End of Year Recap (2014)

I can’t remember the last time I ran so little.  The last two months I’ve averaged around 8 to 12 miles a week, which is less than when I started running in March of 2009.  Even when injured, I’ve been able to routinely knock out at least 100 miles per month, with consistency being the name of the game.  But since November 1, I’ve decided to take it easy.  For once, finally.

Though it wasn’t my choice.

Recap_2014

The story is familiar to those who have been following my race stories.  In October, I tried to run two marathons in one weekend, and ended up aggravating my right IT band.  Four weeks later, I was scheduled to run a marathon, and instead of taking it easy, I decided to chase a fast time.  Despite my knee hurting for 22 miles, I managed a one-minute PR.  After that, I decided, it was time to rest.

miami-marathon-12-groupAnd rest I have.  This hasn’t been “rest” like diehard runners do, where they take two days off and then make up for the absence with hard intervals.  I’ve legitimately sat at home and let my trainers collect dust, even as picture perfect 45-degree days beckon me with perfectly blue skies.  Almost two months later, my right knee seems to be back to normal.  I haven’t fully tested it out, as I haven’t gone on any runs longer than 8 miles.  But so far, it feels great, fresh and ready for the challenges of the new year.  But before we can look forward, it’s fun to cast our glance backwards and see what the year on our feet has brought us.

2014-04-06 06.38.54This year didn’t quite have a defined purpose like the previous ones have.  2011 was the year of the marathon, where I went beyond the one-a-year mindset and began exploring the distance in depth.  2012 was the year of geography, with states being added to the log like cereal boxes in a shopping cart.  2013 was the year of the ultra and that mythical realm beyond the banner marked 26.2.  This year, for better or worse, was a little scatterbrained.

There were new states, to be sure.  I ran through the deserts of New Mexico, past Midwestern monuments and on 0503__albuquerquethe shores of New England.  I ran on school campuses, Air Force bases and national parks.  There was an ultra thrown in for good measure (though my performance was far from good).  But most notably of all,  it was also a year for speed.  I lowered my 25-month old half marathon PR to 1:29 and inched ever closer to my Boston Qualifying time by notching a new marathon PR of 3:22.

Those last two stats are incredibly important for me.  I’m not just a runner because I like improving my times.  Though few of us like to admit it, there will eventually come a time when we simply can’t get faster.  It’s about self 0511_1_delawaremarathon 27improvement, be that longer distances, faster times or simply being the best runner that you can be.  For now, though, despite the dalliances in ultra distances and running certain races “for fun,” I’m still very much a competitive runner.  And that means running fast.

So though it might be tempting to remember 2014 as the year where I ran a 3:22 marathon while very injured, I’m confident that the history books will focus elsewhere.  Instead, I will remember how an otherwise nondescript excursion to Maryland became an opportunity to catch up with a good friend and meet her entire extended family.  I will fondly recall the trip to New Mexico, where I got 2014-bighorntrail50k-11together with old friends from college and new friend from the internet.  Memories of a brutal 50k and the generous friends who drove us across the state will always come up when I think of Wyoming, just as a lifelong friendship that started in high school will color my thoughts of Maine and New Hampshire.

And so, with my legs recovering from a pretty intense year, it’s time to look ahead to 2015, a year with a singularly ambitious goal: a Boston qualifying time.  As a known sandbagger, I don’t always like to publish my expectations, but with a goal as lofty as running a 3:04 marathon, I need to light multiple fires under my ass to make it happen.  About a month ago, I earned a spot at the 2015 Berlin Marathon, the fastest marathon in the world, and that is 0920_airforcemarathon 01where I will attempt my first ever BQ.  As monumental as that day will be, I won’t start it alone.

This is a point I can’t emphasize enough.  Though running itself is a lonely man’s game, this project of mine has been anything but lonesome.  Though I may not have known was 2014 was really “about,” it took a Christmas missive from a relative to put it all in perspective.  2014 was about solidarity, support and family.  From the outpouring of emotion at the Miami Marathon, run with a charity for my dearly departed uncle, to pacing my father-in-law at the Air Force Marathon, it was about using the sport to help 1004_sebagoothers.

Every state has written a new story about people, those who joined the race, offered kind words of support, opened their homes, or met me afterward for a sweaty drink.  This countrywide, soon to be global effort would mean nothing were it not for the truly wonderful people that have helped me with each and every race.  Runners sometimes get a bad rap for talking about their sport too much.  But if you felt this much love, I don’t see why you’d want to talk about anything else.

On your feet, everyone, always moving forward, onwards. 

Happy New Year, share your experiences, and look at that map!  Almost done!

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State 37: New Mexico (2014 Shiprock Marathon)

“It’s really masochistic if you think about it,” I told my friend Ryan as we sat in the finisher’s tent, downing bottles of water and chocolate milk. “They load you up in a bus, haul you thirteen or twenty-six miles into the middle of the desert, drop you off and say, ‘Alright, you’re completely on your own now. Run.’”

0503_shiprockmarathon 04

In any big city race, there’s a “loop” of sorts that we’re expected to traverse, which gives us the illusion that we’re sightseeing but with an elevated heart rate. Or we can trick ourselves into thinking we’re participating in an extreme scavenger hunt. But when you’re driving the very course you’re expected to run, it can feel a little defeating. It’s so remarkably easy to sit on a school bus for about thirty minutes. But knowing that returning on your own two feet will leave you ragged and gasping for air can feel like a kick in the gut.

If we’re expected to run over five miles, then why did god invent cars?

2014 Shiprock Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2014 Shiprock Marathon Google Earth Rendering

Flag Song

Flag Song

But there I was, just a rattlesnake strike away from the Arizonan border, staring straight into the sun as it rose above the 2014 Shiprock Marathon. A crowd of two or three hundred other runners were shuffling excitedly for the race, every one of them grateful for the lack of sandstorms that had besieged New Mexico all week. A cloudless sky had welcomed us, along with a slight breeze from the northeast that got me well acquainted with the bone dry air of the high desert.

The non-profit NavajoYES organized the race, now in its thirty-first year. Instead of the national anthem, we were treated to a flag song, performed by a local drum group. Six men huddled around a large rawhide drum and began chanting to a tribal rhythm, their voices echoing harmoniously. The announcer rattled off a list of states near and far to a few hoots and hollers from the crowd, far from the louder calls he received when he began listing the different Native American tribes participating.

I started the race with a Canadian teacher and Marathon Maniac named Marc, whom I met on the flight to Albuquerque the day before. Affectionately known as “Mr. T” by his students, he was on the final stretch of his 50-states marathon quest, which will end in June with Grandma’s. The first two miles were a gentle uphill, which we ran modestly, as if paying respect to the distance before sparring with it. I could feel the thinness of the air in my nostrils, a familiar sensation from my trips to Colorado. I was unsure how the race would play out at this point, but I was increasingly thinking it would be a slow day.

The start is a gentle, yet consistent uphill.

The start is a gentle, yet consistent uphill.

Once past the starting line, the race was quiet.  The only sounds came from labored breathing, feet upon the pavement and occasional chit-chat.  In that opening mile, an older runner plugged a nostril and sneezed out a thin mist, as if evaporation were irresistible in the high desert even to snot.

The first five kilometers were mostly uphill, culminating at 6,103 feet, the race’s highest point. I still felt completely dry, having used these opening miles to warm up and get acquainted with the air. But once at the top, it was time to scream downhill, with no time to issue apologies to everyone who got fleeting glimpses of my soles.

The road pulled me downward, each foot behaving on its own, spinning relentlessly at a pace I reserve for much shorter races. One by one I sped past runners, wondering if I would see them later, heaving by the roadside, cursing my naïve exuberance. But I couldn’t help it. I was feeling powerful and confident. I had not forgotten that the marathon has taught me time and time again one of its harshest lessons: reel it in at the beginning and save that boiling energy for the end.

Most of the race looked like this.

Most of the race looked like this.

But with downhills, all bets are off. I can’t help but banish the worrisome auditors that run pace calculations in my ear every two minutes. That voice that tells me to take it easy and play it safe becomes too faint over the roaring flood of adrenaline.  I am all but forced to embrace the runner’s id, the childlike freedom to run forever, unencumbered by the silly notion of conservation.

In times like these, I just want to fly.

During this flight, I could see for miles. The road shot out ahead of us, thinning until it became a gossamer thread that spilled over the horizon. There was nothing to distract us from forward movement, which given the endless desert ahead, seemed like a joke.  It sometimes felt like running on a giant treadmill and we weren’t going anywhere. Nothing changed except the people around me.

But I loved every second of it. This was an exercise in running, pure and simple. If you didn’t like the activity itself, free from the polished sheen of flashy races, this wasn’t your event. There were no changes in scenery to draw your attention away from the punishing distance, no turns to hide the many miles to come, and no monuments to admire as we crossed them off … with one very impressive exception.

I love this picture.

I love this picture.

The race itself is named after a giant rock formation that juts out of northwest New Mexico like a castle. Where many mountains in the area are either rounded out or completely flat, Shiprock rises like a cluster of sharp spires. Its silhouette against the morning sun gives it the appearance of a villainous lair built thousands of years ago by a civilization forgotten by time. Given how haunting it looks, standing alone in the middle of a flat expanse, it didn’t surprise me to learn that it holds a very special place in the customs and folklore of the Navajo.

For most of the race, Shiprock kept gaze over us. No matter how many miles we would run, it was always off in the distance, permanent, unfeeling.

I reached the halfway mark, where about fifteen minutes earlier, the half marathoners had begun their own journey to the finish line. Ryan was part of that pack, running his first ever half marathon. I was hoping that he would enjoy it, especially since this race would challenge him in many unique ways that he couldn’t anticipate during training.

I kept hammering out the miles, invigorated by every downhill. It wasn’t long before I felt like I was running alone. With every mile marker, the trappings of the organized race disappeared, leaving the runner bare to run, pure and simple. I started noticing that uphills were somehow capitulating to my momentum. I was breathing easily, my teeth weren’t clenching and I had no curses to spit into the air. As I approached the back of the half marathoners, my heat-seeking straight line path became a bit more serpentine and it felt, once again, like a race.

If you zoom in, you can see the half marathon crowd about a mile ahead

If you zoom in, you can see the half marathon crowd about a mile ahead

Now with a crowd of people, I kept the relentless progress through the unchanging world. The desert remained ahead, infinitely revealing, with no end in sight. Every few miles I would sneak a glance at my watch and realize how close I was to running a PR pace.

What is happening? I asked myself. How is this pace possible? Is the downhill enough to overcome the thin air? Is 5,500 feet even considered altitude? How is it not even warm yet?

And yet, despite the confident pace and joyous stroll through the ancient plains, not all was well. Right at mile 19, I felt an awkward shift in my right foot, as if all the skin on the outside had separated from my flesh. I hadn’t developed a serious blister in a long time, but I felt that streak end in one chilling step. Downhill running is a double-edged sword, and after wielding it with gusto for two-thirds of the race, I was beginning to notice the cuts on my skin.

Ryan 10/13 of the way through his debut half marathon

Ryan 10/13 of the way through his debut half marathon

A mile later, we made the first turn of the entire race. The dedicated two-lane road we had been navigating for the last 20 miles stopped when it reached 491. We would run north for the last six miles, heading toward the town of Shiprock. Up ahead I spotted a runner with a bright, neon tech shirt and a white hat. I caught up to him and confirmed that it was Ryan, looking strong and smiling.

But I couldn’t say the same for myself.

The altitude and hard effort had taken their toll and my body had started to rebel. Miles 22 through 24 were almost completely flat, which meant that I had to run harder to keep the same pace. Right on cue, my calves began to falter, and every step sent a buzzing current into my legs as if the road were suddenly electrified. Each one was closer to delivering an unwanted and untimely cramp, so I had to stop and walk, the ghost of my PR floating toward the finish line.

Airborne during the final dash to the finish

Airborne during the final dash to the finish

The rest of the race was the familiar pattern of grunt and breathe. I would run as fast as I could to the next aid station, drink and douse myself in water, and continue to the next one. It was finally starting to feel warm and the cold water absorbing in my tech shirt was heavenly. Though it was no longer muscular and dominant, the engine was still working and I kept a strong pace through those last miles.

We returned to Shiprock High School, where the buses had boarded four hours earlier. We left the road and entered a dry, dirt field, just a zig and a zag away from the cheers of the finish line. It was the first crowd of spectators we had seen all day and they were generous with their support. I passed under the timing sensors and stopped my watch at 3 hours, 28 minutes, having finished my twenty-second marathon in the sacred grounds of the Navajo.

Never would have guessed that time, I thought, clenching a proud fist.

Ryan finished just a few minutes behind me, ending his first half marathon just shy of two hours. When I first saw him, he mentioned something like “every part of me wants to die right now,” but his smile betrayed the morbid sentiment. Most people aim for a local, flat race to test out their mettle. But circumstances made it so he would face the distance at altitude, on a downhill course in the middle of the desert with skin-flaking dry air.

(left to right) Ryan's sinuses acting up, Tom, me, Shiprock

(left to right) Ryan’s sinuses acting up, Tom, me, Shiprock … and this picture makes it painfully apparent how short my shorts are.

All things considered, it was a great day for both of us.

That is, until we spent the remainder of the day trying to get out of the bottlenecked parking lot. The organizers may have done a great job with everything else, but if you’re thinking of running the Shiprock Marathon in 2015, make sure they’ve addressed the post-race parking exodus, because it felt like being in the music video for “Everybody Hurts” but with legs on the verge of seizure.

Once back in Albuquerque, we got together with Amy and Aaron of Lavender Parking Running Fame at Il Vicino Brewing Company.   We shared dinner and a few drinks with them and our college friend Tom, who graciously hosted us for the weekend, before moving to La Cumbre Brewing Company. Much to my delight they had also brought Giuseppe, their snow-white Westie, who often makes cameos in her race stories.  During the course of the evening, I learned that they had hired the same photographer who worked my wedding, and that Aaron’s parents live two houses down from Tom.

But more importantly, I learned that there’s something special about running bloggers. Whatever chemical reaction that causes people to run and write about it also produces the most welcoming and caring people. It’s an infinitely complicated route that has led me to this sport, but if I continue meeting such wonderful people, then I will gladly tread that same path for many years to come.

(left to right): Aaron, Ryan, me, Tom, Amy

(left to right): Aaron, Ryan, me, Tom, Amy

As midnight approached, the day had already caught up to us. We had gotten up at 4 AM, throttled our legs, dehydrated ourselves and sat in a car blaring 90’s hits for three hours. We said our goodbyes and drove back to Tom’s where we all fell instantly asleep.  At the moment, I am doing whatever it takes to make sure this massive blister heals before the 39.3 race miles I’ve committed to running this weekend. If the hot and humid forecast holds up, then I’m staring down another intense challenge.

Maybe we are masochists.

Marathon_Map 047 (NM)

2014 Race Schedule

In 2013, I mapped out the vast majority of my races for one purpose: to ramp-up to the North Country 50-miler.  While that race wasn’t as successful as I had hoped, the training leading up to it was more than worthwhile.  2014 won’t be quite as structured as I don’t have a singular epic event that will dominate my every interval run.  There is an ultra in the mix, but it won’t require as much all-encompassing focus as last year’s top race.

2014 will be about filling in some of the gaps.  With the South completely done, there are just three areas left to finish: the west, the northeast and the two pesky states not attached to the remaining 48.  This year I will be running two of the four remaining “western” states, but mostly I’ll be tackling the Atlantic Coast.

And so, while this list is far from exhaustive or definitive, it is how I envision my 2014 looking from a race standpoint.  I haven’t signed up for all of them – in fact, I have only signed up for two – but I don’t envision them selling out anytime soon.  Yes, I realize those are famous last words, but this is just to serve as a disclaimer.  Please let me know if you will be joining me for any of the races below, as it will definitely motivate me to sign up sooner!

01-miami

February 2, 2014
Miami, Florida

2014 will start with my very first charity marathon.  On November 25, 2013, my uncle Daniel Robert Bonilla died from complications stemming from glioblastoma multiforme, a malignant and extremely aggressive brain tumor.  He was there with me in 2010 and 2011 when I ran the half marathon distance in Miami, so I decided that in 2014 my twentieth marathon would be in Miami in his loving memory.  Given Miami’s propensity for intense heat and humidity, even in the first weekend in February, it will be a challenge to finish this one in under four hours without succumbing to dehydration.  Although it won’t be easy, I hope to channel Tío Daniel’s lasting memory and legacy with every step.

02-stlouis

April 6, 2014
St. Louis, Missouri

I ran the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon in 2010 with my cousin and enjoyed it, despite Olive Road squashing my speed with its seemingly interminable incline.  Like Miami, I decided to return this year and run the full marathon, thus shading another nearby state in red.  Although I don’t have speedy ambitions for this race, I will try and run aggressively and build a solid base to  threaten my PR later in the year.

03-shiprock

May 3, 2014
Shiprock, New Mexico

I’ve run three desert races, one of which was a marathon, and have loved all of them.  Given the climate and the course’s net downhill elevation, this one seemed like a no-brainer.  I’m still a little unsure as to how hot it will be in early May, but I don’t plan on killing this course, so I’m not too worried.  Plus, if I fly into Albuquerque (just under 3 hours away), it will give me a chance to visit all the sets of Breaking Bad, like everyone is doing these days.  Forgive me for following trends.

04-maryland

May 10, 2014
Fulton, Maryland

Admittedly, I’m at the point in my 50-states quest where I no longer have a reason to run certain races.  Some of these races simply exist in states that I have never visited, so I find one and decide to run it (which is made most apparent by the fact that each race is basically the name of the state in which it is run).  But in the interest of trimming the budget, I decided to once again double-up on states.  However, unlike my Pacific Northwest Double-Marathon Weekend of 2013, I won’t be doing 52.4 miles this time.  Instead, I will be running 39.3 – a half marathon on Saturday in Maryland, followed by …

May 11, 2014
Wilmington, Delaware

2014-Marathon-Layout-Vert-with-CC-logo… a full marathon in Delaware on Sunday.  This is another race that I don’t know that much about, but fit nicely with my schedule.  In fact, a lot of these states don’t have particular significance to me but I do have friends who live in the area, so I will no doubt make it a point to visit them in the process.  There have been very few races that I have simply run without some sort of personal attachment and I don’t intend to make this pair succumb to that fate.  That way, when I’m done with my 50-states journey, I’ll have great stories for each one.  Even Delaware.

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06-bighorn

June 21, 2014
Dayton, Wyoming

Dayton, Wyoming is a tiny western town with a population that barely cracks 1,000.  But it’s the closest example of civilization that I could find to the Bighorn Trail Run course, which peaks at around 9,000 feet.  Sometime last year I realized that my two ultramarathons were being run in states that I had already completed, so I figured that my next huge race should at least net me another state.  If I’m going to put hundreds of miles running hills on the treadmill, I might as well get a new state out of it.  Pickings were slim in the flat states, so I decided to go crazy and do one at altitude.  Along the way, Otter, Marla and Jay (80% of the North Country crew) joined as well.

October 4, 2014
Bristol, New Hampshire

NHmarathongrayscale.jpgI will definitely regret doing another 39.3-mile weekend if the first one above doesn’t go well.  Regardless, my trips to New England will once again be minimized with a double-up.  Saturday will start with a half marathon in what is regarded as “the most beautiful race in the Northeast” (and one I have hitherto never visited) followed by …

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October 5, 2014
Portland, Maine

logo… a marathon in Portland, Maine.  Curiously enough, it will be happening on the exact same day as the marathon in the other Portland, which I ran in 2013.  With this state done, I will be at forty-two states, with the potential for a forty-third in November.  I haven’t made any commitments but I do anticipate squeezing out another run in the last two months of the year, leaving just a few empty spots on the map before the last states to ever join the union are run in 2016.

So there you have it, my 2014 race schedule.  It’s pretty straightforward, focusing mostly on marathons with the half distance only making an appearance (for now) as a prelude to the full distance just 24 hours afterward.  I was originally going to run the 50-mile distance at Bighorn to vindicate my DNF from this past year, but then I ran 4 miles at 4,000 feet and, while wheezing from oxygen debt, decided that an additional 46 at twice the elevation might not be what some call “intelligent.”  So while some may call us crazy, there is still a point at which the runner’s ego hits a wall.  The 50-mile distance still taunts me though, but I will likely table my next attempt for another year.

What’s on the 2014 docket for you?  What’s the one big race that will monopolize your training?  Is there a race that you would love to run this year, but for whatever reason, you can’t?  Mine is Berlin.  Goddamn I want to run that.