Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sun, Cornfields, and Bluffs... Monument Marathon Race Report

Aaaaaaaah, I love to do that first fall marathon in the West. After a long, muggy eastern summer, there are just so many good things about the West. Chilly morning start lines, ability to breathe comfortably, sunglasses that don't fog up, clothes that you don't have to wring out after running.

The Monument Marathon in Gering, Nebraska, was State #35, Marathon #44 for me. Nebraska had never been a state I was excited about doing because I thought my only options were Lincoln and Omaha, and I wasn't excited about either one of those. Then someone told me about how awesome Monument was, and when I found out it took place in a part of the country famous for Oregon Trail history and bluffs that look like the Badlands of South Dakota, I was THERE. I love that landscape. Besides southern Arizona, I think it is the most beautiful scenery in the country. (As I pause for a moment of sadness at having to return to Michigan scenery, which is the dullest and least dramatic scenery anywhere except maybe Indiana and Ohio. Oh well.)

I flew into Denver and drove the three hours to Gering. It was a beautiful drive east across the plains of eastern Colorado and then north into the panhandle of Nebraska. I will never understand how anyone can not think the plains are beautiful. You can see forever. There are some trees, but not too many, just the right number. (Trees make me feel claustrophobic. One or two around a house are okay, and they are also okay lining riverbanks, but when they obscure the horizon and make it impossible to see the contours of the landscape, I don't like them, which is why I always feel relief every time I go anywhere in the western U.S. I feel like I can breathe again.)

Gering is a small town, and Scotts Bluff National Monument is just a couple miles from downtown. I picked up my packet at the tiny expo where everyone was so friendly it made me nervous. The T-shirt is just okay, but I don't really care about T-shirts. The goodie bag didn't have any food (except for a bag of beans). I didn't spend any time at all at the expo because there were hardly any runners there and all the vendors at the booths looked so hopeful that I would talk to them that I didn't want to disappoint them, so I just grabbed my bag and left again to drive the marathon course.

The course looked moderately challenging at most. It started with a 6-mile descent from the Wildcat Hills Visitor Center. This part was along the shoulder of a highway, but with beautiful views the whole way. At Mile 6 we turned off the highway for six miles of cornfields on county roads. Then we crossed back over the highway around Mile 12 and went into the Monument. It was a beautiful drive through the Monument, with the giant bluffs towering over the road and the life-size replicas of oxen-drawn covered wagons. (For history nerds: Scotts Bluff [or Scottsbluff; historically it was two words as often as it was one word] was the second-most referred-to landmark on the Oregon Trail, with the first being Chimney Rock, that's how significant it was to the pioneers.) There was also an epic thunderstorm brewing with dark clouds, lightning worthy of Tucson, and strong winds gusting. I was glad that the forecast for race day was for good weather, because as awesome as the storm was from the car, it was the kind of storm that gets races cancelled because of lightning danger.

The five or so miles in the Monument were rolling hills starting with a climb of about two miles. It wasn't steep, but it was noticeable even in the car and I was sure it would be more noticeable on foot. I just hoped that the scenery would make up for the climb.

After Mile 17 or so, the course left the Monument and turned almost immediately onto a dirt road paralleling the irrigation ditch. I couldn't drive on that road, so just headed back to town and the pasta feed for dinner. I wasn't really excited about the pasta feed, but it was better than McDonald's or any other local restaurant, which I was sure would be full of overly friendly people who felt bad because I was sitting alone and would try to talk to me. If I had to talk to people, I would rather talk to other runners. Luckily I didn't have to talk to many of those either since there was hardly anyone at the pasta feed. It's a really small race, only 300 runners total with over 200 of those doing the half or 5k.

Race morning was clear and cold, in the 40's. I was glad that I saved the throwaway windbreaker they gave us at the finish line of the Georgia Marathon, because it was perfect for a cool morning. I parked at the Five Rocks Amphitheater and took a shuttle to Wildcat Hills, about 8 miles from the Amphitheater. It was colder up there, but at least we got to wait inside a building. We were supposed to be able to wait inside the Visitors Center, but because it was under construction, we were in an outbuilding instead. They bussed us from the outbuilding up to the Visitors Center for the race start, a distance of MAYBE 1/10th of a mile at the most, and let us wait on the heated bus till right before the start, which is just one more way that this race was awesome and made a point of taking care of its runners. I totally understand how this race got the excellent reputation that it has!

Start was at 7:30. The 6-mile descent was beautiful. I was warm by Mile 2 and dumped my throwaway jacket at the first aid station. The question of the day, of course, was how would my plantar fasciitis foot hold up? I really didn't know, but the further I got into the race without pain, the more confident I felt that nothing disastrous would happen. (Like, say, a DNF and having to go home without my Nebraska medal. Ouch, that would've hurt.) I purposely went out easy. I could feel little twinges from the bad foot the whole way, but it twinges even while I'm doing nothing, and it hurt like hell during the drive from Denver to Gering for no particular reason, or possibly a psychological reason. Twinges I can live with.

At Mile 6 we turned into the cornfields. I was feeling no pain and was actually enjoying the run, which is something that hardly ever happens. I usually spend at least 75% of any workout desperately wishing I could stop. The first two or three miles of this stretch were fine and then it got slightly monotonous, but as soon as it started getting monotonous, we turned back towards town, and I could see the bluffs in the Monument getting closer and closer.

The road into the Monument was a climb, no surprise since I had seen it the day before in the car, and we also had a headwind, but, as I had hoped, the scenery made up for it. I ran the whole way and honestly barely noticed the climb; I was too busy looking up at those awesome bluffs and imagining what it would have been like to be riding in a wagon and following the ruts of a thousand other wagons.

This course has a fair amount of climbing but is also generous with its downhills. Every uphill has a downhill. (For all the hills, I am surprisingly not very sore at all today. Usually hilly course = sore.) We ran downhill out of the Monument and then turned onto the dirt road. We had been warned that it would be muddy because of last night's storm, and it was a little muddy but not bad. The next five miles or so were my favorite of the course. Some of it was gravel road, some was more like trail, though still almost as wide as a road. I wish I had more time to explore the trails. It was the kind of place where every bend in the trail gave you a different view of the bluffs, all of them magnificent. There was a lot of sun, but luckily it wasn't hot, only in the 60's. Still, I was sweating a lot and not drinking nearly enough, so I was covered with a salt crust. Better than being coated in slime like I have been in Michigan for the last month because it's been too humid for sweat to evaporate.

Around Mile 21 I looked at my watch for the first time on the whole course and saw that I had just hit three hours. My foot wasn't really sore and I felt okay, but I also didn't feel like pushing to get a BQ although I'm pretty sure I could have. One of my goals for this marathon was to see if two in a row was feasible if I took it easy on Day One. I could see by my time that I had not really been taking it easy even though it felt like I had. Also, I was, of course, a little tired. So I decided to relax for the rest of the run and enjoy myself, and run just fast enough to finish under four hours.

That's what I did. At Mile 23 we were back on town roads, mostly in the neighborhoods. There were a surprising number of climbs in those last few miles, though none of them were steep. The last mile went through a cemetery, then there was a little downhill followed by a turn to an uphill finish. The race was so small that there were no other finishers in sight, behind or in front of me, and every finisher got a personalized announcement.

I felt pretty good -- not sick, not sore, kind of hungry for the pizza they had for finishers. The medal was great, one of my favorites. As I was admiring my medal and heading for the food tent, this girl said to me, "You held on to second, huh?" I said, "Second what?" and she said, "Second woman." I had no idea at all. I had had a vague impression that I was mid-pack somewhere, but I was actually the twelfth finisher overall, first in my age group, and second-place woman. There were only 65 finishers and 19 women, so this was not really that big of an accomplishment, but I still stayed for the awards because I thought maybe I would get something cool. And I did -- $250! I was shocked when they called me up and handed me an envelope with "$250" written on it. I thought maybe it was a mistake and they meant "$25", which would still have been awesome, but no! It was really two $100 bills and a $50 bill. That was one of my best marathon moments ever, along with my first BQ and the time I qualified for Boston in Boston. (They also gave me a print of wildflowers in the Monument, which is a great souvenir of a really beautiful place.)

This was an absolutely great race experience all the way around. It was a few firsts for me -- the first time I really loved a small race, the first time I won money in a race (and no doubt the last), and the first time I finished a race with more Gu gels than I started with (started with three, finished with five because they offered five on the course and I took every one they offered). I am so glad I did this race and not Lincoln or Omaha, and I am going to take my winnings and spend them on registration fees for Kansas City and Des Moines next month!

I seriously cannot recommend this race highly enough for anyone who likes small town races and beautiful scenery. Here is a course video although it does not even come close to doing it justice:

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Hopefully The Long Blog Silence Is Over...

Ever since June, I've been unable to run because of a stubborn, painful problem with plantar fasciitis. No one is interested in the details of other people's foot problems, so I will spare you other than to say that fortunately I was still able to do spin class and elliptical, so I have been doing hard time in the gym since the end of June, haven't gained any weight, and am still in decent cardio shape. The plantar fasciitis has gotten a little bit better in the past few weeks to the point where I'm able to run through it and the pain goes away pretty quickly afterwards. (I'm still doing everything I can to keep it at bay -- stretching religiously, wearing my inserts, rolling my foot on a frozen lacrosse ball three times a day, and wearing that godawful night splint to bed every night. I even changed from my beloved Mizunos to Brooks. Anything to prevent me from being unable to finish my 50 States quest.)

I have been hoping that I would be sufficiently healed by September to do another state. Specifically, I wanted to do the Monument Marathon in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. There are two reasons I want to do that one: one, I read a book about a guy who took a mule-drawn covered wagon from the start of the Oregon Trail to the finish, and he wrote about Scottsbluff and it sounded cool, and two, the scenery is like the Badlands of South Dakota, which is the prettiest country I've ever seen aside from Arizona. I was okay for the 10-mile Detroit run last week -- not as fast as I used to be, and not pain-free, but not in agony either. A good test for my feet showed up right on time -- the RunDetroit 18-mile Course Preview Run for the Detroit Marathon, which happens in October. For $10, you get a supported run that includes Miles 10-26 of the marathon course, and then ends with Miles 1 and 2.

That sounded like a good deal to me. The weather this weekend was hot and muggy and I knew the odds of making myself do a long training run solo were minimal to zero. With a group, though, and with water stops to look forward to every four miles, this might be doable. Plus, I have no idea when I'll ever get to do this marathon because it is the same weekend as about 50% of the marathons I want to do in my remaining 16 states. It won't be till 2019 at the earliest, so I figured I may as well just check out the course now.

This seemed like a fine plan, and then Wednesday happened. Wednesday started with a swim before work. So technically I did not even need to work out after work. But I decided to do an easy three because I ate a cookie at work, or something, and I was obsessing about being over calories. I was just going to run down Rochester Road a short way and then turn around and run back. But as I was running down that stretch between Avon and Hamlin with no sidewalk, where the little singletrack footpath through the grass is, a place I have run dozens of times without incident, I went from cruising along to going down like a horse in a Western who puts its foot into a gopher hole on accident. One second everything was fine, the next second I was marveling at how exquisite the pain was. It really was, blinding and pure. I pulled myself up as fast as I went down because I didn't want any drivers to try to pull over to help in that place where there is nowhere for drivers to pull over. Here's what went through my head: Can't possibly walk back. I'll have to call Will. No, don't call Will, call Uber. Maybe I can walk back, it's only about half a mile. Let me try taking a couple steps. Oh, man, it hurts. No, maybe I can walk on it. If I can walk on it, what about a slow slow jog? Okay, this is doable. What if I just keep going forward instead of back to my car? Seems to be okay. Really, seems to be okay! Whew, seriously thought I broke something there. And I went on to finish the three miles at 8:11 pace in the heat and humidity, and my foot felt fine.

Well, at the end of the run it felt fine. By the time I got home, I was in agony. I iced it for an hour and it puffed up and turned all kinds of colors. It was painful at work the next day, but it's not like I couldn't walk on it. I knew I couldn't have broken it, because I couldn't have run two and a half miles painfree on a busted foot. By the next day, my foot hurt less but my calf on that same leg hurt more. Apparently I had also done something to my calf when I fell. I considered bailing on the 18-mile run but really, really did not want to. By this morning both calf and foot were slightly painful, but no more than slightly. (Although the foot is UGLY. Check it out. BTW, there is no angle at which a foot selfie is flattering.)

The run this morning started at Green Dot Stables on West Lafayette. This is not actually a stable, but a restaurant that looks really, really cool. I would've stayed afterwards if my stomach wasn't churned up from the run, but I definitely want to go back. (I have since googled it and found no trustworthy explanation of the horse theme, but I did find out that it has lots of fancy sliders and is open late. Who wants to go with me? Like, tonight maybe?) I sprayed Bio-freeze on my foot and calf and hoped for the best.

While I waited for the start, I looked at the course map. For some reason, I had thought it was straightforward. Nope, lots of little turns, especially in the first half. We were assured that there were pink arrows everywhere, but I have some experience with trying to follow arrows and I know it is not one of my particular talents. Half of the time I'm looking somewhere else when I pass one, and the other half of the time I'm on the wrong side of the street. I figured I would be able to see people most of the time -- I've been in marathons with fewer runners than this event had -- but I couldn't guarantee it. So I ran to my car, got a pen, and did this:

I wrote directions till I ran out of hand surface and figured the second half was more straightforward than the first so I would probably be okay, as long as I didn't sweat too much. Ha. (Dew point was 71 and temperature at the start was 76. It was going to be a long, steamy morning.)

The run started out going through some residential streets that I had never seen before, but, man, were they ever cute. I wonder how many tucked-away little neighborhoods like those there are in Detroit? Probably hundreds. Then we headed towards downtown on Michigan. We zig-zagged around downtown for a while and then headed out of town on Lafayette towards Indian Village. This was a long stretch, but there was plenty of shade and much better sidewalks than I was expecting. Most places I run in Detroit it's sort of dangerous to raise your eyes from the sidewalk because it seems to jump up and pull you down if you don't keep a close watch. We had to run around a few piles of human shit but, what the hell, it's Sunday morning. Otherwise the run was very nice. Neither foot was hurting and I was running way too fast, about 8:20 pace, but I felt fine and was even able to talk to people.

We turned on Seminole and ran for almost a mile on that road, which has magnificent old trees keeping everything cool and one beautiful old house after another. Then we turned and headed back towards the river again. After the second water stop around Mile 8, the party slowly began to be over. I felt a dull ache in my plantar fasciitis foot (the colorful one was still feeling no pain), and I knew what was coming -- Belle Isle. I love Belle Isle -- sometimes. But I have had my fair share of shitty runs there too. In fact, that's where the plantar fasciitis showed up for real a few months ago. I wasn't looking forward to the bridge and I didn't know exactly where I was going. I knew we weren't looping the whole island but were cutting over somewhere in the middle. The crowd had thinned out by now, and there were as many recreational runners out there as there were runners from my group, and I didn't know who was who, and it would be a lousy place to miss an arrow, is what I'm saying. Also, it was sizzling hot by now, and despite my bragging earlier to two hot guys that I liked the heat (and then proceeding to chick them effortlessly), I was now hot and uncomfortable. I stopped to walk on the bridge. I looked down at the sailboats in the Detroit River and wished I was on one, even though I hate boats and would be violently ill in minutes if I was actually on one. I took off my shirt, which was as wet as if I had dipped it in the river. I debated skipping Belle Isle entirely and walking back to my car, or perhaps calling Uber. But then I told myself, "NO!" The point of this day was not to see if my foot would hurt. I KNEW my foot would hurt. The point was to see if I could persist through the pain and justify registering for Monument! So I kept going.

Belle Isle was pretty much as miserable as I had expected. (I did not, however, miss the arrow telling me where to cut across it.) I shuffled around Belle Isle in a funk, feeling only slightly better as I realized every single other runner I saw out there was also in a funk and shuffling. I was glad it wasn't 95 and humid, but 83 and humid with full sun was still plenty miserable. I remembered seeing the looks of misery on the marathoners' faces as they came off Belle Isle back in October when I was spectating. Belle Isle is beautiful and interesting, so why is it such an energy sucker like 9 times out of 10 that I run it? It is one of the great mysteries of life.

Once off Belle Isle, we headed back downtown. There was a stretch on the riverfront, where three other runners and I all forgot that the riverfront does not stretch seamlessly from Cobo to Belle Isle. There are a few pointless little interruptions where you have to leave the water and go back on the road. We ran into a locked gate and realized we had to backtrack. Only like a block, but that was enough to bring everyone down. We made sad faces and walked the backtrack. Then we were on Atwater for a while. After the last aid station, we turned right on Rivard and headed back up to Larned, where we zig-zagged through town again and ended up on Fort for the last two miles of the run, which are actually the FIRST two miles of the marathon, the part where the marathoners head up to the Ambassador Bridge.

This is, without doubt, the ugliest part of the course, an industrial wasteland much better suited for the start of the course than the finish. I remember last October, standing out here in my winter jacket well before sunrise, waving a sign for John's 3:45 pace group and squinting through snowflakes. Today the weather was the opposite. We sizzled like ants under a magnifying glass as we dragged ourselves up Fort to wherever the last turn was. (16th, or 18th, one of those.)

My time was lousy (2:50, just barely squeaking in under 10:00 pace), and my stomach was a disaster (I will spare you details), and I didn't drink even close to enough water, but I'm still happy with the run. Okay, my time sucked, but it was my first long run since May, and in pretty gross weather. Also, I ran the whole way except for that tiny little bit on the bridge. My foot hurt, but it wasn't debilitating, and I could have run another eight miles if necessary. It seems like this plantar fasciitis is kind of like that annoying tendonitis -- it makes running unpleasant, but not impossible. So I am going to go ahead and register for Monument, and the next thing to do will be to start worrying about my October race. I have been planning for over a year to do the I-35 Challenge, back-to-back Kansas City and Des Moines, but I'm not sure that's going to be doable. As much as it pains me to say it, I may just have to bump that double to next year and do Baltimore this October. (Baltimore is LITERALLY the only marathon worth doing in Maryland. I have looked at all of them and that is my conclusion.) I will wait till Monument and see if running another marathon the day after the first one is even a possibility with my feet in their current condition. (I've done back-to-backs twice, but this foot thing really has the potential to mess with my plans.)

In the meantime, I sort of wish I was doing Detroit. It's got everything I like -- gritty areas, beautiful neighborhoods, lots of downtown, a downtown finish, pretty flat, breaks down into manageable chunks easily, and really gives you a good luck at the city. Well, quest first, pleasure later; the marathon will still be here in 2019.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Nice in a Blah Way -- Med City Marathon Race Report

This was, if not quite an impulse marathon, at least a last-minute marathon. It was drivable (9.5 hours each way = totally drivable by Marathon Maniac standards), cheap (only $85 even for last-minute registration), in a state I hadn't done yet (Minnesota), and smack in the middle of a holiday weekend, which meant I would have time to drive out, drive back, and still recover.  The reviews on Marathon Guide were mostly good. I had never been to Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic, and probably (hopefully!) will never have any reason to go, so it was sort of a sightseeing trip, too. Also, I start teaching class at Leader on June 5, which means the whole month of June is pretty much shot as far as marathons go. The stars were lined up and I decided to go for it.

Will and I drove out on Saturday. It was a long drive. We had the dogs with us, which never makes for a really relaxing trip, but we figured that for one night it would be doable. Rochester really, really feels like the middle of nowhere. We drove and drove through what felt like a couple hundred miles of rolling green hills, farms, and big blue skies before we rolled into Rochester. I looked at the map and it didn't look like there was any civilization any closer than Minneapolis-St. Paul, which was still a good ways away. I cannot figure out how anyone decided to build a city here at all, let alone a world-famous medical clinic. At the same time, Rochester looks like a very... nice place. I mean nice in that bland, Midwestern way, the way that most of Michigan is also nice. People are friendly, scenery is pleasant if not exciting, there is a nice, sort-of-scenic river (with the cool name the Zumbro River) flowing through town with lots of parks and multi-use paths attached to it... but to me, places like that are neither exciting nor interesting. I would much rather live in gritty places with cars up on blocks in the yard and pitbulls behind chain link fences, where no one cares whether you're zoned for the animals that you have living in your backyard and where people have loud front yard parties that anyone strolling by on the street is invited to, and where no one complains if your dog barks because it's a dog and dogs bark. Rochester did not look like my kind of city at all, though I didn't spend a lot of time there and I'm sure it is a perfectly pleasant place to live.

I picked up my number while Will walked the dogs. I was surprised to find that you actually have to finish the race to get the T-shirt! That's different; usually they just hand you the shirt along with your number. (And one marathon, the First Light Marathon in Mobile, mailed me a finisher's shirt even though I never even started the race, or even went to Mobile on race weekend!) It probably goes without saying that the expo was small and I did not get any free food samples, nothing but a bag full of fliers for other races. (One of my personal pet peeves... such a waste of paper! I immediately go through those bags and dump every paper thing in the trash, and save the bag to use as my dirty laundry bag for the trip.)

We stayed in Motel 6, and that Motel 6 parking lot had to be the most ghetto place in Rochester. I'm always glad when I have Frieda to walk with in places like that. It's like walking through a crowd of vampires wearing a clove of garlic around my neck. Her alert and suspicious demeanor makes people cross over to the other side of the parking lot when they see us coming.

The race started at 7:00 a.m. at the elementary school in Byron, a town seven miles west of Rochester. My last three marathons have all been big urban ones with complicated logistics. This one was not complicated at all. We parked in the school parking lot, walked the dogs around, took part in the Maniacs pre-race picture. There were plenty of Porta-Potties, or you could use the bathrooms in the school. It was warm and humid, but there was a nice tail wind blowing, which I was very grateful for because I am not acclimated to humidity at all! I mean, two weeks ago I was running through snow flurries. It's never a good sign when you're sweating at the start line of a marathon. It reminded me of the Shires of Vermont Marathon last May. That had not been a pleasant experience and I really hoped this one would be better.

The first seven miles into town were on rolling hills through farm country. We were running right into the sunrise and I was pouring sweat. Still, I was keeping up with the 1:45 half pace group. 1:45 was my half time in both Atlanta and Boston, and, while I had no specific time goal for this marathon other than to hopefully be under four hours, I would like to keep my B.Q. streak alive if possible. There were early signs that that wasn't going to happen. For one, I was thirsty, really thirsty, so thirsty that I deviated from my set-in-stone fueling pattern and had water at Mile Six rather than waiting till somewhere between Eight and Nine and having water with my first Gu. For another, I was cranky about running into the sun and about how much sweating I was doing. I brushed those feelings aside and told myself I was always cranky in the beginning of a race and that I should feel lucky because nothing was hurting and because my stomach felt fine. Also, I should feel lucky because Will was going to be at Mile Nine. (Another nice thing about a small race: easy for spectators to see you multiple times on the course.)

We were back in town now, running around the place where the expo had been yesterday and close to where I knew the finish line was. This was one of those races where you're close to the finish line and then sent out on another loop away from it. I hate those! When I know the finish line is close, I just want to cross it and be done. But I kept going because I knew I would see Will soon. Sure enough! He was on the grass next to the multi-use path we were now running on, playing the ukulele. We had discussed this before the race and I told him if there was one thing that would not be out of place on a a marathon course, it would be a guy playing a ukulele. He had been dubious about that, but there he was with the ukulele. "Hi, baby!" was all I managed to say as I ran by. "Is that your boyfriend?" asked another girl who was running with me. "Yup," I said. "You're lucky," she said. "My husband won't even come to my races." This is a really, really common thing I hear from tons of runners! I never expect Will to be supportive of my marathons -- he is totally entitled to his own interests and hobbies -- and yet he is, like, the best and most dedicated race sherpa ever. I have no idea why I am so lucky. It just goes to show that the world is not, in fact, a fair place, because if it was, there is no way I would have a boyfriend as good as Will.

Anyway, I had had my first Gu and should have been feeling good, but instead I was feeling cranky. The course went through a nice but boring residential neighborhood, then back into a park for more path. Then back downtown. The half-marathoners had been with us this whole time. As we approached Mile 13, they kept going straight and the full marathoners turned left, away from downtown. I did not want to make that turn! I thought to myself, what if I just run straight, pick up my half medal, call it a day? Come back to Minnesota later for Grandma's or Twin Cities. But I knew that wouldn't happen. I was going to cross Minnesota off my map for good today no matter what.

My half time was 1:47. Will was at Mile 14 playing the ukulele again. He asked how my time was and I said it was fine right now but it was about to go bust. I whined that I was tired and didn't feel like running. Oh! I forgot to mention that my new wireless earbuds had died after less than an hour and a half. The same earbuds that I can use for an hour and a half working out in the morning, then put in my purse for the whole day, then use for another hour after work doing housework. I have no idea what happened with those. I gave them to Will and accepted the fact that I would be doing the rest of the run without music.

The route headed out of town. Multi-use path running along the river, no spectators, few other runners. I had just passed the Mile 15 banner when, right after that, I saw the Mile 25 banner. Suddenly I realized what kind of course this was -- a long out-and-back on a mostly-empty path, my least favorite! Oh, man. I wish I had known this before signing up for this race. The thing is, the path was beautiful. It was shady and green and the river was making nice happy burbling noises off to the side. But there was nothing else to look at. There were even some runners out there not participating in the marathon, just out for their regular runs. Oh, how I hate this kind of course! It's pretty much a supported training run as opposed to a marathon. I tried to calculate how far to the turnaround but I suck at math, and couldn't figure it out. A long way is all I could come up with. No music, no scenery, no spectators.

The rest of the race was pretty much a drag. I was wrong about one thing -- it wasn't just an out and back. It was like four miles of path, then a couple miles of highway. Sunny, exposed highway that made me grateful to be back on the path. I was drinking like crazy at every aid station, water and Gatorade both, and still thirsty. I even took two salt caps, which I haven't done in a long time. I walked after Mile 21. I texted Will and told him I wasn't even sure I would be under four hours. He told me to take my time. Then a girl ran past me and said, "You're a Maniac, you shouldn't be walking!" I said, "You have a point," and started slow-jogging, although, actually, she did not have a point. Lots and lots of Maniacs walk. There are pretty much always more Maniacs in the back than in the front. I told myself that if I ever felt close to puking, I was going to walk again. A sub-4:00 finish was not worth it if it came at the cost of me puking. (Although I have considered the possibility of, after finishing all 50 states, going back and doing a sub-4:00 marathon in all 50. Out of my 34 marathons, exactly half have been under four hours. Not that I'm planning on doing that for sure, but just in case...)

The course slowly headed back towards town. I realized I would be under four hours unless something terrible happened. I kept jogging. That last mile seemed endless! I could hear the finish line noise but it didn't seem to be getting any closer, and even the timer on my Garmin seemed to be dragging. Finally I was crossing the river one more time and headed for the finish line. There was a Jumbo Tron and the announcer was calling out everyone's name as they finished. I know exactly what he said about me only because Will was recording it on video; I was totally out-of-it and not thinking of anything other than stopping running. What the guy said was this: "And this is number 17, Christie Bane, from Madison Heights, Michigan. She's a Marathon Maniac! These folks do a bunch of marathons in a row! I'd love to talk to that gal and find out when the last time she did a marathon was. It was probably last week. Maybe even yesterday!" Ha ha! No, sir, actually a month ago.

I managed to finish with an official time of 3:52:32, a respectable time though not great. I felt terrible, hot and dehydrated and not quite all the way there mentally. I didn't look at the medal or the shirt until we were back at the car, and answering Will's questions seemed like a lot of effort. I couldn't even drink my post-race chocolate milk till I was back at the car reclining with my feet up, unlike the past several races where I've chugged it as soon as they handed it to me.

People seem to love this marathon on Marathon Guide, but I guess I'm just not a fan of nice little hometown races, because it was one of my least favorites, right along with Lehigh Valley, Trailbreaker, New Mexico Marathon, and Narragansett. I need either really stunning scenery or an exciting urban course to really like a marathon. I will give them points for organization and friendliness, but there is no way I would ever do this marathon again. Oh well, on to the next one! Right now I have nothing on my calendar till the Extraterrestrial Marathon in August, and the saddest thing ever is that in my time off after class -- June 25th through July 5th -- there is not a single marathon that will help me in my 50 states quest! Is that a bummer or what?

34 states down, 16 to go. I'm getting there!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Pacing in the Rain -- The Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon Race Report

State #33, Marathon #42, second marathon leading a pace group, and it was going to be a wet one. Possibly a wet one with thunder and lightning, no one knew for sure, but we all knew we were going to get rained on. The forecast had been unchanging in that regard for the ten days leading up to the race. I have led a pretty charmed running life, weather-wise. Out of 41 marathons, only three of them had any significant amount of rain -- St. George in 2008, and New Hampshire and Maine in 2011. I had begun to think that my presence at a marathon was a sort of charm protecting everyone in it from icky weather. Wrong! My streak is now broken.

I had two worries going into this run. One was the blister on the sole of my foot. I had run Boston in totally dead shoes, which left my legs and feet feeling like they had been beaten by boards for several days afterwards. So I bought new shoes, the same make and model I've been running in for years, no break-in time ever required, but I took them for a break-in run anyway, six miles. And I got a blister. A giant blister right in the center of the sole of my foot. That was a painful sucker that made working dogs really, really painful last week. Along about Wednesday, it dawned on me that the blister might cause a problem during the marathon. So I taped it up and hoped for the best. The other problem was this cold or maybe bronchitis by now, not sure which. I had it before Boston, I had it during Boston, I've had it since Boston, and I have it now as I'm sitting here typing this. Nothing terrible, just enough to annoy me and to make me not look forward to waking up every morning with a sore throat. I'd been hacking up gobs of green stuff for the week leading up to the marathon and wasn't sure what I would do with that stuff -- as in, where would I spit it? -- during the marathon. If there's a group of people following me, where does the spit go? I figured, worst case scenario I could spit into my shirt. It wouldn't be the first time.

This was a quick trip down to Louisville and back. One perk of being a pacer is that I get to stay in the host hotel, which in this case was the Galt House, a semi-fancy, historic hotel right on the Ohio River and walking distance to everything race-related -- expo, start line, finish line. (When I go to marathons by myself, I stay in Motel 6 or Red Roof.) I have actually stayed at the Galt House before, many years ago for a convention, but I remembered almost nothing about it. It's very nice. It is actually two towers, one on each side of the street, connected by a skyway with an atrium full of cool things like a giant enclosure full of canaries and a glass-topped bar with fish swimming under the glass. I checked in and as I was walking across the skyway to get to my room in the other tower, guess who I spotted lounging in a chair with a drink in his hand but John from my old running group in Tucson! John is a long-time pacer and I probably would not have ever become a pacer myself if not for him. I took my stuff up to my room and then walked over to the expo with John. The pre-race email had said that all the pacers were supposed to get to the pace team booth at the expo as soon as we could, to talk to runners and encourage them to join a pace group.

I think I get how pace teams are organized, sort of. I am pretty sure that sometimes a race will hire a "professional" pace team and other times they will designate a local person in charge of assembling a pace team (as opposed to using a pre-existing one). The first time I led a pace group, in Harrisburg, it was for an organized pace team, Marathon Pacing. The guy in charge of that group was very specific with how he wanted me to prepare for the marathon, when we were all meeting and where, what to do if we had a bad day and couldn't keep pace, et cetera. Pacers from Marathon Pacing lead pace groups at races all over the country. I heard about the chance to lead the pace group for this marathon in a Facebook group, and jumped on it right away because I needed Kentucky as a state and because it was easy logistics-wise, definitely the shortest drive of all the states I have left. Anyway, beyond the vague instruction to meet at the pace booth when I arrived in town, I really didn't have any other directives from this guy.

When I arrived at the expo, I got my number and my race shirt and also my pacer shirt. That was kind of cool -- a dark blue, almost purple, tech shirt with the marathon logo on the front in orange and the word PACER on the back in giant orange block letters. I liked the pacer shirt much better than the race shirt, which was the same blue as Ann Arbor and Lehigh, a color I definitely don't need more of in my running wardrobe. I also picked up the pace group sign. The last one was like a big laminated square with the goal time, 4:30, on one side and the pace, 10:18, on the other, and it had a really long stick. This one was more like a thick, heavy-duty, cardboard-like rectangle on a very short dowel. It was heavier than the other one, and the length of the dowel meant that whoever was holding the sign up had to hold their arm up high too, and therefore work harder. Several people made the observation that this sign, if used as a spanking paddle, would be able to deliver quite a satisfying crack.

One other new thing about pacing this marathon was that each group had two pace leaders. This was a tiny relief. I mean, I know I can do 4:30 with minimal or no trouble, but still... what if something went wrong? How nice to know if I had to make an unexpected stop, I had someone else to take over for me! Male pacers way, way outnumbered women, at least 5:1. This was fine with me. My co-pacer was named Jarrod and the first thing I noticed when he showed up at the booth was that he was hot, which was nice. I mean, he is married with children but still, any run is better in the company of a good-looking man.

Our pacer perks, in addition to free registration and free hotel, also included free pasta dinner. The pasta was good, nothing fancy, but unlimited, which was cool. I ate double helpings of chicken alfredo and four or five pieces of French bread. But the best part of this pasta dinner (except for the free booze, which I did not touch out of fear of causing problems the next day) was the Derby pie. It's kind of like a pecan pie with chocolate chips in it. I was only going to eat one or two little squares -- still haven't forgotten what happened when I ate that giant bread pudding before Rehoboth in December -- but then someone brought a plate of the squares to the table, and then John kept insisting that I eat more. So I ended up eating like nine or ten of them. Probably the equivalent of half a pie. I waddled out of that expo and up to my hotel room.

I had a roommate, and her stuff was in the room, but she wasn't. There was just a note saying she might be in late. Fine with me. I got everything ready for the next day and then had some whiskey with John. Whiskey is the only alcohol I actually enjoy the taste of. It was actually very peaceful sitting way high up in Galt House drinking whiskey and looking down at the Ohio River far below. Weather was gorgeous and I only wished it would be the same on race day.

We actually did get a little lucky with the weather in that it was not raining at the start line. I had come prepared with a trash bag but I didn't need it. This race starts and finishes downtown. It is a good-sized race, with 16,000 between the full and half. The full and half course are the same until the split between Mile Eight and Mile Nine. The start area was very crowded. Jarrod and I stood in our assigned corral, D, and took turns twirling the sign around and holding it up high. We had a pretty large and friendly group of people with us. Lots of first-timers, one of them a 16-year-old girl named Nicole. Her mom introduced her to us and told us that she also barrel-raced horses at home and this was her first marathon. I thought back to what I was doing at 16. Mostly reading, playing with my dogs, and wishing I could get a boyfriend and that I was more popular. I looked at Nicole and said, "You are going to have a very interesting life," and she and her mom both laughed. Jarrod and I did not really have a strategy. My strategy was keep an eye on my watch and confirm we're in the ballpark when I see the mile marker sign approaching. Jarrod had more experience than me as a pacer but did not seem to have any strong opinions about how things should be done. We decided randomly that we would switch off holding the pacer sign at 3-mile intervals. That would just be one more thing to make the miles go by faster, and finishing a marathon for me is all about breaking it into small chunks. Never, ever think of the full distance.

As we shuffled up to the start line with the crowd, both of us had our fingers poised on our GPS buttons. We pushed them at the same time as we crossed the start line mat. We heard them both beep as they started. But somehow, when we got to the first mile marker, mine was six seconds slower than his. At the second mile marker, mine was twelve seconds slower. Even more confusing, our distances were exactly the same. What the hell? We tried to figure out how to explain the difference. Distance variations are just a part of GPS. But the timer should have been exactly the same. We decided to go with his since the potential consequences of trusting mine if it was off were worse than the potential consequences of trusting his. Still, it was not a great way to start off a race. We had to spend our time having serious, important pacer conversations instead of being entertaining and encouraging for our group.

The course took us out of downtown and into a residential neighborhood full of trees (and how nice it was to see trees with leaves on them, instead of the dead sticks we still have here in Michigan!) and beautiful old houses. The rain held off until Mile Six and then it started to come down, a gentle, warm drizzle at first, not bad. We knew it was going to rain and were mostly relieved that we had been dry at the start line and for six miles of the race. We were also relieved that it was warm rain, still well over 60 degrees out, and not windy at all. Still, I was glad I had a baseball cap with a brim, because it was clear my rain-free marathon streak had come to an end. Those dark grey clouds were clearly here to stay.

This would be a good place to say that this was one of my favorite courses ever, in terms of being easy and comfortable to run. There were very slight, gradual rises and downslopes, but almost nothing that beat up your body. At the same time, the very slight changes in elevation worked different muscle groups so nothing got sore. The scenery was pleasant in a sort of dull way, with two exceptions. One was Iroquois Park, a 3-mile loop through a park between Mile Twelve and Mile Fifteen. Everyone talked about "the hill" in Iroquois Park, which appeared as a giant spike in the elevation profile. But that giant spike was only 200 feet of elevation gain. It was an easy climb after Boston and Atlanta. And the scenery was terrific. It was almost like a redwood forest even though the trees weren't redwoods. I felt like I was in a scene from prehistoric times, running through an ancient, misty fern forest, like I might see a pterodactyl soaring overhead or something. The park was something new to look at, somewhere to stretch out our legs, and a mental accomplishment to check off once we were done.

The other spectacular thing about this course is that it went through Churchill Downs. Not actually on the track, but all around it. There was a Jumbo Tron with giant Thoroughbreds galloping on it, and then there were actual Thoroughbreds out training on the track. We watched them through a curtain of falling rain. ACTUAL race horses with ACTUAL jockeys! I know I was not the only one whose inner horse-crazy girl was awakened briefly. Talk about a unique marathon feature! I may forget everything else about this marathon but I will never forget Churchill Downs.

After Churchill Downs, the marathon and half-marathon split. And, really, nothing much happened for the rest of the marathon. We stayed right on pace. (Well, almost right on. We had a cushion of about a minute.) We traded the sign every three miles. We walk-jogged through water stops. We had a big group and they kept saying very nice things about us. It rained steadily but not in a way that made us miserable. The course was pleasant, pleasant, pleasant. Hardly any spectators because of the rain, but we had plenty of company. We headed back towards downtown and the last four-mile loop we had to do before the finish. It headed into a grittier part of town -- older houses in not quite as good shape as the other neighborhoods, more cars up on blocks, some abandoned buildings that made me feel like I was back in Detroit -- in other words, the kind of neighborhood I would want to buy a house in if I lived in Louisville. Then, with about four miles to go, the rain changed from friendly to a downpour. It wasn't fun anymore. I was keenly aware that it would be physically possible for me to sprint for the finish and be there ten minutes faster than I would be if I stuck to pace. I grimly pushed that thought out of my head and encouraged the people in our group to go for it if they had anything left. Instead of going faster, we had to slow down and burn up our one-minute cushion. As we headed down the last stretch into town, we looked sadly at all the deserted bleachers that had been set up for spectators. The most pathetic sign we saw was one couple sitting on an otherwise deserted stand of bleachers. The last couple feet of the bleacher seats were under an overpass, and that's where this couple was sitting, bundled up in raingear but still wet, holding up a sign that said "Go Jenn!" Oh, rain, you suck.

We crossed the finish line at 4:29:33, pretty close to perfect. (Perfect would have been 4:29:30.) We didn't have any of our original group with us -- some had left us in the dust, others had fallen off the back. The medal was nice. It had a map of the city engraved on it with the marathon route highlighted. We didn't want to linger in the rain. We both had to get on the road as quickly as possible, so we found the guy in charge of pacers, returned the sign, picked up as much free food as we could carry, and slogged through the muddy field that was supposed to be the finish line festival and back to where our cars were parked.

Running in the rain will never be my favorite, but I do feel like more of a badass for doing it, so it is not entirely without merit. This was a very nice marathon, well-organized, just the right size, a really comfortable course, and of course an awesome run through Churchill Downs. It's a solid choice for Kentucky.

What's next? I don't know, nothing on my official calendar until Extraterrestrial Marathon in Nevada in August and then I-35 Challenge (back-to-back Kansas City, MO, and Des Moines in October), but we all know I won't go that long without a marathon. I'm thinking about maybe doing Med City in Rochester, MN, Memorial Day weekend. Still looking for a late-June, July, or maybe September marathon; any suggestions? With 17 states to go, I'm itching to get some more done.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Boston Marathon Race Report

I have been looking forward to this for such a long time! As soon as I surprise-BQ'd in Pocatello in September of last year, I went through the motions of debating with myself whether I should or should not do it. That was really kind of a waste of time because, come on, OF COURSE I was going to do it! It's Boston! I'd qualified twice in 35 marathons. I would do it or live with the regret afterwards.

After having finished the  Boston Marathon, still basking in the glow of being a Boston Marathon finisher again, still wearing my medal around town, I can say that no matter what, it's worth it. It's hugely expensive, a logistical pain in the ass, no help in my pursuit of 50 states, but still totally worth it. It's worth every sacrifice, it's worth giving up beer or desserts or whatever is keeping those extra 10 pounds on and keeping you those three or four minutes from getting the qualifying time you need, it's worth charging up your credit card, it's worth putting a strain on your relationship by being unavailable on the weekends because of hard training, it's worth pretty much whatever it takes to get you to the starting line in Hopkinton. That is my conclusion after running my second Boston.

We had decided to drive to Boston and then swing back home through New York, stopping at three different guide dog schools along the way. We stayed in a hotel in Framingham, which is one of the eight towns along the marathon course, kind of in the middle between Hopkinton and Boston. A lot of people stay right in the city and pay $400 a night for hotels but that is one place I'm definitely willing to compromise. I like having a car there and paying 1/4 of what a Boston hotel would cost. We drove from Michigan on Saturday and got into Hopkinton right around sunset, just in time to take pictures at the start line sign. There were quite a few other people doing the same thing, and suddenly it all became real, with the barricades set up and the cop stopping traffic so people could run out in the road and take their pictures on the start line. Hopkinton is a small, cute town that is probably really quiet 364 days out of the year, but the world spotlight is turned on it for that one day.

Up until the moment we got to Hopkinton, I hadn't really remembered much of what the start line or the course looked like. All I really remembered was cold, cold, cold, miserable cold. Clearly that was not going to be the case this year. The weather forecast was for sun. Actual temperature predictions were all over the place, from mid-50's to low 70's. I am a hot-weather runner but totally not acclimated to the heat at all due to the shitty spring the Midwest and Northeast have dealt with. For the past six weeks it's pretty much been 30's, rain, and grey skies. No heat and no sun whatsoever. Still, just knowing that I like the heat and do pretty well in it was a psychological boost. I was still prepared for a cold start with throwaway pants, sweatshirt, and gloves, but hopeful I wouldn't need them.

Sunday was the expo. We did a dry run for our travel plans the next day. We planned to park at one of the T stations with the most available parking on the Red Line, which is the one that runs the furthest south. We figured that made sense since we would be heading south to New York after the marathon. That actually worked well. We had no trouble with parking at the station, and it was an easy 1/2-hour ride into Boston.

Once we got into Boston, we joined the river of runners heading to the expo. This would be a good time to say that I have never seen such top-notch logistics at such a huge race (almost 30,000 runners). Bib pickup was smooth as can be. Long-sleeved blue tech shirt is beautiful. (I still cherish my yellow shirt from 2011 and wear it pretty regularly, pretty sure I will do the same with this one.) Expo is huge, lots of free food. I know I can't be the only one really excited about those Clif bars with a layer of nut butter in them! The good thing about a super-crowded expo is that you can go around several times and get tons of free samples and the people handing them out will never recognize you and be like, "Hey, you've taken 6 mini Builder Bars already! Get out of here!"

Oh yeah, the jacket. The Boston jacket is just okay as a jacket goes. Pockets are small, it's not waterproof, no hood, pretty flimsy, but still, I couldn't wait to buy the 2011 one five years ago; in fact, I've been wearing it this whole trip. (Even though I hardly ever wear it anywhere else, because it's only suitable for like a 5-degree temperature range, maybe 50-55, and I never wear it running because it doesn't breathe.) I wasn't crazy about the colors of this year's jacket (teal with white and salmon stripes), but neither did I think they were as hideous as most people seemed to think they were. I pretty much assumed I would buy it even though it's $110 because HOW ELSE WOULD OTHER RUNNERS KNOW I'M AN "ELITE AMATEUR"?!?! As soon as I got into the expo I went straight to the jackets and put one on and... meh. I was not excited at all about it. I realized at that moment that I had never really cared for the 2011 one as a jacket. I only loved it as a symbol of something that I had thought was unattainable. Now that I have qualified three times in the last year, and get a new age group this year and five more minutes of cushion added to my qualifying time, the jacket doesn't have the same symbolic value. I realized all this while standing there wearing it, and decided that I did not need it. Instead I bought two extra short-sleeved Boston shirts which I love for half the price of the jacket. I'm not saying I will never buy another jacket -- if next year's colors are spectacular, maybe I will -- but I have no regrets about passing on this one.

After the expo, we hung out in Boston Common for a while and then I met up with Joe P. from Tucson. It was so great to see him! I have been in Michigan for over three years now and it doesn't look like life is going to let me leave any time soon, but I still consider myself a Tucson runner and probably always will. I went back into the expo for round two of snacks. Joe bought the jacket and it looked way better on him than it did on me.

After that we headed back to the hotel for an early night. I was still up in the air about tomorrow's logistics: should I drive to Quincy Adams station with Will, take the train into Boston, and then take the official marathon bus to the start line (thereby spending an extra two hours of time getting from the hotel into Boston, and from Boston back to the start line, which was not that far from the hotel)? Or should I have Will drop me off at the start line? All race materials discourage the start line dropoff. It is preferred that all runners take the official bus from Boston. But finally I decided that if Hopkinton dropoff was offered as an option, that was totally the smarter thing to do. Even though I had nightmare visions in my head of that miles-long freeway backup at the Lehigh Valley Marathon a few years ago, which resulted in me getting to the start line after the marathon had already started, I decided that I was going to trust the marathon organizers and the total absence of any Internet discussion of transportation-to-the-start-line problems and just do it that way. And, of course, it worked fine. There was no problem getting to the runner drop-off point and plenty of people directing traffic so that everything flowed smoothly, just like every single other part of this whole event.

Will dropped me off in a parking lot and I got on a runners' shuttle for the start line. I sat next to a young guy from Costa Rica who told me that there were 40 or so runners there from Costa Rica and he hoped to get the second-fastest time of the 40 because there was one guy he knew was much faster than him. It was just another reminder that this marathon is a REALLY BIG DEAL! I got chills over and over again thinking of how big a deal it was and how lucky I was to participate in it while the bus made its way to the start line.

Finally we arrived at Hopkinton High School, which transforms into Athletes Village on Marathon Monday. You get off the bus and go with the crowd past security and down a hill into the Village. There's a guy up on a tower with a microphone repeating a loop of "Welcome to Athletes Village! Food, drinks, and bathrooms to the left and right! This is your big day! No one has to get up early next Saturday to run 18 miles! Your friends and family back home are all proud of you! They're all telling people they know someone running the Boston Marathon! Every runner wants to be here and you guys made it!" Et cetera, et cetera. There's a Jumbo Tron, there are news and police helicopters circling overhead, there are military guys in uniform standing in rows on top of all the buildings looking down at the crowds, there's unlimited bagels and bananas and Clif bars and coffee and Gatorade, and there are almost 30,000 runners spread out over two fields stretching, napping, eating, or standing in bathroom lines.

Let me just say that running in general keeps people humble. No matter how well you are capable of doing in isolated races, there are always more times when you get dropped from your pace group or your stomach betrays you or you can't get rid of the cramp or you walk in the last four miles of a scheduled 18-miler because you're cranky and sick of the snow flurries and headwind and would rather be back in bed. But Boston Marathon day is the day that everyone, and I mean absolutely every runner, is treated like a rock star or like an elite athlete, and gets their egos not just stroked but super-charged by the treatment. It's the one day where you can bask in the glow of your accomplishment and remind yourself that it really does still mean something to qualify for Boston. (Well, that's what happens in Athletes Village, anyway. BEFORE the heat and the hills.)

My Athletes Village experience was totally different than my first Athletes Village experience in 2011. For one thing, I wasn't nervous. Boston in 2011 was my 18th marathon and Boston in 2016 was my 41st marathon, so nerves at the start line of marathons, even Boston, pretty much don't happen anymore. For another, I wasn't putting any pressure on myself. In my dream world, I could qualify for Boston IN Boston. Since I just had that really good race on a really tough course in Atlanta, I knew that was a possibility. But if I couldn't do that, my second goal would be to be under four hours. I really thought I should be able to do that since in my last six marathons, I've only been over four hours once and that was in Harrisburg where I was a pacer, so it didn't really count. If I couldn't do that, I wanted to beat my time from 2011, which was 4:12. And if I couldn't do that, if I had a really bad day, I didn't really care; I would just take it as a victory lap and go slow, which is a lot of people's strategy from the start anyway. Finally, I wasn't freezing! Quite the opposite. It was downright hot in Athletes Village, with sun beating down and no real breeze. I had layers of throwaway clothes on but I dumped all of them in the first half hour. (Including, sadly, the sleeves that I thought I might need. Those sleeves have served me well in the past, but, oh well. I can buy new sleeves.) It's never a great feeling to be totally comfortable at the start line. You always want to be a little bit cold. Standing in the bathroom line, in full sun, I got warm enough that it occurred to me that I may want to put sunscreen on. I'm not in the habit of doing that -- I live in Michigan, where we don't have sun -- but when I could actually feel myself sizzling in the bathroom line, I decided it might be a good idea. So I went to the medical tent and lathered up with the free sunscreen.

The Boston Marathon has a wave start, with four waves each divided into eight corrals, all based on qualifying times. The wave start times are half an hour apart. Each one was called separately: "If you are wearing a RED number, it's time for you to leave Athletes Village! If you are not wearing a red number, it's not your turn yet!" From the bathroom line I watched the red numbers, the fastest of the fast, marching out of Athletes Village and out onto the street for the .7 mile walk to the start line. Once I was out of the bathroom, the white numbers were leaving. I was in the third wave and had a blue number, 19438. That means, I think, that 19,437 people had run a faster qualifying time than I did and that just under 10,000 had run a slower qualifying time than I did. When my wave was called, I joined all the other blue numbers heading down the residential street to the start line. All the residents were out on their front lawns cheering as we walked by. I was glad to be healthy, uninjured, and not so cold I couldn't enjoy every glorious second of the walk. We were being showered with attention, and not yet having to do anything to actually earn that attention, like run.

Once I got to my corral, the fourth out of eight in the third wave, I still had twenty minutes left to wait until the official start. The fun briefly ended there because it was WARM. There were hundreds of people in my corral all pressed together, and there was no shade and no breeze. I was sweating a little, but some people were pouring sweat and looking like they were going to succumb to heat stroke right there. I thought again how lucky it was that I was a hot weather runner. I love the heat; I feel like a machine running in high temps, I love to sweat, I love the salt crust, I love all of it. I knew I wasn't acclimated, but just the knowledge that I did well in the heat was a psychological boost. I felt really sorry for these people standing around me starting to look very desperate and like they might keel over right there.

Finally the gun went off. The first corral was released, then the second, then the third, then mine. We took off down the steep downhill that I remembered. Last time I remember feeling like every single person in my corral was faster than me and I had to race to keep up with all of them. This time I was in a much more appropriate group of runners, pace-wise, and everyone pretty much stayed together for the first few miles until the road widened enough for us to spread out. It has been a long, long time since I did a truly big urban marathon and I am not used to having to be careful about where I spit. There really was nowhere I could safely spit so I just spit into my shirt or else into the bandana I had wrapped around my hand.

The Boston Marathon course goes through eight towns on its way to Boylston Street: Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline, and Boston. There are big banners at each town line with the town name on them, and huge crowds of spectators waiting to welcome runners to the next town. The towns are spaced anywhere from two to five miles apart, which is a nice distance because it allows you to feel like you're always pretty close to getting to another one. My favorite aside from Boston is, of course, Wellesley, because that's where Wellesley College and the Scream Tunnel are. The Scream Tunnel is a quarter-mile or so stretch of Wellesley girls standing alongside the road and screaming. You can hear them from probably a half-mile away and it is LOUD. So loud I could hear it even over the music from my iPhone. I took my ear buds out because I wanted the full experience of the Scream Tunnel. Most of the girls hold signs saying "Kiss me..." along with the reason why you should kiss her. For example, "Kiss me, I'm from Texas." "Kiss me, I'm still a virgin." "Kiss me, I'm still drunk from last night." "Kiss me, I'm bicoastal." "Kiss me, I'm GAY!" (In big rainbow letters.) And my favorite: "Kiss me, then come inside with me and you can end this race right now." This would be a good time for me to say that I had made up my mind well in advance of coming to Boston that I was going to kiss one of the Wellesley girls. There are always plenty of girls out there who are willing to kiss girls and say so on their signs. I'm mostly straight, but I was totally willing to bend a little for the sake of having a very good Boston Marathon story. But as I came into the Scream Tunnel, I glanced at my watch and saw that I was on pace for a 1:45 half marathon time. That was the exact same time as I had at the half in Atlanta, which was surprising because I wasn't feeling nearly as good as I had been in Atlanta. Nevertheless, a half time of 1:45 would be a full time of 3:30, which meant that I could lose almost 15 minutes in the second half and still BQ. Regretfully, I decided that it was not worth losing the chance to BQ and I could always shove my tongue down a Wellesley girl's throat during some other Boston when my chance to BQ was long gone and I just needed a boost. (I did see guys taking full advantage of the offered kisses, though, grabbing one girl's face after another and giving all of them big smackers.)

The half-marathon timing mat was right past Wellesley. Sure enough, 1:45 on the dot. Exactly like Atlanta. The worst hills in the Boston Marathon are in the second half, but that was true for Atlanta too. A few miles after the half, we got to Newton, home of the infamous Newton Hills, of which I think there are four -- well, four major ones -- and Heartbreak Hill is the fourth. None of the hills are that bad on their own; they are bad because they come so late in the race and because a lot of people have trashed their legs by racing the downhills and are now finding themselves unable to power up the up hills. I was determined to run all of them. It helped that right before the first one, I saw Will! He had taken the T to Newton (along with practically every other spectator in Boston, according to him) and was standing there screaming my name and waving cowbells, and somehow I heard him over my music and over the general din of the crowd. I turned and waved and then I was already past, not slowing down. I never really slowed down the whole race -- I was afraid that if I did, I wouldn't be able to start again.

I ran all of the hills. They were bad but not terrible. I had slowed down some but not that much. I was warm and crusted with salt, but the closer I got to Boston, the cooler the breeze got, so cool that I didn't mind that it was a headwind. I was in much better shape than many of the runners I passed, who were starting to look like the walking dead. There were lots of people bent over on the side of the course; whether they were puking or stretching out cramps, I did not linger to see. I also saw more than one person down, as in so down that medical attention and stretchers were needed. I was passing a lot of white numbers and even a few red numbers -- people whose races definitely hadn't gone as planned. I am a terrible person, and seeing people suffering gives me more energy. Once I got up to the top of Heartbreak Hill, I knew the rest of the course was mostly either downhill or flat. Still, it's not like I was just cruising effortlessly. I was aware that it was warm (and very grateful for the people who stood outside with hoses and sprinklers for us to run through), and my legs and feet were sore because I was running on shoes that were totally dead. But I wasn't nauseous or cramping, and I had over an hour to do six miles when I got to the 20-mile mark.

The crowds got bigger as I got closer to Boston. Then, in the distance, like a mirage hanging up on the left side of the sky, I saw the giant Citgo sign. That sign means there's one mile to the finish. (Well, when you pass under it there's one mile to go, not when you first see it.) It takes forever to get to it and then suddenly I was under it and past it and it all got real... I WAS ABOUT TO FINISH THE BOSTON MARATHON!

There was nothing but screaming crowds for the whole last mile; if I had needed to puke, I would have had no choice but to do it in the street in front of a thousand people. I ran my last mile in just over 8:00 pace. Plenty of people were walking it in but not me, I was still running. I made my left turn on Boylston Street and saw the finish line tiny in the distance. Okay, only 3/10 of a mile away, but it felt so far! Still, I wanted to slow down time so that I could enjoy every sign, every screaming spectator, every feeling of this ultimate runner's high. (And at the same time I wanted to speed it up, because I wanted that medal and some food and to stop running, damnit!) I didn't have any cramping in my legs at all and was able to finish strong, for once.

I couldn't stop smiling as I wandered down Boylston Street with all the other runners once I had crossed the mat and stopped my Garmin. Everyone was smiling and congratulating each other (except for those poor people who were keeling over or puking). Me personally, I was hungry. I got my medal and my heat sheet and my food bag and then sucked down a huge bottle of chocolate milk, a banana, some chips, and a fruit cup. I so do not miss the days when I spent the first half-hour post-race trying not to puke! My finish time was 3:37:23, a minute and a half slower than Atlanta, but when I looked at the splits I saw that I had run 26.5, not 26.2, and my actual pace was the exact same as Atlanta -- 8:12. Not bad for me. I was in pretty good shape afterwards though definitely tired and sore. I met Will in our pre-arranged meeting spot and gimped across Boston Common to the T station, where I got to feel like a hero all over again wearing my medal and my heat sheet. After that was a half-hour T ride and then a 4-hour drive to Long Island, where we were spending the night. That part -- stiffening up in the car -- wasn't fun, but the part where I was standing in the hotel lobby and some guy asked if he could take a picture of my medal was fun!

I had been wondering in the days leading up to the marathon if I would do it again. It was hugely expensive, and takes place during the time of year when there are at least two other marathons that I really want to do, and is a tough course with notoriously iffy weather, but to be honest, my decision was made as soon as I walked to the starting line to take a picture on Saturday night. OF COURSE I will do it again, every year, as long as I'm able to qualify. Boston is totally unique among marathons. Chicago and New York are awesome too (and it's probably time I do those two again, some time soon; it's been 11 years this fall), but they are not the same as Boston. So I will be planning for a 2017 Boston and am glad I already qualified.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Beautiful Beast -- The Georgia Marathon Race Report

State #32, Marathon #40, and a surprise B.Q., how nice is that? And it's the second time it's happened in less than a year. I ran 15 marathons before I qualified on #16, and then I ran 18 more before I qualified again on #35, and now I qualified again. I have seen a lot of people get faster as they get older over the years, maybe I will be one of those. Wouldn't that be nice?

Anyway, the Georgia Marathon was not originally on my race calendar. I decided to do it three weeks ago. The decision was based on a combination of factors: unexpected tax refund, Southwest fare sale that actually included a destination I wanted to visit, and a daily worsening itch to do another marathon. Atlanta is one of the only large U.S. cities I haven't visited, although I do have a many-years-old memory of sprinting through their airport and being the closest to missing a connecting flight that I have ever been in my life.

The reviews on were unanimous in emphasizing the difficulty of the course. It was described as follows: "All reviews of this course warn about the hills and they do not exaggerate." "This is a great event but you need to be prepared for the HILLS!. They are tough!" "Every other mile had one of those hills you love to hate." "Make no mistake, however; this is a hilly, hilly beast. Believe everything you read about how hilly it is. This is NOT a PR course." "The course is challenging. Do not underestimate it. Study the map and elevation charts closely. the last four miles are unrelenting, full on punishment." Et cetera. So I knew what I was in for. I don't train on hills; we don't really have any where I run. I like them and much prefer them to a flat course with no change in elevation, but I am by no means used to them. So I wasn't expecting a good time at all. But I thought the course would be a great tune-up for Boston, and a reality check so that I would have a little more information on how I would handle the Boston hills.

I flew into Atlanta early on Saturday morning. I was staying with a new friend, Dennis -- a stranger I met on the Internet and never even talked to on the phone before accepting his invitation to stay at his place! Well, he's a Marathon Maniac so I figured he would be cool, and he totally was. He picked me up at the airport and we went to the expo. The shirt is cool -- long-sleeved grey tech shirt. The expo was surprisingly small for a big city marathon but at least had lots of free samples of real food. We snacked our way through it and then went out for my second breakfast at this great diner, The Silver Skillet. It's been there since 1967 and looks like it hasn't changed since then. Atlanta is beautiful! Flowers were blooming everywhere, and it was so nice to be in a real city again. Yes, yes, the traffic sucked. But I believe that traffic is the price you pay to live in civilization.

A couple more runners showed up at Dennis's house later. Marathon runners are kind of like Cavalier King Charles Spaniels in that if you throw a bunch of them together, even if no one knows anyone else, they can all be expected to get along immediately. It's not like putting a bunch of German shepherds who are unacquainted with one another in a pack, where you can't really predict what will happen but there will probably be at least a couple of minor fireworks in the beginning. I know that it is not possible for ALL members of any group of people to be cool and easygoing, but nevertheless it has always been my experience that all marathon runners are. I don't know why; I suspect it is because running long distances keeps you humble and makes you realize that you can't control everything, so you might as well just accept stuff and not worry about it too much.

We went out to dinner at a great Italian place. I was virtuous and only had salad pasta with chicken and did NOT have dessert even though I really wanted to. (I have not forgotten about the unpleasant experience at Rehoboth Beach, which I have concluded after much deliberation was caused by the bread pudding the night before.)

The next morning we were out the door at 5:30. We parked at the MARTA (train) station and took the train downtown where the race start line was. The course is a loop and finishes at the same place it starts, in Centennial Olympic Park. Temperature was low 40's and windy. It was chilly at the start but chilly at the start usually = comfortable during the race. I really don't like to be comfortable at the start because if I am I know that I will be hot later. The race started at 7:00 a.m. and it was dark for the first two or three miles. The course was hilly from the beginning and I swear there was not a flat part anywhere. It was constant up-and-down. But the good thing about it was that none of the hills, up or down, lasted very long, so I could always recover immediately. I sort of wondered what this constant up-and-down would do to my legs. It turned out, nothing. My legs felt so strong the whole way that I felt like they had springs inside them, or were operating like pistons outside of my control. What a great feeling. This is a course that could destroy legs and mine, untrained on hills as they are, handled it totally fine. Maybe elliptical + spin twice a week is a good way to go? It certainly looks that way!

The course went through all kinds of different neighborhoods, all of them full of beautiful houses. There must be ugly parts of Atlanta but they were not on display, possibly the first urban marathon I've ever done that doesn't include at least one stretch of ugly or an industrial area or something. And every neighborhood seemed to have its own beautiful park. Weather was ideal, a little windy but the wind direction always varied because of the number of turns. If we were faced with a headwind, we would soon turn in a different direction so it became a crosswind or a tailwind. And the scenery was so distracting and pretty that I really didn't mind the wind or the hills. At Mile 7 the half-marathoners split from the full. There were 1400-something runners in the full and I don't know how many in the half.

I judge urban marathons by really only one yardstick -- how comprehensive is the tour of the city they give you? Georgia Marathon gets an A+ here. The neighborhoods we went through, in order, were Five Points, Midtown, Little Five Points, Decatur, North Decatur, Druid Hills, and Virginia Highland. Some of the landmarks the course passed by or through were the MLK, Jr. National Historic Site, the Carter Center, Emory University, Piedmont Park, and Georgia Tech. I couldn't imagine a better Georgia experience, and am so glad I went for this one and didn't hold out for Savannah Rock and Roll.

I continued feeling great all throughout the course. My Garmin said 1:45 at the first half. I knew the bigger hills were in the second half, and they were. Almost all of Mile 17 was a long slog up a surprisingly steep residential road in Druid Hills, and then there was the infamous Mile 23 climb out of Piedmont Park up 12th Street. You exit the park and look up and up and up and can't believe you're going up there. Then once you get up, after a brief reprieve, the last two miles to the finish are another long grind uphill, though thankfully not as steep as the 12th Street one. But I am proud to say I ran the entire course, and passed people on all of the hills. In fact, I was pretty much passing people all the way through the second half. My time at 20 miles was 2:42, which meant I had almost an hour to run six miles if I wanted a BQ time. I DID want a BQ time, and I was feeling so good I decided to go for it, and push even harder as long as I could. I don't know how that was even possible -- maybe I just had a good day? -- but it is a great, great feeling to find your body able to do what you want it to do and have it feel, not quite effortless, but almost effortless. I remember that from my first BQ marathon too. It makes all the 3:30 a.m. alarm clocks and saying "No thanks" to dessert for the last year worth it. (Yeah, this last week was an exception but thankfully the cumulative effect of all the months before it won out, and I am now all kinds of motivated to eat clean in the month between now and Boston.) I felt like an Amazon warrior cruising up those hills and chicking guys right and left. I'm pretty sure I was smiling for some of my race pictures, which is rare! Especially the end ones where I totally knew I was going to qualify.

This marathon also has the best finish line announcer I have ever seen. He called out names and numbers and found cool things to say about almost every finisher, and he kept it up for hours. As I came into the finish line chute, which was downhill, I tried to sprint. He got all excited and started yelling, "There's a finish! There's a finish!" and then my calves spasmed, both of them at the same time, and I almost fell and had to slow down. Oh well. I finished with a time of 3:35:49, my third best time ever and good for a BQ, and picked up my medal (too big, barely able to fit in my display case), and then ate. Chocolate milk, a banana, pretzels, M&M's, a Kind bar, and a cup of mandarin oranges. There was plenty of food although it wasn't the buffet kind of finish line food that I have gotten spoiled with recently.

After everyone else finished, we stopped at Atlanta's gourmet donut shop (one strawberries-and-creme, one chocolate banana fritter), and then went out for post-race dinner at a taqueria once everyone had showered and put their feet up for a while. I had a chicken-stuffed avocado, an enchilada, beans and rice, and chips and salsa, and then a baklava sundae from another diner on the way back to the airport. The food was delicious but my stomach was an uncomfortable churning mess during my 2-hour flight back to Detroit. Oh well, it was worth it!

In summary, a great weekend: beautiful city, beautiful course, BQ, awesome new friend. I totally recommend the Georgia Marathon for 50-staters and for anyone who enjoys big urban races and hills.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Wrapping Up 2015 -- Rehoboth Beach Marathon

State #31, Marathon #39 -- a race I chose because I wanted the medal. Seriously, a random picture of that medal popped up on Facebook, and I was like, Ooooooooo, I want that. So I signed up.

After I signed up, I dug up a longtime running friend, who was actually a running friend of my brother's who I sort of inherited, Marty. I haven't seen him in at least four or five years, and been in only the most casual of contact, but I knew he'd moved to the East Coast and I knew he was doing 50 states, so when I told him I was doing Rehoboth Beach, he was up for doing it too. It is always better to share a room and cut down on expenses, that way there is more money available for more marathons! Plus, running friends are generally easy to get along with and cool to hang out with, a generalization that applies across all the different places I have lived and all the different running friends I've had. So that was another bonus.

Rehoboth Beach Marathon has a stellar reputation in the running community. The marathon has a super active Facebook page which the race organizers are on all the time, posting updates about the marathon, the sponsors, the weather, and everything else. This reputation plus the medal made it an easy choice for my Delaware marathon, but Rehoboth Beach itself is a little bit of a drive. To be precise, a 10-hour-plus drive from Michigan. I love driving, and gas is dirt cheap right now, so that was no problem. The only bad thing is that I ended up having to take Frieda with me.

Originally Will was going to watch the dogs, but then he changed jobs and had to be in California for work on race weekend. It's never hard to find someone to watch Duncan, but Frieda is more of a challenge due to her many and varied unsoundnesses of temperament. So I decided to bring her with me and have her stay in a kennel in Rehoboth Beach overnight. (Cheaper than boarding her in Michigan and having to pay for two or three nights, which again = more money for more marathons.) One thing that was immediately obvious was that she has become a horrible traveler. She was never great in the car because of her tendency to pace, pant, spin, and vocalize, which is why she always rides in a crate. She never settles down during the drive to and from work, but I figured surely she would settle down after an hour or so. Nope. She whined, panted, pawed at the crate, and turned around and around in circles almost the entire drive to Delaware. I stopped every two hours, walked her, played fetch with her, gave her water, and hoped she would settle down, but no. Every curve in the road, every passing semi, every application of brakes, every change in road surface was cause for escalation of her behavior. She was fine when the car wasn't moving; when I took naps in the car, she right away went to sleep in the crate. She is great in a crate in general. But she is AWFUL in a crate in a moving car. I blame Michigan roads with their shitty surfaces and bone-jarring potholes. But there was nothing I could do this time other than, finally, turn up the radio so loud I couldn't hear her, and not look in the mirror at her. I do not plan to repeat a lengthy road trip with Frieda ever again if at all possible, or if I have to, I will get drugs from the vet.

I had originally volunteered to lead an informal 4:15 pace group during a discussion about pace groups (which this race does not have) on the Facebook page, but I changed my mind as the time got closer. Partly because my reason for wanting to lead an unofficial pace group no longer existed (when I volunteered, I wanted to do it as practice for some day being a "real" pace group leader, but then I unexpectedly WAS a real pace group leader at the last minute in Harrisburg, and it was fine and now I know I can do it), but mostly because if I wasn't done with the race and back at the boarding kennel by noon, I would have to wait till 4:00 to pick Frieda up and start my drive back to Michigan. The race started at 7:00. a 4:15 pace group would have me finish at 11:15, and that would cut it a little too close for comfort. So I bailed on the pace group. (Note that I would not have bailed if I had made any kind of formal commitment at all, or was getting anything from leading a group, like a free race entry or anything. But since I wasn't, I felt justified.)

Rehoboth Beach is a super-cute beach town. I'm sure it is a madhouse in the summer, but in December, it was empty except for people who came for the race. Packet pickup (I can't call it an expo since there was only one vendor there) was right in town. The shirt is short-sleeved and neon green. This is the second Day-Glo race shirt I've gotten this year and I really hope it's a trend! Safety first, right? Anyway, after packet pickup, I went back to the hotel and read and napped while I waited for Marty. It was almost 9 by the time he got there and we went out for dinner. One of the local Italian restaurants had half-price pasta, and we got there so late that there was no wait at all. I treated myself to dessert, a giant, gorgeous, sinful bread pudding that was bigger than the really big piece of lasagna I had already eaten. Nevertheless, I ate the whole thing and could barely waddle back to the hotel afterwards.

The hotel was literally a block from the start line, which is a bandstand right on the beach. In the morning Marty went for a warmup jog while I went to Dunkin Donuts for breakfast. We strolled down to the start line at 6:50, ten minutes before the gun went off. I had a throwaway shirt with me and as I was messing around with it and with my ear buds, I almost dropped my glove, and thought to myself that I had better be careful not to lose it. Not a minute later, I went to put my gloves back on and, sure enough, I only had one in my hand. I walked back and forth over this tiny area of sidewalk that I had been standing on, right by the bandstand, and no glove. Well, that sucked! The only thing that made it okay was that it wasn't really THAT cold. Low 40's, but the sun was coming up, and weather was supposed to be good all day. I was even wearing shorts. I stuck my hand in my sleeve and decided to make the best of it.

The first mile was west through town, away from the beach, and then we turned back east towards the beach, then north into what I think was a state park but I don't remember the name. The running surface changed from road into crushed gravel, and the trail went through salt marsh and coastal plains with beautiful ocean views for a long time. Then it spit us onto a road for a short out-and-back, then back into town on the same trail. That was my least favorite part of the race even though it was pretty and the headwind that we had had on the "out" part was now a tail wind. I don't like out-and-backs in general, and this one had three of them, but at least the other two were shorter. This one was long, the wind was cold, and it felt like an "elastic trail", the kind that stretches out way longer than you know it actually is.

I had not checked my watch this whole time. I felt like I was running moderately hard but at a sustainable pace. We ran back into town. My stomach wasn't feeling great most of the morning, and I decided I would stop at the next porta-potty That was at Mile 18. I checked my watch and my time was 2:30, which meant I was running well. My legs felt okay and, once I had stopped for a bathroom break, so did my stomach. I thought maybe I could BQ again, no reason I couldn't!

After running through town, we turned onto the final out-and-back, a 2-something mile run down a trail and back. I passed Marty coming the other direction at about Mile 20, which was another good sign. He's really fast, I'm pretty sure always or almost always under 3:00, so for me to see him on course at all meant I was doing okay. Then suddenly it all fell apart, and my GI system went to hell. I literally had to stop four times between 20 and 24. And as soon as I got out of one stop, I started looking for the next. This has never happened to me in a marathon! I've never had to stop at all, even when I had to go on the start line. It was kind of dispiriting, but at the same time I still didn't feel even remotely like puking, just shitting myself, so it wasn't as bad as it could possibly be. I ran when I could and walked when I felt the worst. Also, in the middle of that mess, my ear buds died. They're supposed to have four hours of battery life but they only made it to 3:15. Okay, it was worth a try but I won't be using those again in a race.

I ended up finishing in 3:46:07. I could've done better, but that was still my 4th fastest time ever out of 39 marathons, so I'll take it. I felt fine once I stopped running, and went in search of food. This race is famous for its after-party inside a tent, with unlimited food of all kinds, but the line to get in was horrendous. I stood in it for about five minutes, during which it didn't move at all, and finally gave up and settled for Gatorade, which was the only thing available outside the tent. That was the only thing I didn't like about this whole event. It is totally unacceptable to not have food immediately available for marathon finishes, especially given the very high registration fee and the fact that it was chilly outside and you get cold really fast standing out in the cold wind. I walked back to the hotel. Marty had finished long ago and was in the shower. I wished I had time to take a hot shower, but I really didn't because I was paranoid about traffic congestion in town and not getting to the kennel in time to get Frieda out. I told Marty about my experience and he said, "Do you think it was the bread pudding last night?" Hmmm, possibly. I've always prided myself on my stomach of steel, but that bread pudding was truly monstrous. Maybe next time I'll stick to lasagna and save the bread pudding for AFTER the race.

Anyway, this was a nice last marathon of 2015, my biggest marathon year ever by far. I started out with slow-ish times (although all of those slower races also could be explained by things like muddy trail, excessive heat and humidity, running up a mountain, et cetera) but finished pretty strong:

Right now I only have five marathons on my calendar for next year: Mississippi/Mercedes (Birmingham) Marathon back-to-backs in February, Boston in April, and the I-35 Challenge (Kansas City/Des Moines back-to-backs in October). I'm sure I will add more even though I said I was going to cut back so that I could pay off my car and be debt-free. I can probably live with car payments if it means I get to keep running marathons!