race: 69 (Madison Montana Half Marathon)

Mileage Stats:

Miles Run: 1,366.6 (new record, previously held by 2011: 1,195 miles)
Average Pace: 7:53 (new record, previously held by 2010: 7:55)
Race Miles Run: 329.4 (new record, previously held by 2011: 266.8 miles)
Average Pace: 7:50 (new record, previously held by 2010: 7:52 miles)

0129_miamihalf 01So there you have it.  I ran the most miles of any previous year, the most race miles, kept the fastest yearly pace and secured a PR at every single major race distance.  I broke 20 minutes at the 5K three times, broke 41 minutes at the 10K, ran under 1:33 three times at the half marathon and broke 3:30 twice at the full distance.  My average marathon finishing time of 3:37:54 was over three minutes faster than last year’s PR.  I ran a record number of races (24) and finished a record number of states (12).  I even managed two half marathons on consecutive days without serious consequences.

0407_1_oakbarrelhalf 25I also stopped being afraid of certain numbers.  I no longer doubt myself when I see a sub-7 pace in a half marathon split.  A sub-8 marathon split used to be a red flag, a sign that race myopia had taken over and that I’d soon regret it.  Not so much anymore.  Thanks to the lessons I learned in 2012, I have realized that it’s good to be aggressive sometimes, especially if the weather is perfect.  I feel I owe it to myself to go as hard as possible, even if I think I’m exhausting my limits.  Because of this attitude, I won my first age group award at the Oak Barrel Half Marathon.  And then I won three more.  I placed in the top 1% of finishers three times and earned a top 500 finisher in Indy.

0427_louisville 08But all these stats are meaningful only to one person: me.  I honestly don’t expect anyone to analyze and digest them or derive any sort of real conclusion from them.  Besides, everyone is different.  A sub-elite marathoner would see my results and pat my head with a mix of encouragement and pity, like a Bengal tiger staring down at a fat, Manx cat.  Similarly, there are those who consider me fast.  To them I say, you can definitely catch up to me.  It’s just a matter of gradual progress with a few spikes of reckless speed here and there.  But regardless of whether these “other” people are faster or slower, they really are what make the sport fun for me.

0505_mini 12Because I never run, I train.  I prepare.  Every single time I lace up and go outside or hit the treadmill, it’s in preparation for a race, which is like a training run except I die sooner, usually surrounded by others doing the same thing.  On occasion, I see familiar faces because I’ve coerced them into running with me.

mono-locoHere are 2012’s repeat offenders:

Otter (10 races, running hetero-lifemate status maintained)
Danielle / T-Rex (4)
Marla (4)
Greg (4)
Steve (3)
Nolan (2)
Regan (2)
Jeff (2)
Jim (2)

And therein lies the core of how awesome 2012 was.  While it’s true that I enjoy running and traveling by themselves, no race trip is ever made worse with company.  Not only did I get to run a ton of races with close friends, but I made new ones whose racing adventures will surely continue to overlap with mine.  finish-lineMuch like last year, I got the chance to hang out with friends from bygone times (college, high school and even middle school) both on and off the course.  I visited three enormous monuments (Crazy Horse, Mount Rushmore and the Hoover Dam), played spectator at the best race in the world, ran two races under 20°F, one above 9,000 feet and wolfed down amazing post-run burgers at Flip (AL), Bluegrass Brewing Company (KY), Blue Door (MN), Zombie (IA), Holsteins (NV) and more.

Did I also mention that I got married this year, a huge spike in my yearlong endorphin high?

0826_halfmadness 03But though 2012 was a year to remember fondly, it ended with a foot injury that I’m currently nursing.  Yes, I ran far too aggressively over the last three months without enough downtime or cross-training.  At least I think that explains it.  In fact, it shouldn’t surprise me at all that something happened, given how much additional work my feet and legs did this year, especially in the latter half.  But the optimist in me says that this is just another lesson that has to be learned.  Nobody’s invincible and even the meanest streak comes to an end.

In the words of a mighty wizard, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”  As I continue to move forward in life, keeping close ties with old friends and meeting new people, I’m thrilled that I can do it all by doing what the human body does best: run.  With every additional mile, I am reminded not only that I am fulfilling an evolutionary goal, but that happiness is a choice and not a consequence.  Some people run because they feel they have to – to maniac-dinnerlose weight or to mitigate the effects of a greasy meal.  I run because I want to, because I enjoy every step.

So can 2013 live up to these impossibly high standards?  I hope so.  I’m shifting focus away from speed and towards endurance, made most apparent by two races looming on the horizon: the Ice Age Trail 50k and the North Country Run 50-miler.  Though I certainly want to recover quickly and get back into a regular pattern of training, my left foot isn’t letting me just yet.  The Disney Marathon starts off 2013 in just under 3 weeks, which means I’m furiously rewriting my training regimen to keep 1215_1_hooverdammarathon 03fitness levels up without hurting myself further.  Tune in on January 14 to see if that happened.

And on that note, I bid ye all a Happy New Year.  May you achieve your goals, learn from your mistakes and keep pressing onwards with an insatiable desire to live.  Because we must always remember that whatever we do in this sport, we do ourselves.  Sometimes we receive encouragement from others and in certain instances we might get swept up in someone else’s training plan.  But at the end of the day, what you do and the choices you make are yours.  You plan, you prepare, you follow through and lastly, you learn.

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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 couchsurfing.org 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!

State 24: Idaho (2012 Idaho Falls Half Marathon)

1. On Surfing Couches

I have gotten to the point in my journey to run at least a half marathon in all fifty states where there are no longer easy states to do, with the exception of Iowa.  I realized this many months ago, where I saw that I had knocked out the nearby Midwest states and, for the most part, any city that is connected to Chicago by cheap airfare.  I was very quickly running out of “convenient” races and had to start planning out my time off the beaten path.  In a moment of both genius and delirium, I decided that, to maximize my time and money, I’d try and double-up – two half marathons in two different states in one weekend.  It would be a half-and-half, if you will.

So I decided to sign up and plan a trip for the inaugural Idaho Falls Half Marathon and the next day run the Madison Montana Half Marathon.

Of course, running two half marathons in one weekend isn’t always advisable.  An ex-coworker with a 2:57 marathon PR once shied me away from it back when my plan was to run the Kentucky Derby Festival and the Cincinnati Flying Pig back to back.  Those were relatively flat and at sea level.  Fast forward over a year later and I’m ignoring his advice to run two races, one at 6,000 feet, the other at 9,000.  Sure, I knew it would be a challenge, but my sense of adventure got the best of me.

When it came time to find lodging, I thought back to my trip to Mississippi for the Tupelo Marathon last September.  I went by myself, got a hotel room, ran the race, and flew back.  As excited as I was that I had finished a notoriously difficult race, I felt like I didn’t really do anything with my free time there besides watch a bootleg copy of Game of Thrones.  So with this trip, I further humored my sense of adventure by looking for a willing host via couchsurfing.org.

For the unfamiliar, couchsurfing.org is a website where users can ask for “couches” on which they can crash for a few days, weeks or even months, from regular folks.  Similarly, they can also offer their own “couch” to the community for wayfarers and nomads to use.  I had heard of it a few years ago but didn’t think much of it until a fellow running blogger, Aurora, mentioned that she’s used it more than once to help cut the costs of her race budget.  So I signed up and looked around Idaho Falls for someone willing to let me stay at their place.  One quick search and I found Rich and Shari, a couple in their 60s, who had just recently signed up to the site themselves.  I sent them a message along with a link to my blog and they graciously accepted.

Shari, me; Background: Idaho Falls, the Latter-Day Saints Temple

For a few logistical and planning reasons, when I arrived at their house, no one was home.  I told Shari that I could easily entertain myself by driving around a new city, but she said it’d be okay with her if I went in through the garage.  Just like that.  Yes, complete stranger, you may enter our house.  That takes a metric ton of trust, I thought.  I guess my blog, which I hoped would serve as a deposit on my character and standing, worked very well.  So I made myself at home on a beanbag in the living room (not a couch, as one might expect from the site that made this possible) and napped for about three hours.  Did I mention that I had gone to a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises before my 6 AM flight?  Yeah, I needed that nap.

I spent the rest of the night getting to know my hosts.  Though I only said hi to Rich briefly, I spent plenty of time getting to know Shari.  Though originally from Denver, she has lived in Idaho Falls for over 30 years and doesn’t plan on leaving.  She is a music teacher, a devoted gardener and a doting host.  She and Rich are approaching their tenth anniversary, which was a bit of a surprise for me.  I tend to assume (like most people, perhaps) that your significant other in your 60s has been with you for all your life.  But although Rich, a windsurfer and builder with a grey and white beard, went to high school with Shari, they didn’t reconnect until ten years ago, allowing plenty of time for each to live completely separate lives.

They are quite the remarkable couple.  Not only are they building a house themselves in the nearby community of Woodfield, but they grow their own produce in a large garden and even make their own fuel.  I was treated to several bowls of fresh raspberries and many slices of homemade bread, much to my delight.  I also got a chance to meet lots of Shari’s family and in the process, earned my stay by helping one of her daughters move into a new house just a block away from the shores of the Snake River.  All of that happened after the half marathon Saturday morning.

Speaking of which …

2. Foothills and Windmills

I woke up at 4:30 and hopped in my rental (a Nissan Sentra again) and drove out to Tautphaus Park (pronounced taw-fuss), where a bus would take me to the start.  The race is a net downhill point to point, which starts off at the top of a mountainous area that I only know as “the foothills,” upon which were built many wind turbines.  The bus kept climbing and climbing, the slope not at all gradual, which prompted many runners to exchange nervous glances.  We all knew it would be downhill, but not so down.

By the time we reached the top, the sun was trying to muscle its way through the scattered clouds with darker clumps hovering menacingly over the city below.  It only took about four buses to get the entire field of runners to the start.   But even a small field of about 200 people will make huge lines when there are only three portapotties.  Fortunately, the organizers were nice enough to delay the start of the race by about fifteen minutes to make sure everyone had time to line up behind the start mat.

The Start Line, top of the world

Running downhill is tricky.  If it’s a slight downhill, then you’re free to run faster with less effort and in doing so, feel like a demigod.  However, if it’s a significant downward slope, then you either end up leaning back and putting some undue stress on your quads and back, or gunning it downhill with reckless abandon.  I did the latter just two weeks ago in Costa Rica.  At first, it’s delightful.  You’re taking huge strides, flying over the pavement as if the road were suddenly one long trampoline.  But then it flattens out and you come crashing down from your sugar high and get sad.  I decided to avoid this mistake by holding back as much as I could without feeling like I was lying down with my face to the sky.

It was a pretty continuous, steep descent

But even so, I was still cruising downhill at a 7:30 pace.  This was the first half marathon that I run where I told myself I wouldn’t go fast.  Sunday’s race in Montana would be tough enough on fresh legs and here I was doing a 13.1-mile “warm-up” run.  I wouldn’t screw it up by trying to get a good time and wrecking my legs in the process.  And yet, I might have done more damage to my legs had I tried to hold back and slow gravity’s relentless pull to an 8-minute pace.  That would come later, when the course would flatten out at mile 7.

But while the downhill lasted, I made sure to enjoy the scenery.  The turbines receded behind me, like sentinels guarding over the city.  It was very quiet; the only noises I could hear were feet hitting the pavement and water sloshing in my reservoir.  To my right, the sun was cresting over the foothills, casting a distant shadow of a sinewy runner over clumps of tall grass.  Race organizers implored that we stay on the roads because these fields were known to house rattlesnakes.  There would be about five miles of this scenic descent before the course would start flattening out.  There was only one climb, right at mile 3.  I remember feeling almost relieved to be able to finally lean forward a bit.  But that relief lasted very little and not because I didn’t like going uphill.  There was a little voice in the back of my head that said I’d be hating uphills in less than twenty-four hours.  We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

By mile 7, there were no more hills to speak of.  We were running on the sidewalks of Sunnyside Road, volunteers positioned at major intersections, holding cars at bay with large, orange flags.  I made sure to thank each one as I ran past them at a stable 8:25 pace.  Though it was slow by my standards, I could definitely feel the 5,000 feet of altitude.  From the first quarter mile, my tongue and throat felt dry, but my lungs were in good shape.  Now on flat terrain, I noticed that I couldn’t have accelerated to a 7:30 pace again if I wanted to.  Though I wasn’t completely tired or falling apart, it was a foreboding sign of the next day’s struggle (which, as of this writing, has not yet happened).

Just before the ninth mile, the course turned right onto Hitt Street for a half mile of commercial strip malls.  This was easily my least favorite part of the course, but it was a necessary evil to get back to Tautphaus Park and the finish line.  By mile 11 we were running through neighborhoods and on sidewalks with a thick tree canopy.  I kept my steady pace, slowly reeling in runners that had slowed down, passing them, and moving onwards.  I felt good.  It made me wonder if this was what most 50-state runners do – run the race for fun, and not to earn a competitive time.  As I plodded along at a sustainable, easy pace, I found myself asking if it was the kind of running I wanted to do.  I kept leaning towards no.  Unless there’s a good reason, I want every race to be one where I snarl my way to the finish.  Maybe I could pick it up in the last mile and finish hard … but I told myself to not go nuts.  Today there was a good reason to take it slow.

The Finish Line at Tautphaus Park

But this furtive thought had already snuck its way into my stride at mile 12.  I started moving a little faster, lifting my arms a little more to build momentum.  I’d show everyone I’m much faster than this!  But as quickly as it started, it ended.  Maybe my body had gotten used to the relaxed pace and subconsciously pulled me back into it.  Or, perhaps more likely, I was more tired than I was willing to admit.  So once back into the park, I ran a large loop around softball fields, through parking lots and into a small, almost single-track trail, before crossing the finish line in 1:47:22.  The post-race amenities included thick slices of Great Harvest bread, Kiwi Loco yogurt and mini Jimmy John’s sandwiches.  Twenty-four states done!

3. Meet, Greet & Eat

I took my finisher’s treats to the side of a grassy hill and ate away.  It would be the first time that I finish a race without the freedom to eat irresponsibly for the remainder of the day.  Instead, I had to reload for the next morning while at the same time nursing my legs.  They weren’t sore or tired, but I knew that the downhill would come back to haunt me.  As of this writing, I feel alright, but get a warm twinge in my quads when I go down stairs.  Is it too much to ask that the post-race atrophy wait another 24 hours?

After coming back to Shari and Rich’s house, I showered and napped.  When I woke up, we drove to meet one of Shari’s daughters, who was moving to Idaho Falls with a UHaul trailer.  Between twelve or so people, we emptied the truck in less than an hour and then ate lunch at a nearby park.  While there, I had this conversation almost verbatim:

“I’m sorry, what was your name?”
“Dan.”
“Oh, are you Tyler’s brother?”
“No, I’m … a total stranger.”
“Wait, you came with Shari, right?”
“Yes, I’m staying with her for the weekend, but besides that, I’m a completely random person.”

Rich and Shari’s house, under construction

Despite the unusual self-characterization, I made several friends that afternoon.  Later in the day, I’d also end up hauling a very heavy washing machine from a storage unit to the truck and then into the house, which earned me more popularity.  I figure, I’d be using my legs a lot this weekend, why not give my arms something to do?  I also made sure to eat as many fruits as possible, knowing I had to replenish and then restock.  I had a Clif bar in my pocket at all times and was never more than ten feet away from a bottle of water.

The garden, some crops of which I was lucky enough to sample

I ended the day by visiting Shari and Rich’s new house, the one that they are building completely by themselves.  The idea is so daunting that I can’t help but marvel at the sheer dedication and patience it must take.  I give myself a gold star and smirk for an hour if I can put together IKEA furniture or hang a picture and these people are building an entire house.  And if that weren’t impressive enough, they spend the entire winter in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula where they are building another house.  I guess that’s what you do when you’ve lived a fulfilling life and still have tons of energy to continue conquering the world.

So even if tomorrow’s race is a huge disaster, I can at least say that the weekend was a very memorable success.  I got to meet a wonderful couple while enjoying their generous hospitality in a completely new and beautiful state.  I told Shari that if I ever come back to Idaho for a full marathon, that I would stop and visit their new house to see where all the walls end up going.

But first, let’s get back to reality.  Once I finish writing this, I will start the drive to Ennis, Montana around 2 in the morning with a car full of heavy metal albums and a belly buzzing with nerves.

Wish me luck.

End of Year Recap (2009 – 2011)

Since this is my first annual recap but my third year as a distance runner, I want to go back a bit and reflect on how my running has progressed over the years.  In order to do so, I will provide a brief recap of the years 2009 and 2010 with a few stats that reflect what the year was like.  So, though I took my first steps in an actual training regimen in 2008, I will start with 2009, which is beyond a doubt where it all began.

2009 Recap

States Completed (1): Illinois

Half Marathons Run: 3
Fastest Finishing Time: 1:47:58 (13.1 Chicago Marathon)
Average Finishing Time: 1:49:32

Marathons Run: 1
Fastest Finishing Time: 4:03:21 (Bank of America Chicago Marathon)

Number of Fellow Runners: 53,169
Best Medal: Chicago Marathon
Worst Medal: Chicago Spring Half Marathon

When I ran my first half marathon in May of 2009, I had no intentions of going crazy.  I was tired, winded and in desperate need of replenishment.  My legs hurt, my face was salty and my lungs felt like they were on the verge of collapse.  Later that year, I would run two more half marathons and my first marathon, all in the great city of Chicago.  At the time, it felt like the culmination of a long process, one that ended with a respectable 4:03 finish in the bustling streets of the Windy City.

However, it was only the beginning of something much more exciting.  Something snapped in my head and my nascent hobby for distance running became an integral part of my lifestyle.  With this greater passion, I set out to run ten half marathons to commemorate the year 2010 and decided to do seven of those outside Illinois.

2010 Recap

States Completed (7): Florida, Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, Massachusetts, California, Arizona

Half Marathons Run: 11
Fastest Finishing Time: 1:32:06 (Tucson Half Marathon* – all downhill, not my official PR)
Average Finishing Time: 1:43:02

Marathons Run: 1
Fastest Finishing Time: 4:05:22 (Bank of America Chicago Marathon)

Number of Fellow Runners: 149,526
Best Medal: ING Miami Half Marathon
Worst Medal: OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon

2010 was an incredible year for me.  I decided to focus intently on the half marathon distance, running only five short-distance races to keep things exciting.  I pushed myself harder and faster than I thought possible, breaking 1:40 for the first time in Disneyland.  Overall, I was thrilled with my progress – my average finishing time was almost five minutes faster than the previous year’s PR.  I also stepped outside of my comfort zone a few times, running warm weather half marathons in spite of my low heat tolerance.

But along the way, I got to spend time with a lot of friends from Chicago, college and even high school.  It made me realize that these races are a great excuse to reconnect with people that I don’t normally talk to on a regular basis.  In more than one case, I even managed to convince them to run the race as well, which requires more than the average amount of convincing.

I loved the experience of seeing new cities and catching up with old friends so much that my ambitions naturally expanded.  At the end of the year, I came up with the much bigger idea of running at least a half marathon in all fifty states.  And lucky for me, I had a head start with seven already under my belt.

I also set a time limit: to cross the finish line of the last state before my 40th birthday on November 5, 2022.  That meant that I’d have to do around 3.6 states a year to reach my goal right on time.  After making that calculation I thought, that’s doable.  Once I commit to this, I’ll be able to do 3, maybe 4 states every year and not go hungry trying.  A reasonable person with limited means like me would budget accordingly, prioritize and pick the most sensible states and stick to it.

But any avid runner knows that just visiting a race website is enough to plant a very persuasive seed.  Simply knowing a race is out there in a new state, with new splits, bibs, and medals is enough to get the ball rolling.  So it was with that impulsive drive that I began scheduling the great challenges of 2011.

2011 Recap

States Completed (9): Texas, Georgia, Colorado, Ohio, Michigan, Connecticut, South Carolina, Mississippi, New York
Countries Completed (1): Costa Rica

Half Marathons Run: 9
Fastest Finishing Time: 1:37:18 (Holiday Half Marathon, PR)
Average Finishing Time: 1:43:57

Marathons Run: 4
Fastest Finishing Time: 3:40:59 (Traverse City State Bank Bayshore Marathon, PR)
Average Finishing Time: 4:00:56

Number of Fellow Runners: 141,649
Best Medal: Flying Pig Half Marathon
Worst Medal: Stratton Faxon Fairfield Half Marathon

This was a great year for my racing career and one of many firsts.  I broke four hours at the marathon for the first time in Michigan, ran my first trail race in South Carolina, experienced for the first time a race above 5,000 feet in Colorado, ran my first international race in Costa Rica and learned the pains of running three marathons in nine weeks.

But more importantly, I got to experience the following for the first time: the varied tastes of Texas’ wine country, the inauguration of Costa Rica’s new fútbol stadium, the feeling of shooting a semi-automatic shotgun, the delectable morsels and thrilling rides of the Disney Food & Wine Expo, the diverse characters of all five of New York City’s boroughs, the empty slopes of Beaver Creek’s spring ski season, what it feels like to run in pitch darkness (more than once), and many, many delicious burgers.  None of these would have been possible without the hospitality and generosity of my friends and family.  I’m extremely glad to have found an activity that lets me explore the country, stay healthy and rekindle friendships with amazing people.

So now that the year is ending, I look forward to 2012 with great excitement.  It is going to be another year that goes above and beyond the 3.6-state minimum required to reach my goal on time, almost guaranteed by my new mini-goal: to be halfway done before getting married in late September.  As of this writing, I have signed up for three new states and have picked out races in the remaining five.  Though it will certainly be packed with enough running to keep me on my toes (figuratively and literally), I will definitely need to exercise prudence to avoid going overboard.  For one, escalation always comes with increased risk of injury.  But more importantly, every race I plan is a weekend away from home, which is not only a potentially costly expense, but time away from my close friends and loved ones in Chicago.

So I guess that means I have to start converting all of my friends into fervent runners.  It seems that’s my only option.

Onwards to the New Year, with expectations high and shoes laced.