Sunday, August 5, 2018

Ironman Training Journal, First Month

This was the scene a week ago. Tampa, 11:30 a.m., hot and steamy like the jungle. I was sitting in my car in the shady parking lot where the Upper Tampa Bay Trail -- 7-something miles of paved bike path -- starts. I had a minimum-3-hour bike ride looming, followed by a 2-mile run. I DID NOT WANT TO DO THIS, not at all. I had just come from the airport, a quick work trip to Kentucky. Before I left for the airport, I did something my pre-Ironman training self would not have done, and put my bike in my car so that just in case I felt like getting my long ride out of the way on Friday instead of doing it on the weekend, I would be ready. I changed into bike clothes in the airport and filled my water bottles with water from the airport faucets. Then I drove to this parking lot where I sat thinking about the temperature -- 89 -- and the humidity -- high -- and what both of those things would be like in three hours when I was ready to start my run -- worse. I have bailed on plenty of workouts in my life. Sometimes even when I left my house in Michigan at 3:30 am, I drove right past the gym to the donut shop and then slept on the couch at Leader until work started because I couldn't face the thought of getting into that cold pool. I sat in my car and thought about my 11-hour work day the day before, my 3:30 alarm to get to the airport earlier that day, my cool house and comfortable bed. Then I got on the bike and headed out. I told myself I could have a crappy slow ride or I could decide to enjoy it, but either way I would be on the bike for 3 hours and then I would run after that. And somehow my crankiness mostly evaporated and it turned into a pretty good ride and a pretty decent run, and that is what's happened for every single workout I've done so far.

I've registered for, and bailed on, two half-Ironman distance races in the last 10 years. One was the Soma 70.3 in Arizona, which I quit because I didn't want to work on my swim, and the other was the Steelhead 70.3 in Benton Harbor, Michigan, which I quit because I started to dread the training schedule so much that the dread took over my life. Plus, I didn't like the thought of swimming anywhere in Michigan. The Lifetime pool was always too cold, lakes are gross and also too cold (except for maybe a few minutes in July) to swim in without a wetsuit, and wetsuits are expensive. There was nowhere to ride my road bike except Stoney Creek and Kensington Metroparks, nothing pretty to look at, and for more than half the year I was freezing anywhere except the gym. I thought some of those things would be fixed by moving to Florida, but in all honesty I wasn't sure I wouldn't grow to hate the schedule just as much as I did in Michigan. Even if I did, though, I was pretty sure that the OVER $900 REGISTRATION FEE would keep me from bailing on the training.

I have now finished 7 weeks of the 20-week schedule. Although there is still a lot of time left for things to go south, I am happy to say that I haven't missed a single workout so far, and am thriving on the schedule. I'm not always dying to start every workout -- see above -- but it's never THAT hard to just do it. I've learned a few things along the way too.

*I can swim in the ocean! I have played in the ocean before, but swimming in it was a completely new experience. I really didn't know what to expect. A lot of bad swimmers are terrified of the open water swim (OWS), and some people even get nauseous in the waves. From the moment I started swimming in the ocean, I loved it. It is like a giant, bath-temperature swimming pool where you never have to worry about getting a lane and the lanes stretch out to infinite lengths. Some oceans might be cold and rough and intimidating, but MY ocean is warm, calm, and beautiful. (Okay, not so beautiful today with the algae toxins causing my lips and tongue to burn during and for a couple hours after my mile swim, but I'm sure -- I hope -- that will go away soon.)

*I MUST get swim lessons. Even though the thought of paying for one more expensive thing related to triathlon is one that I dread, it simply has to be done, and soon. The swim is my biggest weakness. Honestly, it has always been the possibility of not making the swim cutoff that has kept me from signing up for any triathlon other than a pool sprint. I am a slow swimmer, even though I can swim for a very long time without getting tired. I am pretty sure that a good coach would be able to help me speed up my swim just enough that I don't have to sweat making the swim cutoff in the race. The swim is 2.4 miles and the cutoff is 2 hours and 20 minutes, which is 3 minutes and 19 seconds per 100 yards. My swim pace right now is between 2:45/100 (ocean) and 2:55/100 (pool, probably because I'm so inefficient at turning at the wall that any momentum I gain from pushing off the wall is erased by the time it takes me to reverse direction and push off). While on paper it looks like I should make the swim cutoff, that does not allow for anything to go wrong, like choppy water or swimming extra yardage due to poor sighting in the water. If I could get it down to 2:20 or even 2:30, I would be happier. But just spending more time in the pool doesn't improve technique any. It just locks in poor technique. I will have to get a coach, and I sincerely hope that in my next Training Journal I will be able to report that I have one and am improving.

*I still hate everything to do with bike mechanics and maintenance. I still don't know how to change a tire, I still couldn't tell you how gear shifting works if someone offered me a million dollars to do so, I still freak out if I get a speck of grease on my hands, and I still have absolutely zero interest in getting better. BUT WHAT IF I GET A FLAT TIRE IN THE IRONMAN?!?! Well, then my race is over. I would rather lose $900+ than spend time learning to do something I hate when there is not even close to enough time in any day. Or, to put it another way, it is worth $900+ to me to give myself a pass on learning about bike maintenance. 

*I really need a professional bike fit. My bike does not fit me. My position on the seat feels wrong, the pedals feel too high, the seat itself sucks, and I should be going 1-2 mph faster than I am. I am going to pay for that too rather than continuing to suffer through very long bike rides in discomfort.

*Getting comfortable riding on the road with traffic is a hardening process. I used to ride everywhere in Tucson. I was hit by a car once and almost hit a handful of other times, but I was still very confident riding in traffic. When I started road riding here after a break of several years, I was terrified for the first week or so. Terrified as in my heart was up in my throat when I heard a car coming from behind, even when I was on a wide road with plenty of shoulder. I am happy to report that that has almost completely gone away. People here think that I am nuts for riding my bike on the road because the bike lane in a lot of places is really, really narrow. In some places it's nonexistent, and I have to share the lane with cars. (However, I don't ride roads like that unless they are A) very lightly trafficked and B) have great visibility so cars can see me from far off and pass me.) A thousand or so road bike miles have convinced me that riding on the road is, for the most part, safe. I have never felt like an accident almost happened because a driver didn't see me. I have had drivers be rude jerks, and ride up on my ass and honk at me because they had to wait two seconds to pass due to another oncoming car, but if they honk at me, they aren't going to hit me. Too much paperwork. Let 'em honk. Sure I could be hit by a drunk or inattentive driver at any time, but ANYONE COULD. That's part of the risk of going out on the road. True, the consequences would be worse for me on a bike, but that is the kind of risk I'm willing to take in exchange for being outside and getting legs of steel and feeling the wind in my face. Helmet, lights, smart choices about where to ride, and yielding to drivers if I have any doubt as to whether they see me or not make me as safe as I can possibly be on the bike.

*A bike ride immediately followed by a run is called a BRICK. I don't know why. Some people say it's because bike+run=ick, some say that it's because you're stacking workouts together like you're building something out of bricks. I don't know the real reason. Bricks notoriously suck. Somehow my bricks have always gone really well. Despite the initial shock to the legs as they switch from one grind to another, I have never had a bad (as in slow) brick run. On Friday I rode 60 miles and then got off the bike and ran three miles. OF COURSE it sucked a little bit -- how could it not? -- but on the other hand, I knew those three miles were the only thing standing between me and an evening of rest and snacks, so I was highly motivated to get them done.

*Training for an Ironman has a huge impact on your significant other. This is my schedule for this week:
Monday: 2-hour swim
Tuesday: 1.5 hour bike ride, 1 hour 15 minute-run
Wednesday: 1-hour swim (my easy day!)
Thursday: 2-hour ride, 1 hour run
Friday: long bike ride -- 4-5 hours, followed by 3-mile run
Saturday: 2-hour run, 1 hour ocean swim
Sunday: 2.5-hour ride (and I will probably add another swim, just because I suck so bad at it)

That is over 20 hours of training per week, like taking on a half-time job. And it's not like that is all the time it takes. I also have to drive to all these things, assemble gear for the bike and swim, and clean gear afterwards. Naturally I have to start all my weekend workouts very early before it gets hot. (Not that anything could make the long ride not-hot -- unless I did it at midnight.) So the answer to "What are we doing this weekend?" is always, "working out then sleeping." Ironman training is profoundly selfish. I am very, very lucky to have Will. When he's home, he helps me as much as possible. He will drop me off or pick me up somewhere so I don't have to ride a boring loop. He packs his Yeti cooler with fuel for me. He never complains about the fact that we never get to watch a sunrise together or have a lazy Sunday morning sleeping in. I'm always too tired to do anything fun when I'm not working, and I never have extra money because all of it goes into this insanely expensive and stupid hobby that I wish had never ended up on my bucket list. I feel very sorry for anyone whose partner decides to do an Ironman. In fact, if I were dating, someone training for an Ironman would probably be disqualified just for that reason! I really appreciate Will, is what I'm saying.

I'm eager to see how the next month of training goes. Hopefully I will open my next training journal with "I got a swim coach and I got a bike fit!"

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Uninspired Triathlete in Florida

A little over five years ago, I wrote a blog post called The Uninspired Triathlete in Michigan. At the time I wrote that post, I actually liked Michigan, although I had already given up on swimming and was disgusted with road biking there. Looking back, of course it was predictable that Michigan would smother what little desire I had for triathlon training. The six-month-long winters! The terrible potholed roads with no bike lanes! The cold swimming pools! (Indoor or outdoor, summer or winter, they were 100% too cold for the uninspired triathlete.) Even a luxury gym, which Lifetime Fitness definitely was with its complimentary towels, soap, locks and blow driers and its eucalyptus steam rooms and its Zero Runners and its sexy spin class instructors, was not good enough to keep me happy as an athlete there. So I moved to Florida, and now everything is better and I want to be a triathlete again!

Let's start with running. Of course, Florida in June is hot as hell, although not as hot as it will be in July and August. That is difficult to imagine while running into the blazing sun at 3:30 pm, pouring sweat and feeling like my whole body is going to spontaneously combust, but I know it's true. I don't have to run at 3:30 pm, of course. I could run after it gets dark or in the early, early morning like most sane people do. But the truth is that I like running in the sun. I like it even though I am currently terribly bad at it. I used to run after work in Tucson when it was well over 100. The hottest run I ever did in Tucson was 12 miles across town from the V.A. to Tim's house when the temperature was 113. That was a miserable run, complete with a stop every mile or so to go inside some air conditioned store and get a drink, but I loved that run too. Nothing makes me feel more Amazonian than running in extreme heat, while everyone else hides from it in their air-conditioned cars. I am slower than I've been in years, but that's because I need to keep my heart from exploding, which it often feels like it's going to do.

Besides the heat, the other thing I love about running in Florida is beauty. Beauty is all around me here. I don't live on the beach, but there are world-famous beaches less than half an hour from my house, and the not-world-famous but still really cute Bradenton Riverwalk just fifteen minutes from my house. And even when I run around my house, there are palm trees, giant old oak trees hung with Spanish moss, exotic birds, sunsets that rival Tucson's, a sky full of giant, boiling clouds, and always the chance of seeing an alligator in a roadside ditch. Much of the landscape around here looks like Jurassic Park. I always expect to see a brontosaurus standing in the swamps, calmly eating ferns, or a pterodactyl soaring overhead. I missed beauty so much while I was in Michigan! The landscape and scenery were so Midwestern-bland. I never thought I would think anything was as beautiful as Tucson, and to tell the truth Florida is not QUITE as beautiful as Tucson due to the absence of mountains, but it is close enough.

I will admit that the part of Florida I live in is not the best for biking. My side of Palmetto (the interstate side as opposed to the beach side) is mostly rural, with very narrow roads and absolutely no shoulder. If I'm lucky, there are a few inches of grass I can hop onto when I'm running on the road and need to dodge an oncoming car; if I'm not lucky, there's just a ditch and I have to balance on the edge of the ditch and hope I don't fall in on top of the alligator that is probably there. This is not a great set-up for biking. Our development is off a narrow two-lane road that is also the only road in a 15-mile stretch of I-75 with an on-ramp and an off-ramp, so there is a steady flow of traffic from 75 to the coastal highway 41. I have found all the back roads anywhere near our road, Moccasin Wallow, and ride them as much as I can, but still, if I ride from home, I always have to ride on Moccasin Wallow at least some of the way. I have gotten serious about visibility. I have two front bike lights and three in the back, plus a reflective vest. They are generally effective; people see me. The good news is they never have to wait very long to pass, because there isn't THAT much traffic. The bad news is that they are sometimes assholes about it, like the trucker who barreled up behind me blaring his horn when there was obviously NOWHERE FOR ME TO GO BUT INTO THE DITCH and when he only had about 1/8 of a mile till he got to the on-ramp. Or the trucker this afternoon who was making a left turn in front of me while I had a green light and he had a blinking yellow arrow. He looked right at me riding towards the intersection and casually turned right in front of me, like he was saying, "Yeah, I know you have the green light and I don't, but what are you going to do about it?" The answer is obviously that I was going to slow down and stop, which is what I did. I don't really care if they're jerks as long as I know that they see me.

Although my area isn't great for biking, the Tampa/St. Pete area is really great for biking. There are bike paths all over the area. I rode 50 miles on one of them, the Pinellas Trail, last weekend. It was great. I didn't like driving my road bike somewhere to ride it in Michigan, because there were basically only two safe places, Kensington and Stony Creek, and neither one of those were exciting at all. But Tampa is a cool city, and I look forward to exploring its bike paths at leisure. Oh yeah, and I can do it year-round, too! Except for the very little bit of cold that comes along every once in a while.

I even like swimming here. I have been to three different pools -- two outdoor, one indoor -- and liked all three of them because they were warm! 82 degrees, 83 degrees, and one 86 lovely degrees. THIS is how pools should feel, not 72 spine-chilling degrees, Michigan! No wonder I never warmed up even on long swims! No wonder I always felt like I couldn't breathe! Getting into the pool in Michigan was like jumping into a sea of a million tiny knives stabbing at me. Getting into the pool in Florida is like slipping into a warm bath. "But it's supposed to be cool for competitive swimming!" people insist. Maybe so, but then how come I took 17 seconds off my 100-yard time, I ask? And it has happened every time, not just once. (Amazingly, 17 seconds off 100 yards on all three of my swims. It's like when I got marathon finish times of 4:14 three times in a row last year. I couldn't do that if I tried.)

I will admit that it gets warm in the pool. My hair under my swim cap feels like it is about to burst into flames when I take the cap off, my skin sizzles even when I put sun screen on, my throat dries out so much that I want to drink the pool water just to cool off, and I feel like I'm going blind despite dark-tinted goggles. But even with all of that, I like the feeling of being slowly boiled in warm water. It suits me.

And it's a good thing it does, because I am going to do Ironman Florida. Yes I am. I decided. I have decided before, but I have never registered before, and I registered. It is so ridiculously expensive that if I don't do it, I will have to live with the knowledge that I threw away a huge sum of money. I just figured now is the time to get that item off my bucket list, for the following reasons:

1) Ironman Florida is first-timer friendly.
2) I can drive there, so no worries about shipping my bike. I can even drive up there to practice.
3) I have no vacation time at my new job, so I know I will be here on the weekends to train.
4) I'm returning Sonora and won't have another puppy for a while.
5) Florida makes me want to train in all three disciplines, the opposite of Michigan.

I am still in shock at what I paid to register, and I will also have to pay for a wetsuit and some kind of swim lessons, since I still don't think I swim fast enough to assume I can make the swim cutoff, but those are small hurdles, and totally able to be overcome. I will be excited to add Ironman to my list of lifetime accomplishments. And hopefully I will savor it more than I did my 50 states finish, which was sort of cool but which mostly just left me asking, "What's next?"

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

And 50 States Are Done -- New Jersey Marathon Race Report

THANK GOD I bought the K-tape, that was my prevailing sentiment after completing my 50th state marathon in New Jersey.

Let me back up. My hip is messed up. Does everyone know that? With the help of Dr. Google, I diagnosed myself with bursitis. One of the reasons I thought "bursitis" is because it's worse, much worse, when I run hills, like I did last weekend at Garmin. I destroyed my hip at Garmin. I felt like someone pulverized it with a hammer. I hadn't run since then, and hadn't walked much, either. Mostly I sat on my ass in the car, road tripping between Kansas City and New Jersey and eating out for every meal. Poor nutrition and weight gain did not help my hip at all. It was so painful that I was still gimping and wincing the day before the race every time I had to walk.

The night before the race, we stopped at Target to pick up more road trip snacks. I had the idea to look for K-tape. They had some. It was $16 and I wavered over whether to buy it or not because $16 was a lot. Finally I bought it and pulled up a You Tube video back at the hotel. I followed the directions, and WOW. K-tape with me is hit or miss. With some pains it doesn't work at all, and might as well be snake oil, and with other pains it is like a miracle cure. It was a miracle cure for my hip pain. Talk about instant relief! I had been living with this pain for long enough that the removal of it was exquisite. Now that my race is done and my medal is safely in my possession, I can confess that I wasn't sure I could complete that race right up till the time I put the tape on. I remembered how much pain I was in at Garmin and wasn't sure I could stand another 26.2 miles of that, even with the stakes as high as they were. But now that you know how it ended, let me present my race report.

All right. New Jersey as #50. Why? I'm not sure of exact statistics, but I know a lot of 50-staters finish in Alaska or Hawaii, for obvious reasons. Those are exotic places, and marathons in 50 states is a big deal, so why not finish in Alaska or Hawaii and celebrate? I totally understand that, but I picked New Jersey for a couple of reasons. One is that I actually lived in New Jersey when I ran my first marathon, Chicago, in 2006, but I had never run a marathon in New Jersey. But the bigger reason was that I thought finishing in New Jersey would be funny. New Jersey is good for two things, and two things only, in my opinion: #1 -- It is the home of The Seeing Eye. #2 -- Over the past five years of living in Michigan, New Jersey has served to remind me that there is at least one place worse than Michigan. New Jersey has all of Michigan's climate problems but, unlike Michigan, it is also really expensive and full of rude people. Even on the worst days in Michigan, I could be glad I wasn't in New Jersey. Finally, I just enjoyed the look on people's faces when they asked me what would be my last state and I answered, "New Jersey." It was always the same -- their faces would kind of wrinkle up a little, and then they would say, "Why New Jersey?" That was more interesting than the generic "awesome!" I knew I would get if I answered "Alaska" or "Hawaii."

Will and my mom were there to help me celebrate. For once, race weather was predicted to be nice, sunny and cool with temps in the 50's all day. That is perfect marathon weather. Finally! But when I woke up on race morning, blessedly pain free, it was raining. The rain got harder as we drove to the start line at Monmouth Park racetrack. Optimistically and foolishly, I had not brought any type of rain gear at all, not even a trash bag. I will never learn, apparently. How hard is to stuff a garbage bag in your suitcase? Obviously too hard for me. I sat glumly in the car listening to the rain drum on the roof until I couldn't wait any longer to get in the Porta-potty line, and then sucked it up and got out. I hid under my umbrella while Mom and Will got wet. (I offered it to them, but they declined.)

Luckily, the rain lightened up and then stopped completely by the time the race actually started. I was shivering while waiting for the gun to go off, but I still knew it was going to be perfect temperature for running. It is pretty reliably true that chilly at start line = perfect during the race and comfortable at start line = hot during the race.

The New Jersey Marathon is actually a pretty cool race, much better than I was expecting. It starts at the race track in Oceanport, and then weaves around through affluent communities in Long Branch and Monmouth Beach before turning onto Ocean Avenue through Deal, Allenhurst, and Loch Arbour to Asbury Park for a long semi-out-and-back. (I say semi because there are little detours off Ocean Avenue, especially on the "out" part, random loops through neighborhoods to get to 26.2.) This course is flat as a board. Thank goodness for that, because hills are hard on my hip, and would have been even with the K-tape, I bet.

The race was also bigger than I expected. I confidently told Mom and Will that the crowds would thin out once the half-marathoners split, so that they could easily find me, but that didn't happen. I ran with a crowd nearly the whole way. There were also quite a few spectators. Weather was perfect -- sunny and breezy. I was never cold and never hot.

At Mile 10, right after I saw Mom and Will the first time, and had just started to settle in and enjoy myself as I realized my hip was not going to give out, I had a little problem: my earbuds stopped working. One second I was happily listening to Eminem screaming, "Oh wow, boo that pow, ooh ow I need a cigarette now! Oh I'm so fucking hot, and you're so fucking hot--" and the next second there was silence. What the...? I pulled the earbuds out and looked at them. The blue power light was on. I pressed Play again and heard a strange beep from the earbuds. I took my phone off my arm and checked Bluetooth. Earbuds disconnected. I turned them off and on again, and pressed Connect again. A turning circle and then "Unable to connect" was all I got. These things last for eight hours sometimes; no way was it a dead battery. Oh well; I couldn't mess with them all day. I shoved them in my waist pack and got going again, but slower and with less motivation.

It was a long seven miles from the spot where my earbuds died to Mile 17 where I saw Mom and Will again, right by the iconic Asbury Park Tillie mural. Tillie is this creepy dude here:

After Tillie, the course went onto the boardwalk, where it mostly stayed until the turnaround between Mile 18 and Mile 19. Then we returned on almost the same path we had taken out until we got to about Mile 25. There we moved onto the Long Branch boardwalk for the last mile. That was probably my favorite part of the course. It was beautiful, with blue sky and the ocean looking stunning directly to my right. I watched the waves rolling in and the big ships out on the horizon and almost forgot that there was a headwind and I was tired and a little bit queasy from swallowing too much air. I did manage to run all the way to the finish even though I really wanted to walk. One does not finish one's 50th state marathon at a walk, especially not when it is being videoed and will be broadcast on Facebook. I finished in a mediocre (chip) time of 4:26 or so; I still haven't looked at my official results. Will and my mom were there with posters and roses, and that was better than anything I got from the race, which had really lousy finish line food and NO CHOCOLATE MILK! Come on. Everyone knows that chocolate milk is the best recovery food ever, right? Get with it, New Jersey Marathon.

Before I finished 50 states, I thought it would feel like a momentous accomplishment. Certainly people treated it as such on Facebook. But the truth is that it really doesn't feel like anything much. I wasn't thinking, "I'm finishing 50 states today!" during the marathon; mostly I was thinking, "This sucks and I want to be done," just like I always do during every marathon. At the end, I wasn't contemplating the enormity of what I had accomplished; I was thinking about driving back to Michigan, packing the house, and moving to Florida. I think the loudest thought in my head was, "Now what?" Ironman? Finish the book? Vanity MFA in creative writing? This is further proof, if proof was needed, that the pleasure in the journey, not in the achievement.

Monday, April 23, 2018

"Running" in the Land of Oz -- Garmin Marathon Race Report

Kansas City is one of my favorite metro areas in the U.S. I'm not kidding. It has beautiful rolling hills, expansive views, cool pioneer history, lots of hip little neighborhoods, gorgeous parks, delicious food, and I could go on and on. It is a runner's dream -- unless, of course, you're running a marathon when you come from a flat place and you haven't trained hardly at all and you're tired of running marathons.

This marathon has a Wizard of Oz theme. That was just about the only thing I knew about the marathon before stepping up to the start line, other than the fact that it is sort of known for iffy weather. April marathons! They are not for the faint of heart. Think of Boston this year, or that dreadful Oklahoma City Marathon last year. The forecast for race day consistently said rain and temps between 47 and 55 in the week leading up to race day. That is dreadful weather, but also no surprise. My good luck with marathon weather ran out a long time ago, and I no longer expect good race weather. Therefore, I was surprised on race morning when it was warmer than expected and not raining.

My friend John was pacing this race for 3:45, and also finishing State #50 in his 50 states quest. He beat me by a week. Way to go, John. I am going to mention here that John finished every one of his 50 marathons under four hours. I finished almost half of my marathons in under four hours, and the other half... not in under four hours. Anyway, John is impressive.

The start and finish lines were at Garmin headquarters in Olathe (pronounced Oh-LAY-thah, which the race guide had thoughtfully put in writing because no one from out of town would be able to pronounce it otherwise). Being at Garmin headquarters was pretty cool. I have spent thousands of dollars on Garmin products, and this is where they come from! I had a brief flash of sentiment about standing outside Garmin HQ, but it went away pretty quickly when the cranky security guards told us not only to get outside of the building but also AWAY from the front of the building. Like we were a bunch of bums instead of the people whose disposable income built this building.

The race started precisely on time at 6:45. We had rolling hills from the beginning -- big, gradual climbs rewarded by big views of the big, big Kansas prairie. Remember my hip injury that I got back in November? Well, that injury, after being quiet for months, flared up again on my very last pre-marathon run, which was a piddly three treadmill miles on Thursday. It was so painful I had been limping ever since, but I actually didn't worry about it because I was convinced it was one of those phantom injuries, the kind manufactured by my imagination in the days preceding a marathon just because I want to make sure I have an excuse ready if I suck. If I ignore those things, they generally go away once the race starts. This one didn’t go away. Instead, it hurt from the first step and got worse from there. The pain peaked at about Mile 3. I slowed down because it hurt to run. I thought about the cold and how much I didn’t want to run a slow marathon and be out in the cold for five hours. Did it even matter if I finished fifty states this month or not? Couldn’t I just come back and do Kansas and New Jersey at some later date?

At Mile 4 I passed a guy who had slowed down to a walk. I heard him say to a police officer, “How do I get back to the start? I don’t want to do this.” That guy was clearly in worse shape than me – mentally, physically, or both. He wasn’t going home with a red slipper medal – but I was. I’ve noticed over the years that seeing other runners suffering worse than me somehow gives me a boost. I don’t know why. Because I’m a terrible person, maybe. Anyway, the pain gradually dulled and became bearable after that, and I had a more or less steady pace up until the half.

Just before Mile 9, we turned onto a bike path, and right after that, we passed mile marker 15. Oh, no, that indicated my very least favorite feature on a marathon course – the out and back on a bike path. But I was going to try not to think about it because I was so relieved my hip was tolerable. I kept going, noticing how much of the path was downhill. That was fine and good for the “out” part, not so much for the “back” part.

At the turnaround, I was still ahead of the four hour pace group, but not by much. Everything got worse from there. I had to stop to fix my insert. (Somehow it had slid forward in my shoe, something it has never done before.) Then I got hot and took my shirt off entirely. Then I got cold and put it back on. I complained to myself about how there was no one out here and the aid stations were too far apart and this felt like a supported training run because there were no spectators and blah blah blah. But I finally passed the Mile 15 sign and knew I would be getting off the bike path soon.

Only I didn’t! Instead of returning to the road that we had originally been on when we entered the bike path, the course went under that road. More bike path. Oh, I was mad. This section of path sucked too, with lots of very nasty, short but steep hills. I walked all of the uphills, and didn’t even walk them fast. The 4:15 pace group passed me and I didn’t care. There were about three more “bonus” miles of bike path than I was expecting, but we did finally get out on the road again.

We had a long slog up a hill. It seemed like almost a mile, though I can’t be bothered to look at the course map and check. At the top was one of the few interesting things to look at on the whole course – a woman standing outside the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop holding two goats on a leash. I love goats! That was, seriously, the best thing I saw that whole day.

The rest of the course is a blur in my head of neighborhoods, light rain, hills, and general suckiness. I seriously don’t remember anything about it other than that the last mile was a tiresome uphill slog through giant parking lots and the Garmin driveway. I felt pretty nauseous at the end, which was surprising since I usually only feel that way when I worked hard, and I definitely did not in this race.

I love Kansas, but I didn’t love the Garmin Marathon. I can’t say that it wasn’t well done; I can just say that there was too much bike path and too few spectators. Oh well. One more week and 26.2 more miles to struggle through and then I will be done with the quest!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

I Did Not Rock Little Rock, But I Finished It -- Little Rock Marathon Race Report

I have put off Arkansas for a long time because I couldn't make up my mind about Little Rock. Let me explain. There are a few good marathons in Arkansas, but Little Rock is the most popular and the biggest. Most people who do it really like it. So why did I hesitate to sign up for it? The medal. Little Rock is known for giving giant (think dinner-plate size), glitzy medals. For many people, this is appealing. For me, it's tacky. A medal the size of a dinner plate would not fit with the rest of my medals. On the other hand, I really, really wanted to do the marathon itself. So I went back and forth -- Little Rock, or Fort Smith or Hogeye? Finally I decided on Little Rock, figuring I could always hang the giant medal on the rack behind the others so it didn't dominate too much.

Because it was almost $500 cheaper, and because I like to drive, I flew to St. Louis instead of Memphis or Little Rock. It's only five hours from Little Rock, what the heck. I have never driven through that part of the country, and always enjoy a chance to see somewhere new. Missouri and Arkansas are both really, really pretty, with beautiful rolling hills and scenic river valleys. I got to downtown Little Rock where the expo was being held. Parking was easy. The expo was good-sized, but I didn't linger. I didn't need anything, and the thing I wanted most was to get to my hotel and sleep.

There were plenty of cheap hotels, another plus for Little Rock. My cheap hotel was about five miles from the start/finish, and it was fine until 9:30 at night when my heater blew up. Seriously. I was reading in bed when there was a pop, flash of light, and smell of burning from the heater. It was completely dead. I had to switch rooms, but not until I waited half an hour for the maintenance guy to come, pull the heater out of the wall (which allowed cold air to seep into the room while I sat in my T-shirt and running shorts and waited for him to be done), and finally tell me he couldn't fix it and I had to change rooms. Perfect night before a marathon! Not really.

I woke up dreading the marathon. It has been a very long time since I looked forward to any marathon. I only have to do two more, and I am very happy about that. At least the weather was good! It was 49 degrees and clear when I left the hotel. There was a high temperature of 60 and light rain forecast. I don't mind light rain with those temps; it was much better than the sizzlefest at A1A.

There was tons of available parking by the start/finish line, and -- another bonus -- runners got to hang out in the convention center. That means two wonderful things: indoor bathrooms, and protection from weather, not that we needed the second one this time. An indoor start area improves marathon mornings by at least 50% if not more.

The sun was rising over the Arkansas River when the race started at 7:00 a.m. Temperatures were perfect -- low humidity but not cold enough to need gloves. I started with the 4:00 pace group. The leader was a local Maniac, and it seemed like he had a friend on every street corner. The course went over the Arkansas River and did a little loop through some neighborhoods before coming back over the river and out to an industrial area. Miles 6 to 9 were a little out and back, followed by more industrial area. There were a lot of rolling hills, but nothing major in the first half. (This race saves those for the back half.) The rain started at Mile 6, but it was gentle as predicted -- at first. Then it became not gentle, and it started to feel a little like Mississippi River. The two pace group leaders noticed this too, as they had also both been at Mississippi River. It still wasn't cold, but it was starting to feel miserable. I wouldn't have brought my phone if I knew it was going to rain this much, and I would have worn a hat to keep the rain out of my eyes.

I was still with the 4-hour pace group at the half, but I knew all along I wouldn't finish with them. The pace felt too hard from the beginning, and also I had the same old feeling of "I don't want to be here running this race." I don't really care what my finishing times are anymore. Maybe some day I will care again. The only thing I really cared about was finishing in good enough shape to make my 5-hour drive back to St. Louis without having to pull over and rest too much, because I hadn't really given myself a lot of extra time when booking my flight.

Once we got past the half, the rain slowed down a little, but it was replaced with a lot of climbing. "At least it's not hot and sunny, at least it's not hot and sunny," I kept telling myself, like it was my mantra. Before the pace group disappeared into the distance, I had heard the pacer talking about how he had started fueling with beer because one time it was the only thing available on the course when he was thirsty. He had discovered that it was a perfect fuel because it was carbs, it was fizzy, and it wasn't sweet. I was just thinking about that while I was climbing up and up and up a never-ending hill through a neighborhood that I think was called (appropriately) Hillcrest, when there was a neighborhood aid station with little cups of beer. Why not? I thought, and grabbed one. Oh my GOD. I didn't smile a lot on that hill, but I smiled there after drinking that little Dixie cup of beer. The carbonation was like little tendrils of energy reaching down into my legs, and it got me up that long, long Mile 17 hill almost painlessly.

The uphill was followed by an equally long downhill that was almost enjoyable except that I knew what it was doing to my legs. What feels good now will feel very bad later, I knew, remembering those couple of spikes in the last mile or so on the course elevation map. But before we got to those, we had a long out-and-back along a bike path. The"out" part was about Mile 19 to 21.5, and the "back" part was 21.5 to 23.5 or so. This out and back wasn't as unpleasant as they usually are, although it was a little dispiriting to see how far ahead of me the 4-hour pace group was. Oh well. I never had any intention of pushing hard enough to finish in four hours, not that I could have if I had tried.

There was another beer stop at Mile 24, right before a nasty steep hill. I figured since it was a good idea the first time, it would be a good idea the second time, and took another one. This time it didn't work so well. My stomach was not pleased, and I walked the steep hill. By the time I got to the top, I was able to run the downhill and most of the next nasty uphill. My stomach still wasn't great, though, so I walked a good part of the last half mile and jogged the rest.

The finish was in the same place as the start. The first thing I did was pick up my medal. The medal is not QUITE as big as a dinner plate. It is by far my biggest medal, though, at least the size of my face. It's in the shape of a dragon, since this race was medieval themed. The dragon is black with glitter. It is not the sort of medal you want to wear after running a marathon -- it's heavy, and has many sharp points. So many sharp points that I worried about taking it through security in St. Louis. (I got through OK, although the TSA person checking bags did make a weird face and say, "Is that a DRAGON?" when my suitcase passed through. And it did have to get inspected, by a guy who said, "Wow. Did you win the race or something?" And when I told him no, everyone got one, he smiled and said, "Have a blessed day.") The Little Rock Marathon has a great spread of food like a marathon should. The best thing of all was a giant paper cup filled with pasta in marinara sauce.

Two of my least favorite things after a marathon are having a long drive to an airport and not being able to shower post-race, and I had both of those things this time. I cleaned up in the convention center bathroom -- fresh clothes, a wet washcloth, and deodorant did wonders, especially since it had rained so much that all I had to do was unbraid and rebraid my hair to look like I had just stepped out of the shower (even though I did not smell that way!). Since I hadn't pushed hard in the marathon, I felt fine for my 5.5-hour drive back to St. Louis. (Although I still hate the feeling of having to make a post-race flight that's a long drive from the race. So many things can go wrong!)

48 states are done and I'm down to just two -- Garmin Marathon in Kansas and the New Jersey Marathon in Long Branch, one week apart at the end of April. As long as I stay injury-free, I will be MISSION ACCOMPLISHED as of April 29!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Well, I Wanted a Warm Race, Didn't I...? A1A Marathon Report

I have been complaining non-stop about the terrible cold in Michigan for months now, ever since that awful moment when I returned from my Christmas trip to California -- where the weather had been California-perfect -- at midnight to clean eight inches of snow off my car and then scrape the ice off the windshield. That was one of the most depressing experiences of my life, and it was followed by a six week cycle of extreme cold then a big snow dump. (Okay, I admit there was ONE nice week in there somewhere, but even the nice week resulted in a huge snow melt which resulted in mud. So it still sucked.) The A1A Marathon in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, had a forecast of 80 degrees and sunny. While I knew I was not acclimated to those temperatures, I didn't care. I was just excited about feeling the sun on my skin again.

The Fort Lauderdale/Miami area was pretty much the last large metro area in the U.S. that I had left to visit. It didn't disappoint, especially Miami. I suspected I would like it because it's hot and people speak Spanish everywhere, and sure enough, I did. I met my marathon friend Dennis at the Fort Lauderdale airport and started our adventure.  First stop was a Cuban restaurant for breakfast. Obviously people who know me can take one look at this place and know I would love it, and I did:

I had eggs and peppers on Cuban toast, which is like Texas Toast on steroids, and Cuban coffee, which is a little bit of coffee on top of a layer of sugar. SO GOOD. While we were standing in line, a guy with a big pack walked up and stood next to us. At first I thought he was a homeless dude who was going to ask us for money, but then I noticed that his gear was Deuter and North Face and he was clean, so I figured there was another story. When I asked him, he said he was hiking from one end of South America to the other, and came back to the U.S. in the middle for a family thing. It turns out he has a blog that is full of gorgeous pictures of South America, so if you like looking at those, check out this blog.

After the Cuban restaurant, we went to the expo and picked up our bags. The T-shirt is just OK -- one that I'll wear to a couple of upcoming spin classes solely to advertise "I just did a marathon" and then dispose of. The expo was good-sized. And the sun was HOT. I mean, it felt good, but my clothes were soaked with sweat and I felt like I was sizzling just walking around outside the expo. I realized that tomorrow's race was not going to be enjoyable, even though I liked the sun. I was totally unaccustomed to running in anything other than the 65-degree gym weather at Lifetime, AND I didn't feel like doing a marathon when I just did one a week ago. Oh well; all I had to do was finish and bring home the medal.

We drove to Miami in search of the Bay of Pigs museum only to find it was closed, but, hey, we were in Little Havana, which was where I wanted to go anyway. We stopped at a Cuban bakery -- just as good as a Mexican bakery -- and then walked around Little Havana for a while, just long enough to even get a little bit of an appetite for dinner. Verdict on Miami: I liked it.

Back in Fort Lauderdale, we found an Italian restaurant on Yelp and it was SO GOOD, one of those places where every bite is its own amazing experience and even as you're getting full, and then stuffed, you're wishing the experience wouldn't end. Way better than Shoney's in Greenville last weekend.

This race had an early start, 6:00 a.m., totally necessary because of the heat. I was up by 3:30 because I had to go to McDonalds. There were two cars in front of me in the drive-through line and the driver of the one in front of me laid on his horn and yelled out his rolled-down window, "Hurry up! I don't have time for this social shit!" I guess in his opinion the person at the window was talking for too long. This would be a good place to say that Florida has the worst drivers I have ever seen. The stereotypes are true. I remember thinking this on my trip to Jacksonville a year ago too. The two annoying things I saw the most often were driving too slow in the left lane and passing at excessive speed on the right. These were probably two related problems -- the old people with the mindset of "I'm going the speed limit and no one has any right to make me go faster" and everyone else with the mindset of "Get out of my way, old people!" who step on the gas with extra frustration as they zip by on the right. However, I also saw every other kind of assholery behind the wheel, and my conclusion after my time spent in Florida was that you should always expect a Florida driver to do something unpredictable and jerky if it's possible. If they can refuse to let you merge, swerve into your lane without signaling, or slam on the brakes with no warning and for no reason, they probably will; if they don't, let it be a pleasant surprise.

Anyway! Back to the race. The start and finish lines are about four miles apart, and the race gives the option of parking in either place, since they shuttle from both ends. The race website claimed that there were 13 shuttles and that they would run continuously from 4:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. We decided to park at the start because we thought the finish would be more congested. If you ever do this race -- PARK AT THE FINISH!! Parking at the start was a big mistake. More on that later.

It was very hot and humid at the start line. The day was bad even from the start because a runner collapsed while waiting for the race to start. I don't know what happened to him, but whatever happened to him, at least he did not have to do the race. This race started downtown and went three miles out to A1A. A1A is an iconic beach highway. (If driving it on a sunny weekend day, you can move at approximately three miles per hour through Fort Lauderdale due to congestion and beach party traffic.) It was tolerable as the sun was rising. Sunrise over the Atlantic is pretty, no doubt. At Mile 4-something, we turned into Hugh Taylor Birch State Park for a 2-mile loop. Many people enjoyed this part of the course; I did not. I was already hot and cranky and didn't feel like running, and I knew that the best parts of the race were almost over.

Around Mile 6, we were back on A1A, for a tedious out and back. Our route took us past lots of beach condos whose residents appeared to be mostly still asleep, or at least they were not out cheering us on. Then we left the beach and A1A turned into just a tedious highway past office buildings and shopping plazas. Thankfully, there was cloud cover for almost the whole race.

At Mile 13, there was a Marathon Maniac handing out popsicles. She had also been at Mississippi River Marathon the weekend before, and I had heard her talking about the popsicles. I just hadn't introduced myself because I had a spot under a tent where I wasn't getting rained on, and she was standing out in the rain. The popsicle was one of the few highlights of this race, both going out and coming back. Mostly I was just saying to myself, "I hate this race, I hate this race," for most of the 26.2 miles.

Around Mile 14, we did a loop through a neighborhood and then headed back. The scenery had not improved between the "out" and "back" portion. This really is a tedious course, even if I had been in a good mood and it hadn't been a million degrees out. The sun came out for real at Mile 23 or so, and those last three miles were endless. I walked... a lot. There was full sun and only occasional palm-tree-shadow-width strips of shade. My time was going to be disastrous and I didn't care. I knew I would be lucky to finish under five hours.

I did finish under five, but not by much. The medal was a blue jellyfish complete with plastic tentacles -- unique, but not one of my favorites. The finish line food was unimpressive, not that I could eat it anyway. I was way too nauseous to want to eat. When Dennis finished, we went to wait for the shuttle, and this was the final crappy thing about the race -- the shuttle took 45 minutes to arrive. What happened to the "13 shuttles running continuously" that we were promised? I don't know. Once on the shuttle, it took over half an hour to creep four miles in traffic. Some people on the bus were worried about getting to the airport on time. Thankfully, I wasn't late for a flight, but that didn't stop me from being annoyed.

Florida was State #47 and even though this race was fairly well-done, except for the shuttle issue, I can't recommend it. The pretty ocean sunrise didn't make up for the boring rest of the course. There's got to be a better Florida marathon than this one. Then again, most of the reviews are good, so maybe I was just cranky because I ran a marathon the weekend before, who knows?

Mississippi -- Completed at Last

I was pretty convinced that the universe did not want me to finish a marathon in Mississippi. The Mississippi River Marathon was the fourth Mississippi marathon I'd registered for. I'd missed all of the first three due to combinations of not enough money, injury, and weather, and I almost missed this one too. My flight to Memphis was cancelled on Friday because of a winter storm. I am now down to the home stretch of my 50 states goal, and I CANNOT miss a planned marathon between now and April 29 or else my elaborate finishing plans will be derailed. So I decided to drive to Mississippi. I had time off from work because I just finished class, and I like long drives, and Will was home to watch the dogs, so why not?

This was a new record in the "total number of hours spent driving for a marathon" category -- 28. Yup, 28 hours in the car through Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, approximately half of that through terrible weather -- relentless rain in the south; snow, ice, and sleet back in Ohio and Michigan. But it's worth it because Mississippi is done and now I never have to return!

The biggest thing that surprised me about this marathon was not how depressing Greenville, Mississippi was -- I knew that already. It was that this area could somehow produce people who were able to put on an event of this quality. They have almost zero to work with, and yet I have ALMOST NO complaints about the marathon! (I have one minor complaint that was not the race's fault -- you'll hear about that one later.) It was perfectly organized from start to finish. Communications were timely. Race instructions were clear and accurate. Shuttle buses were organized. The finish area was streamlined for runners' comfort. Every single thing was good except for the course and the weather.

Let me back up just a little and say that the Mississippi Delta is a depressing place. It's one of the poorest parts of the country, and it looks like it when you drive through. It was a warm, rainy, overcast day, and I drove for miles past swampy cotton fields, rusty trailers that looked like they had already been hit by hurricanes or tornadoes, stretches of empty store fronts with broken windows, overgrown cemeteries with headstones half-submerged underwater, empty lots serving as garbage dumps, and people walking along the side of the road in raggedy clothes, oblivious to the rain. I actually like swamps and think they're pretty, especially with all the cool birds that live in them, but overall this was one of the most depressing landscapes I've ever seen. Driving through it brought to mind all the bad images of the Deep South that lurk deep in my American psyche -- slaves in cotton fields, overseers with whips, people living in falling-down shacks with nine children and no electricity, bodies dumped in swamps and being eaten by alligators -- all of it.

I was hoping for better in Greenville, but Greenville wasn't better. It's right on the Mississippi River, reached by a state highway that runs through a few miles of strip malls and fast food restaurants before reaching downtown. Downtown is a Main Street with mostly-empty storefronts and broken roads. There wasn't really an expo, just packet pickup in one of the storefronts and a couple of vendors. People were nice and packet pickup was easy. I stayed in a hotel a couple miles from the start line and my pre-race meal was Shoney's because it was right across from the hotel and I was tired.

On race morning, it was pouring outside. I could hear the rain as soon as I woke up, and it was going to rain all day according to the forecast. That meant no phone and no music on a course that, by most accounts, was pretty boring. Oh well; it least the temperature was pleasant. Earlier in the week the forecast had said a low of 39, which would have been miserable in the downpour, but actual temperature on race morning was 56, which felt like summer after the terrible Michigan winter. I even decided to forego gloves -- totally not needed.

We boarded the shuttles in downtown Greenville for transport to the start line. This race had the best shuttle system I've ever seen -- all the buses loaded between 6:00 and 6:30, and they all left at 6:30. It probably would not be practical in bigger races or races in more urban areas to do it this way, but it worked perfectly here. The ONE thing that was even slightly unpleasant on race morning was that when I asked the shuttle driver if this bus was for the marathon or the half, she responded with, "What that sign say?" I hadn't even seen a sign, but when I looked, there was a small sign taped to the side of the door (on the opposite side from where I approached), that said "Marathon" (if I bent down and looked hard in the dim light from the street lights). If I were her, I would have just responded with, "Marathon," but whatever.

There were lots of 50-staters doing this marathon, and most were in the 40's like me. A lot of people leave Mississippi for the end, both because it's not a very exciting state and because it's not easy to get to. The shuttles drove us across the Mississippi River to the start line in Arkansas. This marathon is split between the two states, and 50-staters can use it for either state, but not both. The start line was a big empty lot, and it was a muddy swamp this morning. I sank into the red mud while standing in the Porta-potty line and was grateful these weren't new shoes. There were a few tents to stand under, but there were still a lot of people standing in the warm rain while they waited for the start.

The Arkansas part of this marathon starts in Lake Village, Arkansas, and goes along the shore of Lake Chicot, an oxbow lake (formerly a loop of the Mississippi River, now cut off from the actual river). There were very few spectators, and the town was quiet except for a few early-morning fishermen. It rained. I was bored. I practiced picking a target in the distance, like a house or a dock or a tree, and making myself run till I reached it. I was undertrained for this marathon, with no real long runs since the Honolulu Marathon in December and one pathetic 12-mile double loop around Stoney Creek in wind-chill-zero temps that were so depressing I walked a lot of it. I no longer really care about pace, especially not in this marathon when I knew I had another one the following weekend, and my chief goal was injury prevention. I am so close to finishing 50 states that I can't do anything to derail my finishing plans. So I trudged through the depressing fog and drizzle, ticking off miles, waiting to see something exciting, or really just anything that wasn't crappy.

At the half, we crossed the Mississippi River, but there was so much fog I could barely see the river. The bridge had about a mile climb followed by a two-mile descent. The bridge is supposed to be one of the highlights of this marathon -- face it, there is absolutely nothing else to see that's even remotely interesting, and no spectators, so the bridge was THE ONLY highlight -- but because of the fog, I thought the bridge was boring too.

After the bridge, we ran on a straight-as-an-arrow state highway for a long, long time. Trucks whooshed past us. Nothing to see but mile posts. I will say that the aid stations were perfectly organized. They were at every mile just past the mile marker, and each one had a Porta-potty. Not that I needed one, but it was nice to know they were there. And if this small race can put a Porta-potty at every single mile marker, why can't the bigger races do it? Who knows. This was also the only marathon I've ever been in where there was a person controlling traffic at every single street crossing, the whole race. I wondered again how a race in this part of the country managed such excellent organization. It just doesn't look like the kind of place where anyone competent would choose to live.

Around Mile 23, we took a turn through one of the "nice" neighborhoods of Greenville. It was a gated community, although the gates opened for any car, and the houses were large and set back from the road. Even the nice neighborhood was depressing. The road was in bad shape, and all of the front yards were submerged in water. When we came out of that neighborhood, we headed into downtown again to the finish. The 4:15 pace group was right behind me and I beat them in by a minute or so, giving me my fourth 4:14 in a year. At least I'm consistent!

I got my medal inside the same building packet pickup had been in. Post-race food was good -- pizza and everything else you could want after a marathon. I ended up getting an age group award -- second place -- despite my crappy time, and unlike every single race I have participated in, I could pick up my award and leave rather than waiting for an awards ceremony. I just printed a ticket at one of the computers they had set up, handed it to the person monitoring the awards table, and walked out with my award. Again, organization that far exceeded my expectations for this race.

I stripped out of my soaking clothes in a boat launch parking lot by the Mississippi River. There was no one there to notice except other runners doing the same thing. Then I started the long drive out of the South and back to civilization. I admit to having negative feelings about most of the South, and especially Mississippi. Not so much Jackson, which is an actual city, but most of the rest of it. Other than the race itself, I didn't see anything that made me change my mind. I'm glad to be finally done with Mississippi, and just being able to mark it off my map finally made the long drive, all 28 hours of it, worthwhile.