State 22: Virginia (2012 Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon)

(left to right): Me, Peter, Elena, Javier, Gabriel

I’ve mentioned before that I’m in the small minority of people who still hang out with their high school friends.  But we don’t just keep in touch, we make real efforts to see each other.  With two of my friends in particular, Javier and Gabriel, we have made it a tradition of sorts to visit each other about twice a year.  In some of these most recent trips, such as Austin in 2011 and Boston in 2010, I managed to squeeze in a half marathon.  So when another member of our adolescent clique asked that we visit her in Virginia, I looked for the opportunity to cross another state off the list.

Elena has lived in Charlottesville, Virginia for the last three years where she’s been attending medical school at the University of Virginia.  One year away from finishing her studies and starting residency, she graciously invited us for a weekend and I suggested May 18 – 21.  Not only would we have a good chance of getting some nice weather, but it would also give me the opportunity to run the Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon in Fredericksburg, an 80-minute drive away.  Prior to arriving, Elena had Type-A’d a host of suggestions for things to do and we ended up choosing a scenic hike up to Crabtree Falls.  Her boyfriend Peter joined us and with his impressively discerning vision spotted three live snakes on the path, one possibly poisonous.  The first one slithered its way right onto the hiking path.  It became a black, slimy divider between us and Gabriel, who had stayed behind, assuring us that he doesn’t fear snakes, he just “respects” them.  A lot.  Fortunately for him, another hiker decided to nonchalantly step over it, which didn’t make the snake happy.  Right as the stranger put his foot down ahead of the serpent, it tried to strike his thighs.  This caused it to slide back down toward the riverbank and allowed Gabriel passage onwards.

Three wild snakes in one hike — definitely a first

That night we ate delicious Mexican food at Mono Loco, one of the many restaurants in Charlottesville’s small but charming downtown area.  I believe this was the first time I’ve ever had Mexican food the night before a race.  And I didn’t have a rice dish or anything that I could spin off as simple carbs – I went for a pork burrito and my share of a mountain of cheesy nachos.  I probably would have been safer eating spicy Indian food or nothing but candy canes, but I had already decided that the next day wasn’t going to be a PR.  So after stuffing our faces with food and the occasional house margarita, we went home.  I slept for a few hours and woke up at 4:15 AM for what would have been a scenic drive had it not been pitch black.  There are no major highways that unite Charlottesville with Fredericksburg, so the quickest path is a winding road through farms and forest.  Streetlights were few and far between; I turned off the car’s headlights for a split second once and saw nothing before me.  I arrived an hour early and parked at a nearby Walmart, ready to join 6,000 other runners on this delightfully cool morning.

They weren’t yet in wall formation when I took this picture

There weren’t many people in the 1:29 – 1:40 corral or the one ahead of it.  So when organizers asked all runners to start moving forward, I found myself right at the front of the field.  There was a line of uniformed marine soldiers in front of the starting gates, forming a fatigued line of intimidation that kept the closest runners about fifty feet from approaching.  I thought it was pretty funny because usually in races everyone is so itching to go that they want to move as close as possible.  It wasn’t until a staff member started waving his hands that we all inched slowly toward the timing mats.

2012 Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon T-Shirt (back) and bib

From the start, you could tell how the race got its name.  All throughout the opening ceremonies, vintage aircraft were flying overhead in formation.  One minute before the start of the race, a townsperson dressed in colonial garb shot a Civil War musket into the air to start off the race.  For the rest of the field, a cannon thundered us out of the gates.  It wasn’t that the race itself was historic (it was only in its fifth year), but that it was paying tribute to our nation’s history by honoring its soldiers both past and present.

This was the first race where I didn’t actively try to start slow.  I may tell myself before every race that I’m not out to PR, but once my shoes are laced and I’ve crossed the start line, all bets are off and I’m out to run as fast as I can.  Plus, my last four half marathons have taught me that I’m capable of fast times in many different conditions.  There was just one big snag.  It wasn’t the 3-hour hike from the day before or the heavy, fatty dinner, or any lingering foot or digestive issues.  All of these could have come together to slow me down considerably, but I was more focused on something else …

Like any good racing fanatic, I checked out the course elevation before lacing up.  Aside from providing a chart and the word “challenging,” the race website is pretty mum on how many hills runners should expect.  As a Chicagoan I’ve come to overinflate course descriptions.  “Flat” means “some hills,” “hilly” usually means “nonstop undulation that will break your legs” and “tough” links me to a pamphlet on life insurance.  However, over the years, I’ve managed to finish some non-flat courses with decent times.  Combine that with actual hill workouts and stair climbs and I’ve learned to no longer be intimidated by hilly races.  All that said, here’s a footnote that I can’t emphasize enough: if you are an ultramarathoner and/or train at altitude, then it’s exactly the opposite.  “Tough” feels like a walk in the clouds, “hilly” is something you tack on as a cool-down, and “flat” is a word you use to describe an unfinished soda from the night before.  In other words, when I say “hills” or “hilly” or any variation of the word in this post, please do your best to avoid snotting out laughter.

Anyway, for someone like me, who likes to keep his races relatively flat, it’s fun every now and then to feel the uphill burn.  You just feel so much faster when you reach the top of a climb, and there’s nothing quite like a gradual downhill to really make you feel like a superhero.  But as I examined the altitude chart for the Marine Corps Historic Half, I realized I’d be facing a completely different challenge.  You’ll notice on the chart to the left that most of these races have one signature hill.  The race starts either flat or downhill and then gives runners that one nasty climb, rewarding them with an easier denouement.  The majority of the time, the uphill happens before the last 1/3 of the race.  The Marine Corps Historic Half’s course, as if paying tribute to the strength and fortitude of its men and women in uniform, does the opposite.  Literally, it flips the elevation profile so that you run downhill for the first nine miles and then undoes the gradual drop in the final three miles in what is called Hospital Hill.  I knew I’d have to think twice about going too hard before reaching that point, but restraint while running downhill is almost as tough as keeping the pace while winded.

The website’s altitude chart is above, my Garmin readout below. Notice how even the downhill miles end up with some challenging uphills, which you wouldn’t guess from their official stats.  Additionally, it makes Hospital Hill look less steep than reality.

And I have proven myself weak on those downhills.  So naturally I charged down them and passed as many people as I could.  The first two miles take us out of a treeless commercial zone full of shopping centers, parking lots and restaurants and towards Fredericksburg’s beautiful residential neighborhoods.  Right at mile 1, I confirmed my suspicion that the race’s elevation chart was oversimplified.  Instead of providing a detailed picture of all changes in altitude, they simply marked the altitude of each mile marker and then drew a straight line between them.  In other words, it doesn’t show all the mini-hills in between.  I soon learned that the entire course would be very hilly, and even on miles with a net downhill change, we’d be charging uphill for short spans.  There was a very surprising rise right before mile 3, celebrated by a few residents who were sitting on their lawn with a big, printed sign that said “Only Four More Houses Until the Downhill.”  I was only three miles in and I could feel my legs start to burn.

There was very little shade in the first & last two miles.

Around mile 4, the Winding Creek Elementary School had come out in full force with a large band.  I couldn’t see all of them but it looked like they were playing folk instruments and not brass or woodwinds.  Not long after that, we reached a water station in another one of Fredericksburg’s gorgeous neighborhoods, the entire street covered in shade.  I stopped to get a cup of Gatorade and walk for a few seconds.  I do this in all races, regardless of how tired I am.  But I hadn’t counted on a soldier yelling in forceful staccato: “Pickitup!Pickitup!Pickitup LET’S GO!”  Jolted back to life, I immediately dropped the cup and darted forward as if running from the dogs of hell.

At this point I was running PR pace, hitting splits in the high 6’s.  It wasn’t warm but I could feel the humidity.  I sometimes gauge how humid it is by how quickly I can soak my entire shirt in sweat.  It’s not the most scientific (or charming) practice but it works.  The sides of my shirt were still dry by mile 5, which was a good sign.  By mile 7, the race cut through downtown Fredericksburg in all its picturesque, New England prettiness.  My effortless running was made even easier by the spectators and narrow streets.  There were more citizens out in colonial dress, dancing and playing flutes.  Before I could get a chance to enjoy it, it was over, and we were back in residential areas.  I was feeling great, keeping my splits from flirting too much with the 7-minute threshold.  But that pattern became a challenge starting around the 15K mark, right when I started seeing the blue H signs, indicating the nearby hospital.

Runners approaching the finish line

At mile 10, the course exits the tree-heavy neighborhoods and onto Jefferson Davis Highway.  As soon as I stepped foot on it, I looked ahead and saw the earth rising quickly.  We wouldn’t be climbing the highway, instead taking a side street, which cuts through Mary Washington Hospital.  The last two miles had crept into the low 7s and Hospital Hill was about to put some serious hurt on my time.  As soon as the road began to rise, I increased my turnover, scurrying up the hill and battling against the lactic acid in my quads.  The sun was out, my upper body was hunched, and the screaming crowds at the top felt so far away.  On the road were pasted several motivational decals with such encouraging words as “Crush the Hill!”  I’m not sure I quite crushed it, unless that involves losing all form and flaying my arms as if playing two-handed ping pong.  Eventually I reached the top and hit mile 11 in just under 8 minutes.

But even though Hospital Hill was behind me, the climb wasn’t over.  There was still the bridge over 95 to scale.  I had powered down it gleefully about an hour ago, and now it was time to face the uphill music.  I remember thinking that it had been a while since I had to struggle so much to keep a decent pace.  I had no idea if I was still running a potential PR pace or if the last two miles had dashed those hopes.  The field had thinned out considerably as well, with only about six runners in any given quarter mile stretch of road.  Once over the bridge, we were back on familiar territory, running the first flat mile back to the finish.  I dug deep and found an emergency well of energy, which allowed me to catch up to a few runners that had scaled Hospital Hill much faster than me.  I ended up sandwiched between two of them, and we would take turns surging only to be caught by the other two.

As we reached the final stretch with the finish line in the distance, I began to speed up.  I reached mile 13 in 6:53 and began to accelerate.  Seconds before the finish, one of the runners in our three-man pack burst by me like a human rocket.  I couldn’t respond and finished behind him in 1:32:01, my second fastest time on any course.  A group of uniformed soldiers were handing out finishers medals, which were large, shiny and flush with patriotic colors.  I took mine, thanked them for their service, and made my way back to Charlottesville.  I left proud, knowing I had done exactly what I set out to do: run irresponsibly fast for the first nine miles, suffer my way up the big hill, and finish my thirtieth half marathon in my twenty-second state.

I very much enjoyed this race, though it wasn’t without its hiccups.  The first mile is very uneventful and the parking situation can get a bit complicated since the event shares its space with a lot of nearby businesses.  But despite these minor complaints, I loved being challenged by Fredericksburg’s hills and helped by its eager volunteers.  I expected superb organization from the Marine Corps and they certainly delivered.  I also learned a very dangerous lesson by running a fast time with a sloppy Mexican dinner lodged in my stomach.

The rest of the weekend was spent sampling wines in Charlottesville’s many bucolic vineyards, sampling beers and playing Bags (or Cornhole as some call it) at the Blue Mountain microbrewery, and visiting Thomas Jefferson’s historic Monticello plantation.  It felt very appropriate to visit the home and grave site of one of this country’s great founders, a man who drafted a revolutionary document that is defended at all costs by our men and women in uniform today.  The weekend united past and present, not only in terms of American history, but also with my friends’ endless cadre of stories and jokes from high school.  I have to give big thanks to Elena for her generous hospitality and for tolerating a long weekend of juvenile behavior and heavy metal.  I hope it didn’t discourage her from having us over again in the future.

And now it’s time to switch over to marathon training mode, as Grandma’s Marathon looms on the horizon, just under a month away.

Indiana (2012 OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon)

I originally crossed Indiana off my 50-states list two years ago with this very race.  It was cold and windy that morning and the clothes I had brought would have had me shivering the entire way.  Fortunately, I was there with Steph’s parents and uncles, who in the last few years have made running the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon a tradition.  The Snyders (my future family-in-law) have also developed a habit of bringing a new person every year, and in 2010 my name was drawn.  I ran the perfectly flat course to a successful PR of 1:40, a time that would last the entire summer.

Last Thanksgiving, Steve (my future father-in-law) asked if I wanted to run the Mini again.  Though lately I’ve been eschewing states that I have already completed in favor of new ones, I felt determined to train fast to achieve a new PR.  The Mini-Marathon offers the rare chance to run on the track of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is designed to be as flat as possible.  It had been a long time since I had run a fast, flat half marathon, so I signed up a few days later with thoughts of running a 1:35.

That was then.  Since signing up, I ran 1:34 in Alabama, 1:33 in Tennessee and 1:30 in Kentucky.  So my big PR race was now facing intense competition.  Last weekend’s race at the other Mini took place in picture perfect conditions, allowing everyone to abandon all restraint and earn crazy fast times.  This weekend Indianapolis was beset by heat and humidity, which prompted the organizers to send one of those intimidating capital letter emails about the weather.  It was no surprise to me as I had been checking the weather since the previous weekend a bit crestfallen.

The start of the 5K at 7:00 AM, view from my hotel room

But I shook off the pessimism and decided to enjoy the race.  I drove out Friday afternoon with Steph’s uncle Jim and made it just in time for the pre-race pasta gorge at Buca di Beppo.  After dinner I went out in search of my pre-race foods.  Before almost every single race that I run, I have a bottle of Naked Juice Blue Machine and a banana.  However, at 8 PM I was finding that all grocery and convenience stores in downtown Indianapolis were closed.  So while the Snyders were keeping their traditions going, it was looking like I’d have to break at least one of mine.  I had also abstained from having a beer at dinner, which lately has become my new PR guarantee.  Superstition is amusing, isn’t it?  On a real, tangible note, my digestion had not been agreeing with me at all since Thursday and that had been slowly chipping away at my confidence.

As a side note, I have always been impressed and entertained by the candor with which athlete bloggers nonchalantly detail their bowel movements (especially girls).  It’s as if they forget that the internet is open to everyone and anyone, so they splatter their writing indiscriminately and with a strange satisfaction.  I will break the trend and spare you the details.  The important part to know is that I was worried I hadn’t retained any carbohydrates over the last two days.

Runners on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, picture courtesy of Charity Bets

At 7:30 the next morning I was at the starting line.  It was 64 degrees, which is nice, though not ideal.  The real culprit was the humidity, which was perched comfortably at 97%.  Much like last weekend though, potential storms decided to avoid the city, much to everyone’s delight.  The race began on time, sending a flood of 35,000 people on their way to finishing the country’s largest half marathon.  It begins going west on West Washington Street, rounding the White River Gardens, where the night before Rise Against had played a raucous show, their booming punk anthems reverberating off our windows well into the night.

I felt slow those first two miles.  My legs didn’t feel fresh or relaxed.  It’s never too early to be unsure of how the race will end up, but I wasn’t even at the 5K mark and I was feeling a little dispirited.  It wasn’t all bad though.  It definitely wasn’t that hot and a gentle breeze was keeping the humidity from being too oppressive.  It was the first race ever that I decided to go shirtless, and that was definitely helping.

By mile 3, I started to speed up slightly, aided by the endless parade of bands lining the course.  Most races will feature entertainment every mile or so, but the Mini puts them all to shame.  Not even the Rock ‘n Roll race series can hold a candle to the sheer amount of musical acts that set up their gear on the sidelines of this race.  Right as the echoes of one band would fade, you’d start hearing the next one’s distorted speakers.  I want to say that a third of the bands were comprised of kids who were born after 1996.  We passed a band called Infamous, which was a quartet of black-clad kids playing death metal (it’s awesome to finally hear someone shout a raspy, deathlike “Let’s go runners!”); another grade-school band playing Green Day’s “Brain Stew” (a song that definitely came out before the band was born); a solo musician with an acoustic guitar; neighbors with speakers on their front lawn; a girl band blaring “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and more kids playing “Seven Nation Army.”  But the real boost of speed came from one band around mile 5 that was playing “Don’t Stop Believing.”  I happened to pass them right at “and it goes on and on and on.”  Those kids weren’t even an idea in the back of their parents’ minds when that song came out.  Probably because their parents were still in high school.

It takes about six miles to reach the Speedway.  I spent those miles in the low 7’s, keeping a consistent pace and feeling surprisingly comfortable.  I was sweating a lot, make no mistake, but my form wasn’t suffering and I was keeping my head up.  Once inside, runners are treated to two and a half miles of soft asphalt, recordings of classic races, several groups of cheerleaders and a chance to run a huge loop in an impressively huge venue.  It was around mile 7 that I had my “don’t care” moment.  Will I be able to keep this pace?  Don’t care.  Will I find myself dehydrated and cramped?  Don’t care.  Will I regret going too fast, knowing the likelihood of a poor performance?

Don’t care.

So I started running in the high 6s.  My legs were a bit heavy, but I was turning them over, hoping I could keep it going for another six miles.  Once out of the glorious Speedway, it was time to focus.  The last three miles go by so quickly because you feel distracted by the enormity of the structure.  But now we were back on major roads, running straight into the sun.  It was getting harder to keep the pace but it was helpful to pass people.  By this point, I knew it wasn’t going to be a PR race.  I’d have to run murderous splits to catch up to my Louisville time from the previous weekend … but maybe I’d be able to finish in the top 500.  The race offers a bonus medal to the first 500 finishers and in past years, that meant running at least a 1:29.  With the humidity and cautionary emails, it was possible that the field had slowed down enough for me to sneak in.

I kept my pace up, passing runners in large groups.  In a race this big, the field doesn’t thin out, so every mile meant passing a lot of people.  I remember thinking that I wanted this to be like a video game.  I wanted to know who racer #500 was, designated by having a pixelated red triangle bouncing over his or her head.  I kept imagining that the next person ahead of me was #500, so I would reel them in and pass them.  Rinse, sweat, heave, repeat.

At mile 12, runners cross the river on West New York Street, the last straight shot to the finish line.  I ran on the right side of the road and took advantage of the shade.  I remembered how easy it felt in Louisville to run that last mile at breakneck pace.  Not so much today.  I was hurting.  There was no physical pain, but my efficient and collected stride had deteriorated to the gait of Woody the Cowboy from Toy Story.  I could hear the echoes of the big yellow finish line up ahead but couldn’t muster an additional sprint surge.  Didn’t matter.  I covered the last 0.1 miles in forty seconds and finished in 1:32:19, my second fastest non-downhill time.

I let out an ogre-like sigh of relief and stopped my clock, walking right into a wall of volunteers holding medals.  I took mine and looked at it thinking, not bad.  It was monochromatic, but had nice details and was certainly better than 2010’s medal.  Then I noticed, written on the top right corner, “500 Club.”  In unison with the woman next to me, we both exclaimed “No way!”  High five, complete stranger.

I would later check to see I finished 470th.  That means that I secured my admittance into the exclusive 500 Club around the beginning of mile 12.  It was there that I must have passed the runner with the blinking red triangle, thereby becoming (briefly) the 500th runner, everyone behind me now the Man with the Golden Gun.  Given that medals are a big reason for doing these races, earning a bonus souvenir made my ears perk.  I did not set a PR, but by no means was I complaining.  Despite not doing all the nitpicky routine things that I do before every race, I had dominated the course and secured a fast time in tough conditions.  Superstition be damned!

I negotiated my way through the finishing chute towards the hotel.  After a quick shower, I returned to the post-race party to meet up with Francesca, a college friend who has run the Mini for the last five years with remarkably consistent times.  You would guess that I was extremely nervous talking to her because I was sweating like an idiot.  As charming as she is, it was the intense humidity.  Despite my heart rate being back at normal levels, there was no comfort standing in the sun.  And there were still thousands of runners left to finish.

And yet, despite the rising temperatures, the trip was a complete success for all.  Steve marked the beginning of a comeback to endurance sports, finishing just behind his brother Greg, who earned his fourth Mini medal along with his wife Mindy.  Lastly, Steve’s wife Jan paced his brother Jim to finish his first half marathon ever.  He was this year’s Mini inductee, which begged the question of who would play that role next year.  Everyone’s looking at you, Steph.  It will be you sooner or later, you might as well get it over with.

Left to right: me, Jim, Jan, Steve, Greg, Mindy