The Tune-Up: 2015 Fort2Base 10 Nautical Miler

I’m not exactly a sucker for weird distances.

The yearly Get Lucky Half Marathon has a 7k race near me that I’ve never run, the Polar Dash had a 14-miler in 2014 and a 15-miler this year (which leads me to wonder how long they’ll be able to keep that up), neither of which I’ve run, and there was a 4-miler in the city that I never added to my calendar. Call me traditional, but I like benchmarking my abilities against standard distances that I’ve run repeatedly in the last six years. The idea of an “automatic PR” never really called to me.

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But my father-in-law put it best when he said that Fort2Base was an opportunity to run a race with different units of distance. Anywhere else in the world, a half marathon is 21.1 kilometers and you’ll see markers at every kilometer. Short of running a race measured in leagues, light years, parsecs or Planck lengths, there aren’t many reasonable options besides miles and kilometers.

The family can get quite silly on command

The family can get quite silly on command

Enter Fort2Base, a point-to-point race that starts in Highland Park’s Fort Sheridan and ends in the Great Lakes Naval Station, which sports two races of 10 and 3 nautical miles. My in-laws had put together a large family trip to run it last year and the rave reviews convinced me to slate the race as my August speed test. The fact that I would achieve an instant PR was a footnote in the decision making process.

We began the race by running through and around Fort Sheridan, a former military barracks that has since been mostly transformed into a residential community and cultural hallmark of the North Shore. The stone water tower, once the largest structure in Chicago, kept watch over a large, oval-shaped park. I remember this monument fondly, as it was a key part of the North Shore Half Marathon, which I ran in 2010. As we traced our way around it, I saw the first mile marker at about 1.15 miles, the exact distance of one nautical mile.

Once out of Fort Sheridan, we hopped on the biking and running path that sticks to the northbound Metra commuter rail. We ran on this trail, in a nearly unbending, straight line for another eight miles. However, I soon learned that the mile markers weren’t nautical miles as advertised, but standard miles. In other words, that first marker was long. With an annoyed grunt and a quick headshake, I got back to running.

Cresting the top of Hero Hill

Cresting the top of Hero Hill

Under grey skies and with a gentle tailwind, I was rocketing through the course. By mile 7, I was behind a gentleman in American flag shorts and the first female, who seemed to be locked in stride. I passed them and briefly enjoyed my lead, for both had yet to turn on the afterburners. At mile 9, we left the tree-covered path and entered the Great Lakes campus for one large loop before finishing. The station’s red brick clock tower stood as the area’s centerpiece, overlooking the many spectators in the grassy field that unfolded in front of it.

Not long after entering Great Lakes, the course took a service road toward the lake, where it plummeted until we reached the shores of Lake Michigan. It was there that I crossed the 10th mile in 1:06:36, a PR at the distance by over 90 seconds. However, my legs were heavier now, and my lungs were starting to burn. The acidic buildup couldn’t have been more poorly timed, as just ahead was Hero Hill, the upward climb back to the campus.

In just under thirty seconds, that climb put another four miles of pain in my legs. I reached the top gassed but no less motivated to finish strong. A few strides later, I encountered another obstacle as I came face to face with a rapidly advancing wall of rain.

Mid-downpour, just past mile 11

Mid-downpour, just past mile 11

Any part of me that wasn’t already covered in sweat was soon drenched. The sound of raindrops bouncing off me was oddly like rubber, as if I had fashioned a shirt out of a tent. My spongy footsteps found it impossible to avoid puddles and I had no choice but to splash through what remained of the course. I couldn’t help but think of the many times I’ve promised other runners that it will never rain so long as I’m still running.

And then, just as soon as it arrived, it was gone. The skies never truly opened to reveal the late August sun, but it seemed for the moment that only one mercurial storm from the west would be visiting us today. One final turn and we were on the edge of the large, open field that acted as the clock tower’s welcome mat. I didn’t have a sprint left in me, but I pumped my arms with every last ounce of energy. Hero Hill and the sudden downpour had siphoned off a lot of time from my pace, but I was not going to complain about my 1:19:08 finishing time. It was good for 18th overall, and 3rd in my age group.

Once the race was over, I exited the finisher’s chute and positioned myself along the barricades to cheer for the rest of the field. Among my in-laws, the usual diehard runners were part of the field, several of whom will join me in Berlin in just over four weeks, either as runners or spectators. But the true surprise was Steph, who signed up for the 10-nautical miler, fully aware that there was a shorter distance available to her. Though she justified it with far more colorful language, I want to believe that she threw down because it was an opportunity to have a shared experience with the family, even if it did involve a sport that she doesn’t hold in such high regard.

The back features the Great Lakes Clocktower in symmetrical fashion

The back features the Great Lakes Clocktower in symmetrical fashion

Once everyone had crossed the finish line, we took the ceremonial post-race picture and made our way back to the hotel.

Much like the North Shore Half Marathon, this race sells itself on a beautiful, tree-lined course with one gut-busting hill. We were lucky this year to have nearly perfect weather, which is not a guarantee in mid-August. The icing on the cake is the high quality of the t-shirts, bibs and medals. And if that weren’t enough to sell you on signing up for 2016, the race pictures are free! The cynic in you might think that you get one or two blurry shots, but I managed to find ten excellent pictures. If most typical race photography services are feeling generous, they will charge you $20 per digital download, so this $200 value was not lost on me. Big, much deserved props to the organizers for partnering up with Gamefacemedia for this generous perk.

All told, if you need a good fitness primer for a fall marathon, a great tech tee to use during training, or a new standout medal with beautiful details, Fort2Base fits the bill.

Finishers!

Finishers!

Giving Up: 2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon

I give up, really, I do.  At this point, I can do nothing else but admit outright that I don’t know what I’m doing.  After five years and twenty-seven marathons, countless different training plans and goals, I finally learned that the sport is too varied and unpredictable to truly harness.  Some people, like super-human Michael Wardian or the indefatigable Chuck Engle have managed to tame the marathon, the latter of whom has run up to 25 a year averaging under 3 hours each.

But I am not Chuck Engle.

2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon Google Earth Rendering

I’m sorry, this might sound a little melodramatic, so let’s back up and explain things.  Four weeks ago, I tried to run two marathons in one weekend.  Though I ran the first one in 3:37, I had to drop to the half marathon for Sunday’s race because of an intense pain in my right knee.  I spent the rest of the month nursing that injury, keeping the pain at bay while still logging enough miles to stay fit.  However, I couldn’t run more than 12 miles a week without taunting fate.  I had signed up for the 2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon earlier in the year in hopes of attacking my 20-month old marathon PR.  But as the month went on with not a single long run, my expectations gradually fell.

I stood in the middle of downtown Indianapolis, thrilled to be huddled with several thousand other runners.  Icy winds were slicing through the city, channeled by buildings and making their way into my clothes.  I shuffled my feet while blowing warm air into my gloves and checking my watch.  I had not layered up so much for a marathon since my first run in 2009.  A few crowded blocks away was Ryan, who ran his first half marathon in Shiprock, New Mexico, looking to improve his time on a flatter, less arid course.

Mile 1 - 4 and 25 - 26.2 took place in the city

Mile 1 – 4 and 25 – 26.2 took place in the city

The first five miles wind in and out of Indianapolis, under bridges and several tunnels.  We were given wide, four-lane roads for those opening miles, giving runners plenty of room to find their pace.  From the very start, I was hyper aware of every last sensation pulsing through my legs.  For the first four miles, as we ran around the obelisk at Monument Circle, past University Park and the Middle Eastern stylings of the Murat Shrine center, everything felt fine.  I paid attention to every meaningless sensation to see if it was the advent of pain, but as long as we were in the city, I felt strong.

Until I wasn’t.  That tiny, yet familiar tingle of discomfort emerged just past mile 4.  It wasn’t a sharp pain or a dull grinding, but a deep tickle, like tennis elbow.  I kept running hoping that it would just be an echo, but it lingered.  My heart sank and I shook my head.  I didn’t think it would happen so early in the race.  Four miles in and my right knee had begun to fail me?  How would the remaining twenty-two miles feel?

By 10k we were out of the city and running through leaf-draped neighborhoods.  I had warmed up quickly, but the wind was still in my face and I had decided to keep my hat and gloves.  My leg was tingling with each step, but the pain was manageable and for several random stretches, nonexistent.  I alternated between surprised confidence and renewed panic as the discomfort would return.  Up ahead the half marathoners split from the crowd and I seriously considered making that left turn.  I could run a half marathon and call it a day with no one calling me out.  But this was my last race of the year and dropping to half the distance was how my last race ended.  I didn’t want this to become a pattern, regardless of how it might benefit my legs.  So I stayed with the marathon crowd running next to Fall Creek, further into the city neighborhoods.

The Indianapolis World War Memorial on the right

The Indianapolis World War Memorial on the right

As I reached mile 10, I noticed a shift.  The pain had moved like a worm from my knee to my hip.  I had never felt this before.  Countless times I’ve read about runners having hip injuries and I’ve never understood what it meant until now.  Every push from my leg revealed a tightness on my right side, as if my groin were made of dry plaster, but I was happy to have my mind off my knee.  It was a masterwork in mental legerdemain, willing myself to focus on my hip to avoid facing a rebellious knee.

We continued running through beautiful neighborhoods with small pockets of spectators cheering at every corner.  Just past halfway, we ran deeper into Indianapolis’ residential tapestry, briefly next to the White River.  I was starting to feel small knots in my left calf, and a few miles later, I felt my right patella begin to falter.  It took one walk break during an aid station to learn that I had to keep moving.  Forward motion was, for now, the only thing keeping my body from buckling, and even the shortest respite would flood my legs with lead and pain.

The only significant hill in the entire course was run southbound on Meridian Street around 25k.  I scaled it easily and continued running with the flow of traffic.  The wind was ripping sunburnt leaves from trees, adding a new, dry coat to the packed, paste-like layer of brown on the pavement.  We ran through Butler University’s campus, along the Crest Hill Cemetery and past the Indianapolis Museum of Art before taking a highway ramp downward to a thin path.  By this point, I had either loosened up completely or my body was drunk on adrenaline because the only pains coursing through me were coming from the bottoms of my feet.

I had kept a couple within my sights for several miles.  He was wearing a black sleeveless t-shirt and she was in a hot pink singlet.  It took me another mile to reel them in, where I tucked myself behind them to block some of the wind.  We were running east on Burdsal Parkway, just past 35k and under an orange canopy, when I heard her tell him to go on ahead.  I pursued him as he accelerated, dropping his friend.  The sun had been out for about an hour and a nearly cloudless sky watched over us.  I was barely sweating, running easily in freezing temperatures but I could still feel the sting of the headwind pushing on me.

"The End" Burger at Bru Burger Bar

“The End” Burger at Bru Burger Bar

I began a conversation with Mr. Sleeveless through quick breaths.  It was his fourth marathon and he was feeling excellent.  I told him that if by mile 22 he felt great, then he was in good shape to earn a shiny new personal best.  He just had to keep his focus and make it happen.  He decided to use me as a pacer and locked his pace with mine.  A mile later, we passed Ivy Tech Community College, whose classic, Greek architecture could have been one of the many monuments that graced this marathon’s course.

I didn’t realize it until a sharp right turn onto Meridian Street, but I was completely focused.  Aside from the brief chat with Sleeveless, I was running with tunnel vision, blinders on both sides of my head, staring squarely ahead, watching the course and nothing else.  Because after that turn I saw the skyline rising above a blue backdrop, as if from nowhere.  Had I turned my head at any point in the last mile I might have seen it earlier, but I was laser-focused on the next three steps.  With the city up ahead, I could smell the finish line, hidden somewhere among the buildings.  That’s when I reached mile 24 and glanced at my watch.

“Oh, shit,” I said aloud.  My eyes widened, I felt an emptiness in my stomach and I surged ahead.

I left Sleeveless behind.  Several reflective storefront windows confirmed that I was running alone, using a helpful tailwind to pass slower runners.  The time for keeping it together was over.  Just two miles removed from the finish line, it was time to empty the reserves.  I stomped on the pavement, breathing through my teeth, feeling each step grind my feet to mush.  I pumped my arms and kept going, skipping the last two aid stations and passing mile 25.  I glanced at my watch again.

Oh come on

The course veered right and a volunteer with a megaphone belted that we had two turns left.  I did not let up, keeping my legs moving faster than ever, pushing air out of my lungs, my fists practically punching my chest.  The faint echo of the finish line grew louder with every person I pushed behind me.  With just a half mile to go, I couldn’t help but smile.  As long as I kept moving like this, I felt great.  I knew that just past the finish line, I would be consumed by pain, wincing at even the slightest movement.  But for now, as I scorched the path like a shark, rushing ahead in constant movement, obeying that base instinct to just – keep – moving, loving every second of it, I felt amazing.

Ryan and I, finishers at Bru Burger Bar

Ryan and I, finishers at Bru Burger Bar

At the risk of sounding supercilious, I couldn’t help but feel that this was my Sammy Wanjiru moment.  He set the marathon world on fire in the summer of 2008 by winning the warm, humid Olympic Marathon in Beijing in absolutely fearless fashion.  He held the half marathon world record and by October of 2009 had won the London and Chicago Marathons.  Back in Kenya, his newfound fame and fortune had plagued him with problems.  Famously profligate, he squandered a lot of money on gifts for friends and enormous bar tabs.  This prodigal lifestyle took its toll on his training, and when he arrived in Chicago on October 2010 to defend his title, few experts put their money on him.

But what happened on that warm Chicago morning would go down as one of the greatest duels in the modern marathon.  Wanjiru traded leads with his Ethiopian rival, Tsegaye Kebede (who took bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Marathon) all the way to the Roosevelt Street bridge.  His final surge came just a minute before crossing the finish line and defending his title.  No one would have predicted a great performance from him, but somehow, through magic or a ravenous hunger for it, he made it happen.

The parallel is not airtight for many reasons (including his untimely and mysterious death) but part of me could hear Toni Reavis’ avuncular voice chortling about my surprising performance with shock and awe.

Because despite running a maximum of 12 miles a week since October 5; despite having a persistent IT band injury in my right knee that no amount of stretching could exorcise; despite starting this race with my confidence at record low levels and my head elsewhere, I reached the finish line of the 2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon intact, having miraculously and imprudently pulled out of my ass a 3:22:14 personal best.

2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon Medal, the first of a 4-year series that come together to make a large frame.

2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon Medal, the first of a 4-year series that come together to make a large frame.

And because of all this, I have given up on understanding what puts together a solid marathon training plan.  I’ve done the traditional 20-miler three weeks before, sometimes adding or removing a week.  I’ve skipped out on 20 in favor of a faster 16-miler, I’ve increased my mileage, favored speed over distance, opted for distance over speed — you name it.  But the fact remains that my newly minted PR happened after a persistent injury, and four weeks of spinning classes with absolutely minimal running.  I just don’t get it.  All signs pointed to disaster, yet I made it happen.  From now on, I guess I’ll just run and leave the thinking to sports scientists.

But I was right about the finish line.  Three steps after crossing the timing mats, my legs became encased in concrete and each joint felt swollen to twice its normal size.  My knees, hips, feet, and even my Achilles tendons were aching.  But as you might imagine, I was far away, stuck between pride and confusion, elation and wonder.  I limped all the way to the hotel, where I showered and changed at a sloth’s pace before going to Bru Burger Bar with Ryan, who was enjoying equal success, having earned himself a 1:54 half marathon PR.

As I bit into a juicy burger fittingly named “The End,” I reflected fondly on the race and the season.  The goal was always to come to Indianapolis to bring down my personal best.  I had spent months visualizing it.  But that morning, I was certain that I was doomed.  I’m still not sure how it happened (or the more tantalizing concern of how much faster I could have run if I had been completely healthy) but it did.  Maybe my legs were the right amount of fresh and rested after an entire year of nonstop training.  Or perhaps my desire for redemption stopped the pain signals from reaching my brain.  Either way, that’s one minute closer to Boston.

Not a bad way to end the season, I thought.  We paid the tab and I winced back to the car as every single part of my legs screamed in pain.  Not bad at all.

Marathon_Map 054 (IN)

State 39: Delaware (2014 Delaware Running Festival Marathon)

I was happy to be shivering.

Three years since her PR at Flying Pig -- CAN SHE DO IT?

Three years since her PR at Flying Pig — CAN SHE DO IT?

Laura and I walked from the Wilmington Westin to the starting line of the 2014 Delaware Running Festival Marathon, a short trip around the Christina River and toward Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park. The day before, I was flicking away sweat in the first mile of the Maryland Half Marathon and promptly spent the rest of the day assiduously drinking water. Had my legs not carted me across 13.1 relatively fast miles the day before, the cool breeze sliding through the thin fabric of my running outfit would have imbued me with tremendous confidence.

An hour later, I was on the road, chugging along at a relaxed pace. The opening miles weren’t terribly scenic and included a few long sections through the parking lot of the Westin, far from any shade or greens. But my biggest enemy in this race wouldn’t be the scenery as my mind had already begun to defy me.  At some point in tough races, a tiny voice starts to rise above the breathing and plodding of feet.  It usually surfaces around mile 22, but today its dastardly voice broke through the noise at the first mile marker.  It said:

This is going to suck at mile 14.

2014 Delaware Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2014 Delaware Marathon Google Earth Rendering

You see, the Delaware Marathon is a two-looped course. Laura was running only one loop, where every single turn would reveal new territory to conquer, with the very last revelation being the finish line. I would have to repeat all of it, which meant that I couldn’t help but constantly wonder how I would feel the next time I saw this mile marker. While stronger minds might be able to shield themselves from thinking of the second round, I wasn’t faring too well in ignoring the mile markers 14-25 peppered across the course.

Just before 5k, on the Riverfront

Just before 5k and 25k, on the Riverfront

To palliate my fears, the course quickly became very beautiful.  By the second mile we were running on the wet, wooden planks of the riverfront. They felt like rubber, springing softly below my feet, absorbing the impact. We followed the river to the starting line and then cut through the city of Wilmington, where we would abandon flat terrain for the rest of the loop. Despite being in the city proper, there weren’t many spectators.  We soon entered Brandywine Park, where under the peaceful canopy of trees, the temperature felt like it dropped ten degrees.

That tranquil pause in the chugging of legs and arms was interrupted when we crossed a cobblestone bridge and turned onto South Park Drive, where a mile-long hill made heart rates soar. Relay runners were happily flowing downhill and just up ahead was a friendly spectator with a Captain America shield that said “Press For Power.” Somewhere in the middle of the hill, I heard it again.

This is going to suck at mile 20.

Miles 3 and 16, by the Riverfront

Miles 3 and 16, by the Riverfront

At the top, I saw Laura’s parents. Over the last two days, they had hosted me at their home in Silver Spring and drove up to Wilmington to watch us run. From the moment you meet them you know they’re going to be a hoot. Not only is her mom a fun, charming woman, but you can almost hear the synapses in her mind firing a million times a second. In the scant 36 hours I had known her, I had answered a thousand earnest questions. Her dad, a person of much fewer words, is just as affable and welcoming (and surprised me by knowing more about Costa Rica’s economy and trade relations than I was ready to discuss). I smiled as I passed them.  Her mom was cheering so emphatically, she was practically squawking.

The next five miles were run through the neighborhoods of Highlands, Bancroft Parkway, Wawaset Park and Hilltop, with almost every single step having a tiny slope. I was by this point completely drenched in sweat and making sure to stop at every aid station. I kept looking for a mantra despite the mounting doubt in my head, like searching for a gummy bear in an anthill. And despite plentiful shade, it had become a warm day.

Miles 6 and 19, South Park Drive

Miles 6 and 19, South Park Drive, “the hill” everyone talks about

“Looking good, Larry,” I said as I passed an older runner. He was wearing a yellow shirt with a blue singlet on top that said “1,300 Marathons Larry,” power walking, slightly hunched under an orange cap and pumping his arms. It was Larry Macon, one of the most prolific marathoners in the world, who currently owns an un-ratified world record for most marathons run in a year (255), and continues to put all of our running accomplishments to shame.

Two downhill miles later, I was back in the city, with one hill left until the “finish” line. As I ran toward the crowds, I couldn’t help but think that I’d be happy to call it a day. I was already tired, had left a trail of sweat beads on the pavement since the start and would not have bet on a strong finish. I thought, if today were supposed to be just a half marathon, I would be proud of this time.  But instead, I reached the split and turned away from the roar at Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park and back onto the familiar road from earlier that morning.

Those first hundred steps were the worst.

Miles 9 and 22, through Wilmington neighborhoods

Miles 8 and 21, through Wilmington neighborhoods

I tried not to, but the inevitable rapid-fire slide show of the next 13.1 miles flashed in my head. Every turn and landmark, but most menacingly, every hill burst in a matter of seconds alongside shrill, staccato horns, like a flashback to a war. That might be inappropriately hyperbolic, but it really was demoralizing. The first half wasn’t the sweet and easy jog that I was expecting, to the point that my mind was ready to check out.

I know myself and how I function. With this sweat rate at this point in the race, I can all but guarantee a disastrous second half. Why did I think I could comfortably keep this pace for this long? Why can’t I ever just run the race I’m supposed to run and not push it? And think of the sunburn I’m going to get …

There is much to be said about the power of the mind over the body. There is certainly no shortage of inspirational running bumper stickers that tout how a variable percentage – but usually more than half – of the effort is mental. I’ve never really known whether this is just a fun platitude to believe in or if it holds its weight in a lab. But let this post serve as anecdotal evidence of the exact opposite situation. The mind certainly can affect the body in numerous, wondrous ways. But on May 11, 2014 in Wilmington, Delaware, I ran my twenty-third marathon and watched in disbelief as my body overcame my weak, jellied mind.

Miles 9 and 22 in Hilltop, far from the cover of trees

Miles 9 and 22 in Hilltop, far from the cover of trees

My legs, heart and lungs were not paying attention to the quailing voice in my head. They continued onward, ticking off the miles. Though I wasn’t running that much faster, the distance between mile markers seemed shorter. It was as if my body had effectively shut off my brain and its powers of perception, allowing me to simply execute forward locomotion. I had become a machine, steaming past runners and spectators with a steely gaze. There were no more distractions, no more moments of quiet introspection or sightseeing. I had taken pictures in the first half of the race, but for that second loop, my camera was firmly clutched in my left hand, not to see any more daylight until I was done. The part of me that would have enjoyed that had been silenced.

South Park Drive would have one more go at shattering my momentum. During this climb I ran the slowest 5k of the race and it was looking likely that my body was going to join my quivering mind. But every moment of despair was followed by a surge of easy speed. I cruised through the dew-drenched neighborhoods and over the sun-burnt roads of Hilltop, passing everyone I saw ahead of me. Under normal circumstances, I would have covered those miles fraught with concern over the inevitable bonk, but today I had stuffed that poltroon perspective in a paper cup and tossed it at an aid station many miles ago.

Miles 12 and 25, through the city, and the final climb of the race

Miles 12 and 25, through the city, and the final climb of the race

Instead, I ran from 35k to 40k in my fastest split of the race, aided by a long downhill and the pull of the finish line. Once back in the city there was just one hill left to scale before the irresistible finish line. Still on auto-pilot, I was powerless to object.  It was only until I crossed the finish line in just under 3:38 and heard the announcer say my name that I felt normal, human again. It’s a good thing this metamorphosis happened when it did because right as I got my finisher’s medal, I felt someone jab me.

“Hey, you might not remember me,” he said to the back of my head. I turned around and instantly recognized him. “Andy the Pacer!” I yelled before he could get another word out. We had met over two years ago in Little Rock, where he paced (and entertained with frequent trivia) the 3:45 group, with whom I ran for twelve miles in completely new clothes and shoes before taking off to earn an unexpected PR. For that reason, I will always hold a special place in my running books for him.

0511_1_delawaremarathon 230511_1_delawaremarathon 27

Laura continued her PR streak with a 1:52 finish, going 4 for 4 and confirming that I am her lucky half marathon rabbit’s foot. After the race we made our way to a Mother’s Day barbecue hosted by her extended family in a nearby neighborhood, where I became happily acquainted with northeastern hospitality and half of the charming genes that led to her incredibly affable and lovable personality. A few hours later, I was back on the road towards Baltimore, ready to fly home smiling.

2014-delaware-marathon-elevation-chart

I have faced time and time again the difficult truth that strength and confidence in long distance running, much like the elevation chart above, exist in a wave form. There are months where nagging pains and tiny setbacks make intense training feel like a chore. But there are also spans of time when everything feels easy, effortless and that the body’s limits can easily bend to your will. At the end of the Delaware Marathon, I felt strong, powerful, and incredibly optimistic about the rest of the year’s challenges. The last few months have had their aches and pains, but as I finished my 39.3 mile weekend averaging an 8:07 pace with almost 3,000 feet of vertical change, I felt incredible.

Now I just have to make sure, as my mom advises, to not overdo it. Because running two and a half marathons in ten days is certainly not that.

Marathon_Map 049 (DE)

 

Missouri (2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon)

When people talk about “the ups and downs” of something, they can often mean it literally.

Mau (center) and I (right), finishers of the 2010 St. Louis Half Marathon

Mau (center) and I (right), finishers of the 2010 St. Louis Half Marathon

Four years ago, I ran the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon.  My cousin Mau had been living in St. Louis for almost a decade, so I made it an excuse to visit him and brought Steph with me.  Much to my delight, Mau signed up and trained for the race.  I cannot understate enough how special it is for me when someone does that, especially if they weren’t a long distance runner in the first place.  It’s like asking someone to join a class, learn the material, and take a grueling test just for the hell of it.

Four years later, I was back at the starting line of the Go! St. Louis Family Fitness Weekend, this time sporting a bright orange marathon bib and an ambitious goal.  It won’t be until November that I’ll be able to run a fast marathon, so I set my phasers to Attack.

A few corrals back, Steve, Scott, Greg and Jim were waiting for their own start.  Jim was running his third marathon, while Scott and Greg were donning blue half marathon bibs.  Steve hadn’t registered for the race and intended to run seven miles before heading back to the hotel, skipping all aid stations and avoiding true banditry.  The harsh winds that had bellowed through the Midwest all week were gone, replaced by calm zephyrs from the east.

(left to right): Me, Greg, Steve, Jim, Scott

(left to right): Me, Greg, Steve, Jim, Scott

I joined the 3:25 pace group led by Jordan, whose wife had just recently qualified for Boston at a race called the Circular Logic Marathon.  As the name implies, she ran 26.2 laps around a 1-mile loop.  If her husband was anywhere near as dedicated, then we were in good hands.

The race starts in the middle of the city, by a cluster of compact parks, facing the famous Gateway Arch.  It heads south about three miles and into the Anheuser Busch Brewery before returning to the heart of the city.  With the exception of the brewery itself, these opening miles were the least scenic of the entire course.  Much of it was run on bridges surrounded by industrial complexes and highways.  It wouldn’t be until the 10k mark that we’d return to the city and start the long, undulating trek on Olive Street.

2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon Map (via Google Earth)

2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon Map (via Google Earth)

“I remember the hills being brutal,” I told Steve the day before.  We had arrived in St. Louis after a long drive from Chicago and were finding a parking spot at St. Louis University.  “But seeing them now, they don’t look so bad.  I wonder if my memory has altered them because I was such an inexperienced runner four years ago.”

For the time being, I was proving myself right.  From start to finish, the stretch on Olive is about 2.4 miles, none of which is flat.  I was either springing on my toes upward or stomping downward, the pace group usually nearby.  The organizers placed giant, inflatable arches with timing mats around halfway through Olive’s hills, meaning we were about to run up “Holy Hill,” a separately-timed section thrown in for the hell of it (pun squarely intended).  The loud, celestial knells of Christ Church Cathedral rang across Olive and there was even a priest throwing consecrated rice onto runners as they ran through the arch.

The journey on Olive was characteristic of the rest of the race.  Not only was it unceasingly hilly, but the top of each climb would reveal miles of unraveled course ahead, almost all of it composed of long, concrete waves.  It was as if St. Louis had been flat at some point in history, before a giant had clutched both ends of the city and pushed them towards each other.

The beginning of Holy Hill, via Google Streetview

The beginning of Holy Hill, via Google Streetview

Around mile 10, the course finally flattened out on Forest Park Avenue.  I turned onto the boulevard, anticipating the beautiful spring colors that welcomed me in 2010, but found only dead trees on the divider.  The harsh winter certainly hit everywhere.

Once the half marathoners were split from the course, our pace group became the only cluster of people for miles.  We were a tight pack with our own gravity.  Some runners were experienced and a bit too garrulous, others camouflaged themselves by never speaking a word.

The avenue became a highway, cutting through the corner of Forest Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country, which houses the St. Louis Zoo, the Science Center and various museums.  But we weren’t at the scenic area yet, instead quite literally running on a two-lane highway.  It felt a little surreal, if not dangerous, as if a speeding car could have turned the corner at any second and plowed through us.

Forest Park Highway, via Google Streetview

Forest Park Parkway, via Google Streetview

For the next four miles, we would trace a spaghetti path through the park, which was so large that it was difficult to think a large city was just a few miles away.  We crossed the halfway mark in 1:42 and I couldn’t help but smile.  Four years ago, I finished the half marathon in 1:46 and almost collapsed at the end.  But my smile was short-lived.  For though the pace group had been talking about dogs, last year’s Boston Marathon, and funny spectator signs, I was choosing to stay silent.  It was no longer easy to tackle each new hill with the same élan as before.

“So how do you do hill training in Chicago?” an Australian named Tim asked me as we left Forest Park and began a steady climb on Forsyth Boulevard.  It was almost as if he could hear the strain in my breathing and had picked out the dog among wolves.

“I don’t,” I replied between gasps.

But I should.  I’ve done a handful of hill repeats on the treadmill but honest to Haile I hate them.  I would rather run up a mountain or run the same hill 30 times than dial up a treadmill a few degrees.  I’ll do interval runs indoors, knock out mile repeats and pyramid drills happily.  But hills on a treadmill suck the enjoyment out of running.  And it was precisely that unwillingness to do what it takes that led to my eventual demise.

2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon Map (via Google Earth)

2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon Map (via Google Earth)

Forsyth Boulevard cuts straight through Washington University in St. Louis, where my cousin earned his undergraduate degree.  I had but a few seconds to soak it all in before we were past it.  Jordan and his pack had pulled ahead of me as I stopped for an aid station.  We reached downtown Clayton, the course’s western border.  At the turnaround, I had bridged the gap to the pace group to just a few seconds.

Until the next hill.  I couldn’t keep my legs turning fast enough to stay with them and I had to give up the chase.  The next two and a half miles were an eastward slog down Delmar Boulevard.  From the beginning of this portion, you can see for miles, and I could practically hear the course itself laughing at me.  It’s not exactly empowering to see the endless course before you when your body is screaming at you to quit.  At the very least, Delmar starts downhill as a tree-covered residential area before transforming into a small town.  I ran through this never-ending stretch almost perfunctorily, with most of my drive having been drained by the ups.

It was my calves.  I was breathing normally, my heart wasn’t exploding in my chest, and my quads (the usual suspects) were shoveling coal like champions.  But the constant change in slope had punished my calves, with each step attenuating them until my gait was reduced to a dodder.

St Louis Gateway ArchMiles are so much longer when you’re in the middle of falling apart.

I kept seeing the same people.  A young woman with a white Arkansas Grand Prix shirt would run faster than me, but stop and walk frequently.  Opting for a similar strategy, a tall gentleman with a yellow Marathon Maniacs singlet would cruise by me only to stop at every uphill and let me pass him.  We continued this dance of perpetual exchange as Forest Park Avenue became Market Street for the final stretch.  I looked ahead.

No, that doesn’t look right.

Unless my eyes were deceiving me, the finish banner was perched at the end of a hill, another damn hill.  While there was a definitive crowd of people running toward it, I didn’t see many running up its face.  Maybe there was a turn in between that I couldn’t see yet.  But as I approached the familiar din of the city, the hard truth became undeniable.  As if to remind us that no prize worth having is easy to earn, we would have one last hill to crest before finishing this race.

I managed to climb out of the depths of my ever-languishing pace, pumping my arms and pulling my legs up with enough brio to disguise the pain in my lower body.  Once at the top, with the blue finishing banner just up ahead, I let momentum carry me to the finish.  I must have looked confident and strong, but it was all theater.  I heard my name announced on the loudspeakers before crossing the timing mats of my twenty-first marathon in 3:31:53.

2014 Go St Louis Marathon MedalPerhaps it was overconfidence that killed my chances at a PR.  I thought that experience alone would allow me to conquer the course, that time on my feet over the years would somehow translate to a better performance.  But that, as George R. R. Martin might say, is a mummer’s farce.  St. Louis isn’t flat and my unwillingness to specifically train for that challenge effectively shattered my armor.  But with the colorful medal and ribbon resting on my chest and my fifth fastest marathon time in the books, I couldn’t be too hard on myself.

Plus, this race marked the beginning of a future goal.  When I began my quest to run all fifty states, I was focused intently on half marathons.  The full distance was far too demanding, appearing only now and then in my schedule like a church spire in a small town.  But in the last two years, as I’ve become more comfortable with the challenge, more able to handle the pain, I’ve opted for the full distance instead.  Eventually, I will want to re-visit all the states that I’ve colored in half marathon green and welcome them to the marathon club.

Missouri wasn’t the first state to achieve that special red color on my map (that honor belongs to Florida, and later Wisconsin), but it is the first that I’ve done exclusively for this purpose.  Because let’s face it, there is always a bigger challenge, a tougher goal or simply another new experience on the horizon.  Hills may disguise the path, offering us a potential end to the anguish.  But those of us who lace up for the long run know that the top of a climb isn’t a rest stop, and even finish lines don’t mean we should stop running.

Onwards.

Marathon_Map 046 (MO)