I Can Fix This: 2016 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon

This is a post about how to inject some much-needed vitality and vigor into the Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon. But first:

#TeamChance

For their third year, the Jackson Chance Foundation partnered with the Humana Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon as an official charity and asked me to be their running coach. I happily accepted and once again created running programs, led weekly runs, and provided tips on training and preparation. The foundation’s goal, in their own words:

“Jackson Chance Foundation’s (JCF) mission is to enrich the lives of families with babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) by allowing them to spend more time with their baby. JCF created the NICU Transportation Program to partner with hospitals and alleviate the transportation expenses of all families while their child is in the NICU by providing parking and CTA/Metra vouchers. The programs are fully funded by JCF. Currently, the foundation’s program benefits the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Jackson Chance Foundation is an Illinois non-for-profit, tax exempt 501(c) (3) organization.

By contributing to the Jackson Chance Foundation, you help families be with their critically ill child, thus enriching and potentially extending their life.”

For donations or more information, please visit their website.

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Another Year of Wondering, Where’s the Rock?

It was a beautiful spring and early summer for training, and throughout it I had the pleasure of exploring Chicago’s Lincoln Park with runners in tow, learning about them as people and enjoying the city’s pristine parks and lakefront path. There was actually one run where I mentioned to Alan, who would join almost every organized run, that I was looking forward to spending some time outdoors, given how lovely the weather was. The conversation paused for a second as we both realized we were doing just that, in that moment, as we logged miles under the sun.

On July 17, I lined up for my fourth running of Chicago’s Rock & Roll Half Marathon, which until recently was the only 13.1-mile race run primarily within the city’s core. Every other half marathon takes place either Lincoln Park or the lakefront paths south of the city, which are open to everyday cyclists and walkers. The race has changed since 2010 in ways that perhaps indicate broader changes in the running industry.

The first six miles of the course were unchanged from last year.

The first six miles of the course were unchanged.

The first time I ran this race, I was one of over 18,000 finishers, making the race one of the largest in the city and nation. It was the only distance offered, won in its previous and inaugural year by Kara Goucher in 1:08:04, ahead of any other competitor, male or female. There was something electrifying about it, as if the amplifiers in the marketing materials could short circuit and infuse us all with speed.

Since then, the event has seen itself diluted considerably. Although the course has improved, with less of it run on thin, open park paths and more in the city’s famous and dense Loop, the event has lost a lot of its energy. In 2014, the race gave its 13,866 half marathon finishers a half-mile stretch of speakers, all arranged to play the same hard-hitting song to motivate runners for more than the standard 30 seconds it takes to be out of earshot of a performer. I was lucky to run through that section to the galloping rush of Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” and the thundering sludge of Metallica’s “Sad But True.”  It was amazing and an instant reminder of how races can use creative solutions to not only bolster the race experience, but in this case, elevate and sharpen their brand. Plus, they got Shalane Flanagan to run it, so I was awestruck and giddy to follow in her speedy footsteps.

In 2015, only 12,025 runners made it to the finish line, a slight dip from the year before. I remember feeling like the “rock” had been left out of the experience, with electronica playing constantly during the expo, the speaker stretch now booming Whitney Houston and the organizers tapping Andy Grammer as the headline act for the post-race party. I understood that rock was either convalescent or comatose in popular culture, so I hoped they would at least change the name of the race, like they did for many years with their Nashville equivalent, the Country Music Marathon.  However, they made up for all of this by roping in Olympian and Boston Marathon Champion Meb Keflezighi to pace the 1:30 group, which I joined for the first four miles.

This year, it seemed like organizers were out of both ideas and money. There were no big name runners leading the pack, no legends to pace us, no big headline act, no half-mile stretch of motivational rawk, no abundance of bands …

Heavy rain on its way to cool off runners

Heavy rain on its way to cool off runners

If this is starting to sound petulant, let me explain that these are merely observations and not complaints. After all, I don’t really care about any of this. All I need is a 13.1-mile stretch of road or trail, a few aid stations, and a chip to record my time and I’ll finish with a smile. And an hour and 34 minutes after starting, that’s what I did. But I was left wondering. It’s not necessary that the race director hire Amy Hastings as a pacer, or that Tool play to a crowd of sweaty and tired athletes, or that every mile be dotted with cover bands playing Bon Jovi and the Killers.

But when the market is as crowded as it is lately, this race has to double down on its brand or risk runners losing too much interest. Lucky for them, the half marathon is still growing in participation nationwide. The 2015 State of the Sport assembled by Running USA states that “the half marathon continues to grow with an annual increase of 4% finishers (2.046 million, another new high) with an astounding 61% female participation.”

In 2016, however, 11,059 runners finished the Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon, almost 1,000 fewer than the year before and over 7,000 fewer than in 2010. To draw more people to the event in recent years, organizers have added shorter distances and spread them over two days, with a 5K on Saturday and a 10K run on Sunday at concurrently with the half marathon. Across all three distances, there were about 16,500 finishers, still fewer than in 2010.

It seems reasonable to suggest that the increase in participation in the half marathon is not due to a growing field at established events, but with the sprouting of new races. For example, when I started running in 2009, there were only four half marathons in Chicago. Today, there are twelve just in the city, and many more in the surrounding suburbs, the majority of which sport less expensive registration fees than Rock & Roll for obvious reasons.

(left to right) Missy, me, Alan

(left to right) Missy, me, Alan

I don’t know if this race is profitable, but I assume it is because it’s now in its eighth year. But as I ran through the course this year and saw how threadbare it was in comparison to years past, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the result of an organization cutting its costs in the wake of shrinking margins. I’m not an economist, but it seems that if the race wants to keep its bottom line healthy, it has to either draw in more people, increase its fees, cut services, or a combination.

Though I haven’t done the research, I’m sure this is not unique to Chicago. The running boom is happening everywhere nationwide and as a consequence, large, established races have likely seen some participation siphoned as interest shifts to newer races with lower fees that offer a similar experience. In order to stay relevant, Rock & Roll needs to do something to either change the game or hone their brand. In 2014, as I ran alongside Metallica’s bluesy thrash, I was reminded of how one great idea can completely change your opinion of an event.

Here are a few suggestions, some free and others unreasonable and cost prohibitive:

  • Upon registration, let runners pick their favorite genre of rock & roll (classic, grunge, metal, indie, acoustic, pop, etc.) and make different bibs for each.
  • Encourage aid stations to theme themselves according to the genres of rock established above.
  • Make Spotify playlists for each genre and share them with runners as they register.
  • Let runners sign up in groups of 3-5 as a “band.” In the results page, have a separate “band results” page that adds up every band member’s finishing time. Encourage bands to dress up and run together.
  • Upon registration, ask every runner to provide a “pump up” song and their target time. At mile 13, have a timing mat that calculates if a runner is going to break that target time, and if so, play 10 seconds of their pump up song to get them to the finish (and I realize that not everyone will get their pump up song played, much like not everyone has their name announced at the finish line).
  • The first seven miles are in the Loop, which doesn’t allow for bands or noise of any sort. Rearrange the course to add more opportunities for music and bands. Music is the brand’s raison d’être, so embrace it!
  • Convert pace cars into a mobile concerts like they do in theme parks and blare some truly sick rock for those willing to run alongside them. Release at variable paces so everyone gets the opportunity.
  • The 90s are back and with a vengeance. I can’t imagine it’s that expensive to hire Better Than Ezra, the Verve Pipe or Third Eye Blind to be your headlining act (also, I heard this year’s band play “Yellow” by Coldplay twice. I shouldn’t have to explain why this is wrong).
  • Hire Pearl Jam to play a 3-hour set afterward.

I look forward to seeing these implemented for the 2017 race. You’re welcome.

All Hills & Fall Chills: 2016 Mad Marathon (State #44)

I signed up for the Mad Marathon in Vermont’s Mad River Valley because it’s one of those rare marathons that takes place in July. I assumed that with my summer training I would be able to handle a warm run in the northeast, and by coasting off my post-Ice Age fitness, I wouldn’t have to put in too much hard training. That said, once signed up, I got this message from Otter:

“haha enjoy the elevation change there [expletive deleted]”

(left to right) Aparna, Erin, Phil, Laura, me

(left to right) Aparna, Erin, Phil, Laura, me

He wasn’t kidding. Unlike many people in the marathon community, I didn’t know about the famous Mad Marathon hills until after my registration had processed. I don’t know if I would have chosen a different race had I known that there were three ski resorts within five miles of the starting line, but with a plane ticket also procured, there was no backing away.

Mile 1

Mile 1

When you live in Chicago, there aren’t many hills to be found. In order to get any sort of incline, you have to either leave the city or run up and down the same mound forty times in a row. In lieu of finding uneven terrain, some runners have suggested tackling urban parking lot ramps. Given the dangers present in running where drivers aren’t actively looking for pedestrians, I’ve kindly turned that proposal down. The treadmill also allows for serious climbing, but these days my love for that machine has swung fiercely back towards odium, so my options for strengthening my legs are severely limited.

That said, I made it to the starting line with a modicum of confidence. The sky was hidden behind a heavy layer of clouds and fog, which occasionally showered the valley’s deep green. A chilly breeze paraded down Waitsfield’s main street, making us all suspect we had slept through summer and woken up in mid-October. You could feel the excitement in the crowd, even with the chance of rain. Marathon veteran and race staple Larry Macon was huddled in a bright red, long-sleeved shirt among the 800 runners, waiting for race organizer Dori Ingalls’ pistol to fire. Once it did, we were treated to a rare, flat stretch of road, just enough to tease us.

Mile 3

Mile 3

After running past Waitsfield’s tiny Main Street, we turned right towards a covered bridge, which acted as a gateway to the race’s many climbs. For much of the race, we were always just a minute away from significant elevation change, surrounded on all sides by a dark green envelope, with an ever looming threat of gentle rain. Within the crowd was Laura, who had been there with me for four other states, and Erin, who had shared three completely different ones. Also in the mix were Phil and Aparna, two new friends who had joined the weekend adventure. I was the only one running the marathon distance, while Javier was still sleeping, proud to be the only non-runner.

Two miles into the race, as we reached the top of a dew-drenched hill, I was surrounded by heaving gasps. I couldn’t tell if these runners were able to continue another 11 or 24 miles on such labored breathing, or if they had all badly misjudged the elevation. My legs were already much heavier than usual, but my slow pace and quick steps were keeping my lungs from requiring more than a standard gulp of air. But if this gradual uphill continued, I wasn’t sure how much longer I’d be able to keep it together.

Mile 4

Mile 4

What went up soon came down. As someone with legs made for taking large, bounding steps, I let myself lean forward, meeting the downward slope with my toes, and barreled toward the next covered bridge with eagerness and celerity. It soon became clear that this race was going to be an extended fartlek run, where I would violently change from a measured and focused 10-minute jog to a reckless, arms-swinging 6-minute dash in seconds.

0710_madmarathon 10Along the way, I passed several sign posts with messages painted in thick red strokes. One said “Keep Running Cows R Watching” and another said “Ski If You Can’t Run.” A third pointed into the deep woods with the tempting, yet ominous words “Secret Shortcut” as if written by Br’er Fox, luring us into a trap.

With the race’s first big hill behind us, the next four miles were mostly flat, as we ran over local dirt roads dividing large stretches of farmland. Cows watched from above, while sheep and horses grazed happily across many bucolic fields of northeastern idyll. Cratered and ridged puddles splashed underneath as winds stirred the branches overhead. The race bills itself as ‘the world’s most beautiful marathon,’ as many races do, but in this moment, I was in awe of the sylvan wonderland surrounding me.

Once through with the flat reprieve, it was time to pass through our third covered bridge and begin the long climb upwards. This time, there would be no rewarding downhill on the other side. The course would instead make a left turn and continue its skyward path, totaling a length of about eight miles of near continuous uphill. Despite having walked almost every uphill section of my last race, I was determined to run through every last bit of this one. So I kept a forward tilt, shortened my stride, and tiptoed my way up, up, endlessly.

Mile 6, mercifully flat

Mile 6, mercifully flat

Somewhere along the way, my impossibly long streak of avoiding rain during races was delicately cut short. The occasional drizzle we had kept as a mercurial companion became an honest rain once we reached the race’s highest point around mile 17. Every tiny change in the road’s topography became a puddle or a rivulet, splashing beneath us as we let ourselves be pulled back down to the finish line.

The problem with running downhill this far into a race is that it still requires a lot of effort, despite gravity helping us out. The bottom of my feet had taken a beating during the last twenty miles, and downhill they hit the pavement harder. Once I would either get used to it or develop a tolerable rhythm, whenever the road would flatten, it would suddenly feel like I had doubled my weight. And when faced with another brutal hill around mile 23, well, I had to bid farewell to my pride and walk the damn thing.

Mile 11

Mile 11, the interminable uphill

But steadily onward I ran, watching the miles slowly tick off, silently wishing well the runners to my right, who were on the uphill portion of the race. At one point, I spotted an older runner with short, white hair and a jocular tone in his voice, talking happily with a small group of runners. I did a quick double-take. Had I not been so determined to continue running downhill without interruption, I would have stopped and said hi to Bart Yasso.

Mile 17, the downhill begins

Mile 17, the downhill begins

Instead, I continued downward, past familiar landmarks. At mile 24, a typical aid station had been upgraded with a beer station, where a young bespectacled man was serving a deliciously refreshing wheat ale from a cooler. Even if my watch weren’t telling me I was just a couple of miles from the finish, beer stations normally portend the final stretch. Just two more miles under the flitting, green canopy separated me from finishing my 44th state and 33rd marathon.

I reached the race’s fourth and final covered bridge, the same one we ran through just past the first mile marker. A friendly volunteer was stationed at the entrance, urging me to keep going. I felt like I was leaving an amusement park and she was an employee, thanking me for visiting, and to please exit through the gift shop. There was just one more mile and one more hill to crest.

Mile 23, the hill that broke my run

Mile 23, the hill that broke my run

After a short run through the small town of Waitsfield, now awake with spectators and cars, I turned into a green clearing. Twin rows of orange cones became parallel lines of flags, presumably representing the nationalities of the race’s runners, both leading to the finish line. The announcer pronounced my last name as if it rhymed with “cholera” and I stopped the clock at 3:42:19. Race organizer Doris was there, ready to give me a hug, just like she had for every single finisher before me. I was tempted to exempt her from it, given that I was a virtual sponge of sweat and rain. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. Thank you, Doris.

Mile 24 Beer Station

Mile 24 Beer Station

If you have never visited the Mad River Valley, I highly recommend it. While there, visit the similarly named Mad River Barn & Inn for a delectable squash bucatini and the Mad Taco for a variety of succulent tacos. If you’re lucky, both locations will have the famously rare and refreshing Heady Topper IPA, which should be on any beer enthusiast’s must-try list. Lastly, if you have the legs for it, sign up for the Mad Marathon and hope that, like me, you manage to wake up on race morning with an autumnal chill so that hills are the only wrenches thrown in your running gears.

But I wouldn’t have enjoyed these treats from the northeast at all were it not for the excellent company with whom they were shared. Although serial marathoning can be seen as a fool’s errand (even Phil has committed to Slate’s anti-marathon program this year), there’s no mistaking a race’s ability to bring people together, runners and proud non-runners alike. And as long as there are states I have yet to run, there’s still the promise of returning for yet another round of food, laughter, and of course, many long miles. Thanks, everyone.

Madness Managed

Madness Managed

(And if you think you’re just three seconds away from an age group award, like I was frustrated to learn afterward, remember to always finish as fast as you can.)

Onward.

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Mammoth Run: 2016 Ice Age Trail 50-Miler

I danced downhill over rocks and exposed roots, side stepping onto the soft earth as if it were a ramp, letting it gently guide my legs over the next obstacle. My eyes were three rocks ahead, trance-like and robotic, finding the optimal path to avoid tripping. Every second my gaze would dash three or four times, my strides never the same, with short steps quickly becoming bounding leaps over large rocks, followed by heavy, typewriter stomps over steep terrain. Tiny flecks of sleet fell from the canopy, dusting the damp trail in a crystalline white pattern. In this moment, I felt unstoppable, efficient, and powerful.

But it was also in this moment that my quads began to singe. And I still had twenty miles to go.

This is it, I thought. This is where it all begins to fall apart. After a lackluster training effort thanks to injury and last-minute illness, this is the beginning of the end; this, right here, is my last chance to feel confident and capable, the last upright steps that portend the miserable slog to the finish. I might as well enjoy them.

Ice Age Trail Runs Start

Ice Age Trail Runs Start

Many hours earlier, I was in LaGrange, Wisconsin, at the starting line of the Ice Age Trail 50-Miler, a race billed as one of the country’s “classic ultramarathons.” Whether the race has earned that description from age or by bearing the standard for how ultras are organized, I had neither the experience nor the research to say. But I had made it to the starting line as a tangled knot of nerves. A knee injury in March had made ultra-long trail runs nearly impossible, relegating my training to merely fitness upkeep, and a slight head-cold the week before was threatening to dehydrate me more than usual.

Remembering my last and only attempt at the 50-mile distance, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and dejected. I sat on a folding chair in the woods of the Manistee National Forest with an ice pack slowly melting off my knee, watching as dozens of dusty bodies entered the North Country Run’s aid station with bright smiles. How were they able to make it this far, 39 miles into a race, still happy and energized? What did they know that I didn’t?

Nordic loop, mile 1.5

Nordic loop, mile 1.5

Whatever it was, I hadn’t learned it in the last two months. And yet, there I was, listening to the Star-Spangled Banner in the dripping wet woods of the Kettle Moraine State Forest with kindred spirits Otter and Mike, just minutes away from a distance I had never completed before. The miles I had run in the lead up were paltry and my confidence at an all-time low. The only option I had was willful submission. I was going to enter the woods, walk through the verdant looking glass, and let the journey unfold as it should.

Otter was running because he loves trails and the Ice Age races in particular, but also because he too was on a redemptive attempt of his own, having dropped out of the 2015 event seven miles short of the full distance. The two of us then goaded Mike, RaceRaves’ Chief Lunatic, into running his first ever 50-miler by assailing him with enough text messages, pictures and emails to pave the entire trail.

Mike + Otter

Mike + Otter

The three of us had decided to run the first nine mile section together. Called the Nordic Loop, it is a fairly wide path that traces a jagged circle over soft pine straw, rocky paths, and grassy stretches of flat land made for speed, finishing back at the start. In between, it rises and falls like an ancient roller coaster, assuring that our pace would see similar peaks and valleys as we would stop to walk uphill ready to pick up the pace on the other side. The field of 372 runners was a tightly-packed human train for most of this loop, allowing for the kind of friendly chatter that completely belied the monumental task ahead.

As we reached the first aid station, I remembered the need to eat early and often. I was attempting fifty hill-ridden miles, a feat that would burn between 7,000 and 9,000 calories, and the average person typically stores anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 in their reserves. Rather than wait until I actually felt hungry, I planned on noshing at every aid station to avoid an early bonk. I surveyed the spread under the white tent, the only artificial blemish in an otherwise serene wooded path, and grabbed a few Oreos.

Runners + Crew, left to right: me, Steve, Mike, Katie, Otter, Lisa

Runners + Crew, left to right: me, Steve, Mike, Katie, Otter, Lisa

The end of the Nordic Loop would mark the last time the three of us would run together. The casual, carefree banter that we exchanged mostly to distract us from the task ahead, was coming to an end. As we approached the starting banner, we found our respective crew members amid the whooping clamor of spectators. Mike grabbed a sandwich and high-fived his wife Katie before speeding towards the race’s next section. Otter’s girlfriend Lisa was in a bright green winter jacket, ready to keep him in fighting shape for the 41 miles to go. My father-in-law and trusted crew master Steve refilled my water pack and bottle with the course volunteers before urging me to eat. Otter and I realized we were both ready to go at the same time, so we marched back into the woods shoulder to shoulder, feeling light and cool.

The occasional clearing

The occasional clearing, mile 4

We had started the race shivering. The early spring warmth of the previous week had been dashed by an arctic wind, whose gust was rustling the dense forest around us, often drawing creaks from nearby trees. I had considered shedding some clothing a few miles earlier, but once I stopped running at the aid station, that lingering desire became an immediate need to stay warm.

Otter and I ran together for a few miles until the aid stations began separating us. For the next two hours, I followed a very reliable pattern. Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, catch Mike, pass Mike on a downhill, reach an aid station, hand my wares to Steve, watch as Mike would leave the aid station, eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, suit up, chase Mike …

At mile 19, I reached the next checkpoint in a clearing surrounded by tall grass. I gave my hydration vest to Steve and he looked at me with a mixed expression of confusion and fear. “You should eat something salty,” he says, as if there were a grim sign of it on my face. I grabbed a handful of pretzels and chewed on them until they were a mealy paste caking my teeth. I put myself together and took off, wondering if Steve’s admonishment was a sign that I was starting to succumb to the ghostly pallor of exhaustion.

Otter and I, Mile 10.5

Otter and I, Mile 10.5

Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, catch Mike, pass Mike on a downhill, reach an aid station …

I would strike up brief conversations with Mike as I would reach his heels. But since I’m not much of a talker on the run, I kept the exchanges short. Without music or a running partner, it was up to the course’s beautiful and constantly changing character to entertain me. Thin single-track eskers became wide open mounds of earth, which led into tree-lined promenades and serpentine dirt paths. If it weren’t for the nagging voice in my head, reminding to keep moving forward at all costs, I would have stopped to breathe in the Wisconsin air, crisp enough to slice and eat.

Meanwhile, everything seemed to be working. My left knee, which had plagued me with all manner of discomforting pain during March and April, was at the top of its game. Despite being covered by weary and worn road shoes, my feet and toes were free of blisters, and I wasn’t chafing anywhere. My stomach was happily digesting the food I had eaten, and my lungs were thrilled at the fresh air coursing through them. I reached the aid station near the shores of Rice Lake, just shy of 22 miles into the race, the farthest trail distance I had run in anticipation of this event, feeling composed, energized, and ecstatic.

After stocking up on supplies, I grabbed Steve’s hands and leaned back into a squat to stretch my hamstrings. With a quick slap to legs, I shuttled out of the aid station once again in Mike’s footsteps. Water, electrolytes, energy gel, water, electrolytes, Mike, downhill, aid station, all in a reliable cadence of clean breaths through an unpredictable series of open clearings and narrow paths. The ease and relaxed stride that carried me through every mile felt invigorating but deceptive. Ask any long distance runner and they will tell you that the first half of any race feels great, but there will inevitably come a time where, pushed against your limits, you will begin to suffer. With very few exceptions, I have faced that awful wall and have never been able to recover. Once it hits me, I’m done and have no choice but to drag what’s left of me to the finish.

Wandering in a wooded wonderland

Wandering in a wooded wonderland, mile 26

The first sign of worry came just before mile 30, as I drummed downhill toward a roadside aid station. A tiny pinch in my quads had emerged and I felt twinges of pain with every downhill step.

This is it, I thought. This is where it all begins to fall apart.

Approaching an aid station, Mile 19

Approaching an aid station, Mile 19

But I continued moving forward, almost daring the pain to get worse. Given enough time and distance, the body will find a way to collapse, and with twenty miles left, there was plenty of both. I would have dwelled on the pain longer, but I could hear the hollers from the aid station emanating from the woods. I reached it to find Steve busy tending to a runner with dried streaks of blood on the right side of his face. Seeing that he was handling a delicate matter, I filled my own stores. Once he was free, I told him where I was and how I felt.

The next crew-accessible aid station was ten miles away. Up until now, our crews were there to help us roughly every three miles. And it wasn’t just Steve who would be there at the mouth of every aid station, but Katie and Lisa as well. That kind of support and dedication were better rewards than any sugary treat and I had come to rely on it to keep me going. Steve was also providing real-time updates to my family in Costa Rica, which was an added surge of motivation to stay strong every time I reached an aid station. The next ten miles away from my support crew, into the hills and in the shadow of Bald Bluff, the tallest climb in the race, were surely going to test me.

Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, chase Mike, chase Mike, reach an aid station, continue chasing Mike … where the hell is Mike? …

Bald Bluff, or about 30% of it

Bald Bluff, or about 30% of it, mile 33

I continued my pattern of walking uphill, running the flats, and stomping downhill with great temerity. Every runner that I was able to catch, I would slowly approach and then storm past them on a downward section, letting my long legs leap over rocks and the occasional stair, acutely aware of what could happen if I clipped a root or slipped on a moss-covered rock. My quads were still feeling a tiny pinch with every hill, but they had miraculously not worsened. I kept expecting everything to go south at any minute, knowing how furtively the wall can suddenly plant itself, but against all odds, that hadn’t happened yet.

Like a finely-tuned machine, I took swigs of water and HEED, ate at regular intervals, and shoved peanut butter sandwiches down my throat at aid stations. If I heard water swishing in my reservoir, I would drink it; if my water bottle was heavy, I would drink it; if the road was flat, I would run it; if it bent up, I would walk it. I was focused on the singular act of moving forward, subconsciously expecting the demons of running to shank me at any minute, spilling my energy like blood on the damp trail.

At mile 35, I reached the base of Bald Bluff. I followed an older runner in a yellow singlet, who refused to power hike and instead took tiny, yet still airborne steps to tackle the mountain’s bright, gravel path. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I nipped at his heels with my long walking strides. I passed him on a flat section and continued upward, acid seeping into my quads with every step.

Following the path

Following the path

Here it is, the thought crept again. Much later than I would have ever expected, but this is where the knives pierce my legs, this is where each ligament and muscle becomes a wrought-iron cable, stiff and heavy.

I continued hiking uphill, keeping my body as upright as possible to avoid reflux. My quads were burning, but this far up, there was no stopping. As I crested the top of the bluff, I lunged forward into a run and found that I still could. The seeping burn into my legs was only temporary as I climbed, and now that I was back to running flat terrain, they were still willing to cooperate. In fact, after a minute or so, it was as if nothing had changed. Bald Bluff, the most imposing part of the race, had only slowed me down a little, but had done nothing to break me.

Mike, mile 40.8

Mike, mile 40.8

What the hell is happening? I thought, completely aware that I was questioning a good result instead of merely enjoying it. Where was the breakdown? Why wasn’t my stomach rejecting all the food I was eating like it has in every other ultra I’ve run? Why don’t my feet feel like they were marbled and ground? Why wasn’t I gasping for air, this far into the longest continuous run of my life? Where was the sound of the freight train, the inevitable thud of fatigue that can trample the strongest of wills?

In short, why was I doing so well?

Although every step I took got me no closer to answering these questions, they pushed me toward the next checkpoint. I saw Mike running toward me, fresh out of the upcoming aid station. He clapped when our paths crossed, content that I was still in the game forty miles into the race. Not long after, I reached the Emma Carlin aid station, which was a raucous party thanks to the Flatlander Ultrarunners. I ran comfortably in and began replenishing my hydration stocks. I told Steve I was feeling great, and that I was eager to take this all the way to the finish. He looked me dead in the eye and reminded me to relax for a minute and celebrate this moment, as I had passed the longest I had ever run; that every step I took would be an improvement over the last 50-miler I tried to run, whose coiling path was cut short at 39 miles almost three years earlier.

Otter, mile 39

Otter, mile 39

With the electrifying encouragement of my crew behind me, it was time to retrace my steps. Although I felt accomplished and could sense that the finish was near, ten dense, hilly miles separated me from the end. I could face any number of perils in that long swath of trail, from rolled ankles to sudden gastric discomfort or perhaps energy depletion.

I tried to avoid thoughts that might throw my focus off balance. I still had ahead of me the same distance that separated me from the aid station where Steve was helping the injured runner, which felt like an eternity. I had to re-scale Bald Bluff and every smaller hill in between, with only two aid stations to break up the miles. By this point in the race, the field was spread so thin that I rarely saw anyone ahead or behind me. Everyone had found their pace, marching in unison like colorful ants. But if I ever came across a runner, I would always pass them on the downhills, which I was still somehow able to tackle with alacrity. I saw Otter approaching and we both came to a dead halt, which almost threw off the person I didn’t know was running quietly behind me. We exchanged brief status updates and fist bumps before returning to our paths.

Up and down I continued, drinking and eating, running and drinking, eating and running. In a haste to speed up, I clipped many roots on my toes. I stumbled on many occasions and quickly regained my footing, allowing the woods to absorb a loud “Come on!” before resuming the path. I was lucky to fall only once in the entire race, and it happened during a slight uphill about six hours earlier. It was almost as if the trail itself were trying to keep me from pushing the steady pace, as if it could tell my patience was being tried and had quietly hunched a few roots into my path.

A very tempting bench at the top of Bald Bluff

A very tempting bench at the top of Bald Bluff, mile 47

Reaching the top of Bald Bluff proved easier this time. I stopped briefly at the top and took in the view before scrambling down the loose gravel path on the other side, leaping over rocks and wooden planks like a mountain goat. I reached the next aid station and skipped it entirely. I was 2.5 miles from the finish and feeling great, with no sign of stopping. I felt my phone buzz in my hand and I checked it to see my cousin calling from Costa Rica. I answered and told him I was 48 miles into a 50 mile race. He laughed almost incredulously and urged me to keep going.

As I skipped the last aid station, I almost felt ungrateful. But I had everything I needed to reach the finish line. Even though I could almost taste the end, I kept my regular pattern: walk uphill, run the flats, drink often. Here I was, just minutes away from accomplishing a goal that had haunted me for three years, and yet, it somehow felt un-ceremonial.

The final sprint, mile 49.9

The final sprint, mile 49.9

It’s no secret that long distance running and masochism can sometimes feel inseparable. Deliberate suffering or at least the mindful acceptance of it is part of the experience and for many runners, it’s a source of pride. The last six miles of a marathon are an exercise in attrition, fighting against the building agony and seeing how far you can go before you relent. Salt deposits, staggering limps, and even a black toe or two are as much battle scars as they are badges of honor. But as I approached the finish line on that cold Saturday afternoon in Wisconsin, I was feeling great.

With each step, there were more spectators standing where the trail meets the woods, clapping and smiling. I was half in the moment, enjoying the experience, and half in a daze, completely shocked at how I was able to do this with such a lackluster training season. I had fantasized about this moment for the last five months, expecting that I would turn the corner into the finish line, in plain sight of my crew, a ragged mess with a proud glint in my eyes. But that wasn’t who emerged from the woods. The lone traveler was instead completely free of heaves, tears or a lip-biting struggle to reach the banner at any cost, speeding up and ending his journey in ten hours and nineteen minutes.

Victory.

Victory, mile 50

In the moment, it was just another stretch of trail, which, if followed past the crowds and parking lot, would have led to another series of winding paths. I could have honestly continued further into the woods, deeper into the indifferent beyond. Despite the cheering crowds, the finish felt a little anti-climactic, precisely because I didn’t have to dig myself out of a spiritual trench at mile 40. Instead, I had managed to put all the pieces together to run seemingly forever. The result, in a word, was magical.

For a beautifully written summary of the day’s events from Mike’s vantage, please read his post at Blisters, Cramps & Heaves.

Even as I write this, I can’t quite process everything that happened. Every ultra I’ve attempted has resulted in wrecked legs, a tumultuous stomach, and gassed lungs, and those all followed a successful training regimen. The worst I suffered during this race were a few side stitches after mile 40 that went away with a quick walking break. Part of me credits the weather with keeping my sweat rate down and allowing me to stay hydrated and thus, able to digest food and continue running. But what truly kept me going were the people who shared the day with me.

13235096_1080472668665361_5347430754452198483_oThe belt buckle I earned at the finish line goes out to everyone who helped me along the way. I dedicate it to Steve, who is not only responsible for my running lunacy in the first place, but kept me focused and honest with my nutrition and wouldn’t let me leave aid stations without a handful of pretzels; to Lisa and Katie, who were always waiting for me at every trailhead, cheering as if I were leading the race and never complained about cold or hunger; to the many friendly volunteers who bundled up and braved the winds to keep this race a world-class event that sells out every year; to ultra-runners Paul and Jeff for believing that I could finish this beast, even when I was at my most skeptical; to Mike for humoring us in the most dedicated way possible by agreeing to run the longest race of his life and selflessly sticking around after a huge 9:54 finish to capture our finishes; to my family and in-laws for their constant real-time support throughout the day; and to my excellent partner in life Steph for always supporting me in my running adventures, even though they require early morning alarm clocks and a separate laundry hamper.

What a day, gentlemen

What a day, gentlemen

Last, but certainly not least, I couldn’t have finished this race without my running pal Otter, who not only believed in me more than I ever did, but routinely went out of his way to help me overcome my woeful training. There were times during the spring where it felt like he was more interested in getting me across the finish line than earning the buckle himself. After all, he was the first person to see me hobbled at my first failed attempt, and knew more than most how much I wanted to earn the title of 50-miler. But he too was out here for more than just another run beneath a green canopy.

On the morning of April 9, he lost his father. The weeks that followed were a test of Otter’s emotional fortitude, as he took charge of the heartbreaking tasks that come with the death of a loved one. Although I never met his dad, it was apparent that he was a kind, generous, and selfless man, whose driving purpose in life was to help others. I didn’t say it at the time, but I’m certain that at some point during his communion with the wilderness, Otter must have thought about his departed father and everything he learned from him. His willingness to put my success ahead of his own is nothing short of a loving testament to his father’s legacy.

Into the woods

Into the woods

Since I’m still trying to make sense of everything, I don’t yet know how this experience will shape my running path going forward. After all, there are tacit questions that come with a successful finish like this one. It certainly made me more confident about my abilities and shed light on why so many people love the ultra life. But don’t expect me to sign up for any similar or longer races in the near future. I’m still basking in the glow (and residual muscle soreness) of a race completed, but won’t plan on another one until I’ve finished running all 50 states.

For now, I’m happy with my redemptive day in the forest.

Loops and Troops: 2015 Veterans Marathon

As I waited for the cannon to boom in the tiny town square of Columbia City, Indiana, I forced warm air into my gloved hands and slapped my hamstrings to keep them from shaking. Although a cloudless sky surrounded the rising sun, it was just below freezing and I had already shed the hoodie Steve had given me earlier that morning. As a veteran of the US Armed Forces, my father-in-law had decided to join me for the Veterans Marathon and Half Marathon, but a bone spur aggravated by running both the Chicago and New York City Marathons relegated him to strict spectator duty this chilly morning.
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2015-11-14 07.51.07After a moment of silence in memory of those killed in Paris the night before, the organizers gave thanks to the veterans in the crowd, who gathered to greet and salute each other just ahead of the start line. The town’s cherubic mayor gave a few words of encouragement and the starting cannon thundered through the air, releasing about 450 runners into the town’s sleepy streets.
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The race was a 13.1-mile circuit that began in the town square and cut between plots of farmland. Marathoners would run the circuit twice, so I was treating this first lap as a preview. In between, we would run past a few country homes, barns, and grain silos. It was the exact opposite of my most recent marathon, the massive, machine-like Berlin Marathon, where every turn was a raucous celebration. Today, I was treated to the exact opposite … and it’s strange to say, but I enjoyed it almost as much, probably because it allowed me to zone out, to stop thinking.

Columbia City, Indiana

Columbia City, Indiana

I was completely focused on my stride, my breathing and energy levels. I didn’t have to worry about sidestepping past slower runners, quickly reading clever signs, or absorbing the cosmopolitan sights around me. It was just about running until you were done. Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy this straightforward, unencumbered approach to the sport, whose apotheosis is the endless desert run. But every now and then, something would shake me out of my reverie.
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“Ugh,” I said aloud as the air around me took on the acrid smell of manure. I caught up to a runner with a bandana and had locked in with his stride. “Makes you want to run faster just to stop smelling this, right?”
His reply, which was a grunted “yeah,” hinted that he wasn’t available to talk.
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I rounded the bottom of the race, which looked like a coat hanger, and sped back north to the finish line. This portion of the race, like almost every other stretch, was surrounded by yellow farmland and patches of forest shedding the last of their autumn colors. I passed a couple who I had been tailing for over a mile and hadn’t stopped talking the entire time. As I slowly passed them, the young woman noticed me.
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This is what most of the race looked like, except with a clear, blue sky

This is what most of the race looked like, except with a clear, blue sky

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“Man, I’m so jealous of that stride,” she said, her friend laughing.
“It’s all in these legs,” I replied and took a few leaps for effect. “But if you were to sit down next to me, we’d be very similar heights.”
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It’s true. My body doesn’t exactly follow the divine proportions, unless god is a mosquito. At some point in my development, my legs and arms stretched out more rapidly than my torso, and I’ve had these stilts ever since. Some days I regret not becoming a runner sooner, as I technically have had this lanky frame since high school. I often wonder if I am destined to struggle as a swimmer on the day I inevitably tackle a triathlon. It was a lot to think about ten miles into a marathon and thinking is usually reserved for afterward.
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2015 Veteran's Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2015 Veteran’s Marathon Google Earth Rendering

For example, I do a lot of it after a race doesn’t go my way.

I sulk for a bit, and let me head droop just enough to give me a dull ache in my neck. I try and tease out what I did wrong during training or what I could have done to guarantee a strong performance. Through all the excuses, I pick one or two and render swift judgment. I didn’t do enough long runs, or I should have cross trained more often. Surely these two culprits are to blame; next time I will make sure they don’t hamper my path to speedy victory. After a sensational implosion at Berlin, where I missed my target time by 26 minutes, I had plenty to consider. Ultimately, I decided that it was jet lag, combined with a hubristic first half that I couldn’t keep up.
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Halfway done

Halfway done

But there was also that unnerving voice in the back of my mind that I couldn’t quite tune out. It was a frightening perspective that asked, in a sober and defeated tone, what if I’ve hit my limits? What if my standing marathon PR, which I earned in Fargo this May, was a complete fluke? What if my ambitions are too far beyond my abilities? Is this as far, or as fast, as I go?

I had signed up for this race wanting to silence that voice. Although I spent the week after Berlin with Steph in Munich and later Brussels, happily eating sugar-cratered waffles and full-bodied Belgian brews, I knew I hadn’t lost all of my fitness. I built it back up in aggressive fashion during October and chose this tiny race as an act of vindication. As I ran over the timing mats of the first loop, I passed Steve and threw two happy thumbs up. I left the only crowd of the day behind me as I ventured back through the path already taken, determined to prove something to myself.
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I ran past the now familiar landmarks; the warehouses, silos, and manure-caked fields were right where I had left them. Though I’ve run two other double-loop marathons, I don’t like them. There’s something paradoxically challenging about knowing exactly how far you have left to go. Even if you have a watch and it tells you how far you’ve run down to the hundredth of a mile, visualizing it makes it worse. Seeing “23.2” on your watch can become a hieroglyphic, a meaningless symbol that simply changes over time. However, zooming through that mental course like a hawk only to return to reality’s deteriorating plod can really leaden your legs.
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Train tracks, then the poop fields, coat hanger, big hills, neighborhoods, and then we’re done.
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Oh man, that’s a lot.

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But again, I was trying not to think. I was keeping my head up, staring ahead and waiting for the next turn. The more I thought about the road ahead, the heavier my legs felt. The hills were far worse this time and every glance at my watch revealed a slow drop in pace. I couldn’t feel it in my legs or lungs, but running had officially become hard. Two out of three participants had stopped running at the half marathon mark, so I had no one to chase. With five miles left in the race, I was far from done. It was time to simply survive, the chorus of Symphony X’s “Legend” playing on repeat in my head:
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“Rise and fall, although I fight like hell
There’s just no certainty …”
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Just shy of the finish line

Just shy of the finish line

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There were a few people I could chase, notably the first female. She was wearing a bright pink fleece zip-up, which made her an easy beacon to follow. We seemed to be losing energy at the same rates though, as she stayed just about a third of a mile ahead of me for the rest of the race. I slogged up the toughest hills and through the remaining bouts of déjà vu before reaching Columbia City’s small town square. With City Hall visible, I tried to keep going at an aggressive clip without my calves buckling. I saw Steve again as I reached the town plaza, but this time I didn’t have any positive gestures. I had just one loop around City Hall to run before earning a finisher’s time. Though my second loop was a few minutes slower than the first, I was proud of my 3:17 finishing time, my second fastest marathon ever, just a minute shy of my all-time best.
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It was a great run, though not perfect. I had to struggle to keep an 8-minute pace for the last 10k after cruising at a 7:19 for the rest of it. I began to lose steam right around mile 21 as a product of running a maximum distance of 18 miles in the interim between races. Maybe I need to do more 20-milers at marathon pace, or expand my interval distances to 2-mile repeats. There might be some use in stretching my progression runs to 10 miles or beyond. More hill runs, that’s a must. Maybe I could take a crack at strength training …
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veterans-marathon-medalAnd before I knew it, I was back to overthinking the result without really savoring the fact that Berlin had been a fluke, not Fargo. Despite the hills and short ramp-up, I ran within striking distance of a time I had suspected was an outlier I might never again approach. But now I’ve added a new time to the sample, adding a companion to the statistical improbability. Maybe the 3:17 is my new normal, like 3:26 was three years ago or 3:40 in 2011. Sure, it wasn’t the BQ I had declared I would earn at the start of the year, but it is an indication that I’m moving the standard in the right direction. My goal is still to achieve that Boston mark, but it won’t be done in large, magical improvements, but instead with steady, incremental change.
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With my Indiana-shaped medal hanging in my collection, the Veteran’s Marathon has brought the 2015 long distance season to a triumphant close. With my 2016 goals still unannounced, it’s time to rest, relax, and nurse these proud, aching legs. Onwards!
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