Paces High (2014 Air Force Marathon)

We walked between floodlights and domed hangars under the night sky, following the crowd to the start line. My wife Steph was running her first (and likely only) half marathon along with her sister, mom and uncle. An hour before they were due to start, I would begin the marathon with my father-in-law Steve as his pacer.  This race was particularly significant for Steve, because not only was he in the Air Force for six years, it would be his first marathon since 2008.  Both of these reasons imbued him with omnipotent Dad Power, which meant he made t-shirts and signed up the entire family for the event.

left to right: Steve, Janine, Jan, Steph, me

left to right: Steve, Janine, Jan, Steph, me (with head wings!)

I was a little nervous. It wasn’t the marathon distance that intimidated me, but the task of being Steve’s pacer. Before I had even run two miles in my life, he had already earned several marathon and triathlon finishes. I went to watch him run the 2006 and 2007 Chicago Marathons, years known respectively for being very cold and dangerously hot, and felt completely humbled (and intimidated) by what I had just witnessed. Today, I hoped that I would be able to guide him through the race without feeling impertinent – after all, this was the guy who taught me how to run six years ago.

Mile 0: The Start

Mile 0: The Start

By 7:30 in the morning, as darkness gave way to a pristine morning at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, it was time to start. The race began with the unexpected, full-bodied boom of a cannon, instantly sending my heart crawling up my throat. We started our watches, shook off the nerves and took off with one helluva roar.

The race website, literature and even satellite maps gave me the impression that we were going to run purely within the base. If you close your eyes and imagine a typical airport, I’m certain that your mental image will not include trees or shade. And for a large part of this race, that’s how we ran, climbing high into the sun. The first 5k had most of the hills, rolling over the Air Force Institute of Technology’s campus and by the Wright Brothers Memorial.  We cruised past the Wright State University Nutter Center, where we had picked up our race materials the day before, and then the course ushered us to the McClerron Memorial Skyway for longer than I would have wanted.  Eventually we reached the Wright-Patterson Golf Course at 10k and happily welcomed the cover of trees.

Mile 5: McClerron Memorial Skyway

Mile 5: McClerron Memorial Skyway

This was a delightful change of scenery. Though most of the surrounding area for the entire race was green, the actual trees themselves were always too far away to provide any shade. But we felt instantly cooler once the course narrowed on the golf course. Steve and I had started walking a minute for every ten minutes of running, though still keeping an even pace.

For the next 10k we would run through Fairborn, a small town just northeast of the base. We wouldn’t see this many spectators until the finish line, but our attention was focused elsewhere. It seemed like this part of town was looking forward to Halloween like a kid going to sleep at 3 PM on Christmas Eve. Every other store was displaying spooky wares and one family had erected a professional-grade ghost ship on their front yard. There was even a house with a “ghoul train” on its lawn and a two-story tall Grim Reaper fastened to its façade. It was easy to forget that we’re still five weeks away from All Hallows’ Eve, but they all made for excellent distractions as we crossed mile 10.

Mile 7: The course narrows a bit by the golf course

Mile 7: The course narrows a bit by the golf course

As we made our way out of Fairborn, I kept noticing that Steve was steadily pulling away from me. I didn’t want to temper his enthusiasm too much, but we were out here to run a smart pace. “Let’s reel it in a bit,” I would say, keep the wings level and true, and he’d dial it back. Once again, I felt a tiny twinge of impertinence because I felt like I was putting a stopper on the pent-up energy he had stored over the years, waiting to burst out.

Once out of Fairborn, it was time to run around the perimeter of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. As you might imagine, it’s an enormous sprawl of land with few trees to provide any shade. As we wrapped around the base, Steve began talking to a fellow Team Red White & Blue member. He soon learned that his new friend was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, where Steve spent six years as a missile security officer. They talked for about a mile about who did what, what happened when, what is and what isn’t. Making quick friends has always been one of his core competencies and had we not reached an aid station, I don’t know when the conversation would have stopped. Part of me wanted to pull him away and get him to re-focus on the race.  But that would have been cold; he was having so much fun.

After all, we had just run a half marathon just shy of his all-time PR and had plenty of energy to keep up an animated conversation. This wasn’t always the case.

Mile 10: Fairborn decked out in Halloween decorations

Mile 10: Fairborn decked out in Halloween decorations

Sometime in late 2008, Steve’s body rebelled against him. The well of energy that had always provided him with enough kick to participate in long-distance races, work a difficult and challenging job and be the best family man this side of Hobbiton had suddenly and inexplicably run dry. By 2009, he was walking half marathons because he couldn’t quite pick up the pace. In 2010, when my own running exploits were gaining traction, he had to drop out just shy of the second mile of the Indy 500 Festival Mini-Marathon because he didn’t have it in him.

Mile 12: Alien-themed aid station provides Steve a Close Encounter of the Thirst Kind

Mile 12: Alien-themed aid station provides Steve a Close Encounter of the Thirst Kind

He got blood work done, changed his diet, got tested for allergies and saw doctors of every ilk, but the mystery went unsolved. He gained weight and felt increasingly imprisoned by this inescapable lassitude, sometimes spending dark days in the basement alone with his thoughts. Oddly, this decline coincided with a surge in running by those around him. By then I was literally running wild with the sport and not long after, his brother men, Greg and Jim learned to fly, becoming marathoners themselves. His brothers-in-law Scott and Dan soon followed while Steve could only watch from the sidelines.

I remember asking him once if he would prefer that I keep my running stories to myself, because I began feeling a little obnoxious talking about my most recent PRs.  It felt like happily feasting in front of someone who hadn’t eaten in days. He said no.  Not only did he take pride in knowing he had set me on the running path, but these stories were exactly the kind of motivation he needed.

Mile 17: Wide open, sunny stretches were frequent

Mile 17: Wide open, sunny stretches were frequent.  Under warmer conditions, this race could have been much tougher.

During this time, he became an avid scuba diver, dedicating himself to the activity and joining several charities aimed at helping veterans assimilate back into civilian life through scuba missions. His passion for the underwater world mirrored his diehard pursuit of endurance sports, but part of him was always itching to get fully back into the running game. You could hear it in his voice when he’d give tips or lend gear, that telltale enthusiasm that lets you know he hadn’t forgotten anything.

But he managed to turn things around. With help from his family (most notably his wife Jan), he changed his diet, refused to stay down and began to slowly climb out of the basement. Whatever was ailing him was never truly discovered or even named, but that didn’t stop him from putting in the time and sweat.

His training went into overdrive during an emotional trip to New Jersey in the summer of 2013.

It was a warm, muggy day on the eastern coast. I wore shorts and a salmon colored Polo, hoping it would unite the conflicting goals of staying cool and looking somewhat respectable. But the heat of Leonardo was oppressive and after walking for a minute dragging scuba gear through the sand, I could feel the sweat dripping down my arms. My in-laws were gathered along the beach, unsure if the occasion warranted a dose of their natural charisma or a helping of sober reflection. Because all of them, uncles, cousins and those who cleverly used marriage to sneak in, were there to remember and pay tribute to the family matriarch, who had passed away the previous summer.

Mile 19: A shaded service road comes to the rescue.

Mile 19: A shaded service road comes to the rescue.

While most of the family stayed on the sand, Steve and his brothers walked into the frigid waters of Sandy Hook Bay to bring Gram back to the shores of her childhood home. They released her ashes into the icy waters and left a stone with her name engraved on it, a memento for the remarkable woman who raised the wonderful, supportive family that so eagerly embraced me. Speeches were given and more than one fond memory recalled before a ponderous, and rare, moment of silence. Not long after, there was a lunch at a nearby restaurant, where it seemed like all sorrow and solemnity had been washed away by the zany extended family that we seldom get to see. It was easy to think at the time that Gram would have wanted it this way.

Mile 25.6: Beast mode

Mile 25.6: Beast mode

“I told myself while I was in the water,” Steve said, around mile 23, “I gotta turn this around.”

By that point, he had already started the comeback.   He had been training regularly and had run the Hoover Dam Half Marathon with us, preparing for Moab and later Miami. It was then that he dropped the megaton hammer on us by revealing that he had signed up for Ironman Cozumel. There it was, the massive 140.6-mile carrot that would dangle before him, the bright beacon on the horizon pushing him to train harder than ever.

The Air Force Marathon was part of that plan, and there we were, cruising past 40k.

Mile 26: Cleared for landing

Mile 26: Cleared for landing

“I look to you guys, to my brothers and you, and it inspires me.” In the moment, I could do little else but keep running, though I felt moved by what he said. The guy who was stationed at an Air Force base near Great Falls, Montana during most of his 20s, raised a five-star family and was staring down an Ironman with determination and grit, was somehow inspired by me. I thought his cables might have gotten crossed in the last 10k, but then I remembered what he told me five years ago. Every time he heard about race stories, from me or anyone else close to him, he got a little closer to his homecoming.  “Without you guys running together,” he said, pausing.  “I don’t know.”

“Alright, there’s mile 25,” I said as we approached the entrance to the base. “Time to give it all you got.”
“This is all I got.”

0920_airforcemarathon 40The final U-shaped stretch was lined with American flags followed by a fleet of intimidating military planes, all facing us as if ready to fly into the wild blue yonder. As we made that final turn, the chutes closed in on us, the finish line a bull’s eye just ahead. Enormous black and green wings passed above us like the arms of a slow-moving fan, with crowds cheering underneath. We passed a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter, then an AC-130, and finally a giant Boeing C-17 Globemaster before reaching the blue finish banner. There were 26 miles of running behind me, but so many more behind Steve. The last six years had been a frustrating series of races that ended too soon or stretched on for too long. But here he was, running what was quite possibly his fastest ever marathon.

“Hey,” I said, nudging him on the shoulder, “welcome back!”

Finishers!

Finishers!

We passed every plane and crossed the finish line, making our way through a large, white tent to meet up with the rest of the family. Everyone was smiling, if not a little achy, and ready to head back to the hotel for a shower. The rest of the weekend was spent eating, napping, watching movies and visiting the Museum of the US Air Force. Even if nobody had finished the race, or if we had all been carted off the course in a medical van, what mattered most was that we spent a fun weekend with family, learning about Steve’s time in Montana with the US Air Force.

But if I too live to be a grey-haired wonder, I hope to still be knocking out races like this.

Marathon_Map 051 (OH)

State 12: Ohio (2011 Cincinnati Flying Pig Half Marathon)

The Cincinnati Flying Pig Half Marathon was a mystery to us.  It’s nationally known, fields a huge number of racers and garners national attention in the running world.  But why?  It doesn’t offer huge cash prizes for winners, so the finishing times aren’t even close to world or national records.  Cincinnati isn’t an enormous, sprawling metropolis with unique manmade or natural landmarks and the race is only in its seventh year so it hasn’t had that much time to cultivate a large following.  So why is it, like such others as Grandma’s Marathon and Big Sur, one of those “name” races that everyone seems to know?  Is it the cute, porcine theme?  Or has the medal become a collector’s item?

Several months ago, as I was putting together my tentative race schedule for 2011, I made plans to answer these questions.  I had originally planned on making it part of an epic weekend consisting of two half marathons, one on Saturday, one on Sunday.  But a coworker with a 2:57 marathon PR advised me against it, telling me it would kill my legs.  So I tempered my manic running plan and kept just the pig race.  Around mid-January, before catching a free screening of Jason Statham’s “The Mechanic,” I was talking to our friend Mike about the race.  I had apparently forgotten that he grew up in Cincinnati because he immediately invited me to stay at his house for the weekend.  As the months counted down, two of my close friends, Laura and Otter, got equally excited about the famed race and laced up.  And just like that, a fun weekend getaway had materialized.

The trip began Saturday morning at 8:00 AM.  The four of us drove out from Chicago and made it to Cincinnati by around 2:00 PM for a pasta lunch.  Contrary to what this picture indicates, it was a very lively and jocular car ride, largely populated by crude jokes that incorrigibly stung Laura’s delicate, feminine sensibilities.

Otter, Mike, Laura — these pictures were taken within 1 minute of each other and yes, I’m a phenomenal driver

After navigating the serpentine Flying Pig Expo at the Duke Energy Center, we were ready to make our way to Mike’s house to settle down for the day.  We got settled in our respective rooms, met his mother and younger sister, a few of his hometown friends and were later treated to a very generous and delicious dinner.  Between the fruit salad, garlic bread, noodles and Angel food cake, we had stuffed ourselves with carbohydrates like someone packing for a month-long vacation with just a bookbag.  By 10:30 PM (also known as the pathetically early 9:30 PM Central Time), we were in bed, crossing our fingers that the next day’s forecast proved wrong.

The thing is, my racing history has been blessed with completely rain-free weather.  It snowed during the 2009 Wacky 5k and Shamrock Shuffle and it drizzled for less than a minute during that year’s CARA Lakefront 10-miler, but with only those exceptions, I have never raced in true, wet precipitation.  If you think about it, with the majority of races happening in spring and late summer, you’d expect at least some of those to have taken place during a thunderstorm, or at least some early showers.  But you’d be wrong, because I have never, ever raced in rain …

… until Cincinnati.  We had been tracking the weather all day and, despite a picture-perfect Saturday, clouds and lightning had rolled into the area by 5:00 AM the next day, striking the horizon with baleful flashes of light.  After parking by the Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals, we walked two minutes to the start line keeping a watchful eye above.  It was shocking how simple getting to the start was – no traffic, no mile-long marches to gear check.  Everything was neatly and tightly arranged around the stadium.  However, by this point, we had also started feeling tiny rain drops.  By 6:30 AM it was legitimately raining.

The night before, I had declared at the dinner table that, unless the weather was awful, I was going to try and attempt a PR.  I felt like my training had been going well, I had no nagging injuries, so why not?  Though the rain was out as predicted, it wasn’t heavy enough to dampen my resolve.  With the sound of the cannon, I was off with that nervous excitement that always accompanies the first mile of any race.  The course starts just south of Paul Brown stadium and hugs the Great American Ball Park, where the Reds play.  Rather than continue into downtown Cincinnati, the course veers right over the Ohio River, into Kentucky.  The next two rainy miles would be run along the Newport and Covington neighborhoods on the tip of northern Kentucky before ushering runners over the CW Bailey Bridge, back into Ohio.  I don’t remember that much of these miles because I ran them with wet, foggy sunglasses.

By mile 4, the rain had diminished considerably, but umbrellas and spectators hiding under every awning were still a regular sight.  It was at this point, as the race dashed westward on West Third Street, that I saw a trio of musicians, none older than seventeen, huddled inside the jut of a building, as if in a very narrow alley, playing music for the runners.  At that moment, they were playing Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song,” an anthemic tune which would ring in my ears for many more miles to come.  To those kids, who probably weren’t even alive when the album Purple came out, I salute you.

At this point, I was committing to my goal: I was running at a 7:17 pace, racking up some fast miles as a cushion for the big hill to come.  The fifth mile of the race cut in a straight line through the heart of downtown Cincinnati on East Seventh Street.  Eager spectators with signs and noisemakers filled both sides of the street, buildings rising from the sidewalks, keeping runners focused on the hilly terrain just outside the city.  Once past Seventh and Main, the rising lump of earth known as Eden Park was impossible to ignore.  Fortunately, we didn’t scale the hill directly, but instead turned left and took a less pronounced route.  It was at this point that the race’s urban character turned into a very picturesque run through tree-lined roads and scenic views of the city and river.

Prior to running, we had all psyched ourselves out about this part of the race, so the hills themselves weren’t as murderous when we actually ran them.  By mile 8, we had reached the zenith of the course and only a few more dips and climbs separated us from the much-anticipated 3-mile downhill.  Before that could happen though, we ran through the quaint streets of Walnut Hills toward the awe-inspiring St. Francis de Sales Church.  A mile later, I would be zipping downhill on Gilbert Avenue, trying to stay on my toes, as if in a permanent state of falling forwards.  I had kept a 7:34 pace until now, just three seconds shy of my 7:31 Disneyland pace, and with only downhill miles left, I was confident that a new record was not only possible, but very likely.

Three 7-minute miles later, I was at the final stretch on East Pete Rose Way, the Finish Swine and a new personal best in sight.  Seeing the yellow clock under the pink finishing banner, counting up the seconds, water squishing in my shoes with every step, I increased my turnover, kicking at a 5:50 pace over the blue mats and stopping the clock at 1:37:24.  I threw a proud fist in the air and collected my copper brown medal, an airborne pig and the city skyline decorating both sides.

With my post-race goodies tucked into my race bag, I returned to the finish line to behold the results of the Laura-Otter race (pre-race coverage and statistics can be read here).  Otter had been seeded in Pig Pen B, while Laura was starting a bit later in C, so there would be no real-time competition, instead relying on mid-race stats and chip times to tease out exactly what happened.  You can read Otter’s sensational take on the race, but this is the short of it:

Laura ran the first 6.8 miles of the race at a 9:07 pace for a variety of reasons.  She may have started off at a slower pace to conserve energy for the hills between miles 6 and 8.  At one point, she said she wasn’t feeling great, so she stopped for a bathroom break, which would definitely have slowed her down.  However, she picked it up considerably in the remaining 6.3 miles with an 8:13 pace, finishing in 1:54:06, a PR by almost a minute.  Otter ran the first 6.8 miles at a faster 8:39 pace, but didn’t speed up with the same gusto as Laura, due to discomfort in his calves on the downhills and an actual beer stop.  With the remaining 6.3 miles run at an 8:41, he finished in 1:53:49, a mere seventeen seconds ahead of Laura, but enough to secure a victory and ending their much-hyped rivalry.

So what was the allure of this race?  Why did so many people register and run what is becoming one of the most famous races in the country?  The three of us decided that it was a combination of elements: a varied and scenic course, lots of very enthusiastic crowd support and yes, the pig theme.  The icing on the cake was a generous finishing chute, with everything from fruit to granola bars, yogurt, chips and chocolate milk.

The new Weinberger / Miller residence

Having all three of us finished with proud times, we spent the rest of the day soiling the benefits of burning 1,500+ calories before 9 AM.  We ate a combination of plates at Skyline Chili, each one highlighting their eponymous product.  Laura ate a chili bowl, Mike scarfed down spaghetti with chili, and Otter and I chowed down on some chili cheese dogs, joking that they were the pigs that couldn’t fly fast enough.  After that, we went to go visit Mike’s new house, into which he will move on May 17 with his girlfriend Miriam.  The two of them have lived in Chicago for several years now and will shortly take the next step in their lives together, but this time with a back yard and a basement.  Following this poignant visit, we went to Graeter’s for some cookie dough and black raspberry ice cream.

Around 1:30 PM, having stayed in Cincinnati for just under 24 hours, we made the drive back to Chicago and on the way, because we hadn’t quite punished our bodies enough, stopped at Wendy’s.
My spring training comes to a head in four weeks at the 2011 Traverse City State Bank Bayshore Marathon, which I will be running with Otter.  After that, it’s summer and rest time.  Until then …

Flying Pig Half Marathon Pre-Race Coverage

This coming Sunday is the 13th annual Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon.  Included in the day’s events is also a half marathon, a marathon relay, a 10K, a 5K any many more events.  But the signature reason that I’m providing extensive coverage of this nationally famous race is because it will serve as the arena for a much-anticipated showdown.  Two Chicago competitors have faced each other twice this year, with this half marathon providing the third and final confrontation.  Though the race may or may not empirically determine who is the better athlete, the hype leading up to it will definitely declare who cares about this competition more.
 
 
 
In one corner we have Daniel “Otter” Otto, a lovably sardonic Packers fan from Naperville, Illinois, brought to Chicago after graduating from Michigan State University.  A back injury forced him to abandon one pastime, rugby, for an activity that he publicly dislikes, to the point that he made a blog about it: running.  He’ll have to put that animosity to good use if he wants to win come May 1st. 
 
His opponent is the lovely and affable Laura “Roala” Melle, hailing from the diverse ethnic neighborhoods of Silver Spring, Maryland.  She has been in Chicago since graduating from Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, but will soon depart for Mozambique with the Peace Corps.  She considers herself someone who prefers training to racing, but this Sunday, training time is over.
 
These formidable runners first raced together in February at the 2011 LIVESTRONG Austin Half Marathon, where both set out to achieve the coveted sub-2-hour half marathon.  Hills and an ankle injury prevented Otter from reaching this time limit, while Laura smashed the barrier with her current PR, 1:55:00, without the use of a stopwatch.  This singular achievement sparked a nascent rivalry that today has become borderline radioactive.
 
The two would later have their rematch on the streets of downtown Chicago at the 2011 Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle, where Otter finished just under a minute faster than Laura.  He wasn’t thrilled with his time, though his fans couldn’t fault him as he was impressively hungover.  However, during a post-race interview, Laura explicitly noted how she was “totally not at all tired when I reached the finish line?  Seriously?  I was not even breathing hard?  I basically ran my half marathon pace the whole way?”
 
With each proudly boasting the laurels of one battle won, the final fight to win the war will take place on the streets of Cincinnati, Ohio.  It’s difficult to say just how this race will pan out, and the run-o-sphere is abuzz with predictions.  We have gathered as many facts as we can in anticipation of this mythical clash and invite you to make your own predictions.
 

The last year has been a very prolific running year for Otter, one in which he has run many races at varying distances.  However, what’s important to note is his recent half marathon PR at the inaugural Chi-Town Half Marathon (1:52:24).  A few weeks prior to that stellar performance he publicly declared that he was out to finish 28 races before his 28th birthday.  In the process, he has set more than one personal best, which has helped him keep his training strong.  This recent momentum will definitely help him out leading up to the Flying Pig.

However, he is not without faults.  Though he is known to throw the hammer down at the final sprint of a race, it is not entirely uncommon to see him getting “hammer drunk” the night before the event.  If the bars in Cinci cast an appealing lure, he might bite and jeopardize his time, giving Laura the upper hand.

Though not as enthusiastic with races as Otter, Laura has many cards up her sleeve going into this race.  Her 1:55 PR was set on a notoriously hilly course and the Flying Pig is sure to challenge runners with a gradual ascent between miles 5 and 8.  As someone who used to “run uphill really fast?” Laura is no stranger to burning quadriceps.  This will definitely serve her well going up against her competitor, whose half marathon PR, though two minutes faster, was set on a surfboard flat course.

An additional X factor with Ms. Melle is her imminent departure for south Africa.  Knowing that her opportunities for overblown and expensive races will be limited for the near future, she might give that extra 10%, giving her fans an impressive performance.  Assuming her shins don’t complain between now and race day, I think we should expect this train to run express all the way to the finish line.

Looking at the elements, it’s still definitely too early to call this race in favor of either runner.  As we’ve mentioned, the course for the half marathon sends runners on a consistent 3-mile ascent.  Will Otter’s increased training be enough to overcome Laura’s natural climbing abilities?  Additionally, the 10-day forecast is predicting an overnight low of 61 and a race-day high of 79 for Cincinnati.  These conditions aren’t ideal and have the potential for some serious heat if the humidity is high.  We will definitely see both runners paying close attention to hydration, especially Otter, who Perspiration Monthly named their Man of the Year.

Flying Pig Half Marathon Elevation Chart

The experts are equally torn about the anticipated result.  Nicholas Restauri, editor-in-chief of Exercising with 1L’s has his money on Otter, citing that “historically men have dominated in everything competitive.”  However, chief nutritionist for Robert RPAG industries Jayne Kenney is gunning for Laura first and foremost because she’s a girl and secondly because she “trusts her not to go out and wreck her body with booze the night beforehand.” 

It is therefore clear that, despite all public declarations, meticulous analysis and conventional wisdom, we can’t accurately predict who will come out on top.  What is certain is that both competitors are eager to please their fans and will therefore be bringing their A-games to this race.

Stay tuned for updates and next week’s recap of the epic showdown.