Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Lot to Not Like: Frank Maier Marathon Race Report

I think this was marathon #52, and state #43. Alaska and Hawaii are the big, expensive ones for 50-staters. I just wish that my enjoyment of Alaska was in any way proportionate to the amount of money this trip cost me. Now, Will loves Alaska, but somehow he is home watching the dogs while I am sitting in the Juneau airport writing about how much I DON'T love Alaska. That doesn't seem fair, does it? But I digress.

There are not a lot of choices for Alaska marathons, and truthfully none of them had great reviews. I picked this one over the Anchorage one because I've already been to Anchorage, and once was DEFINITELY enough for Anchorage. I really wanted the Fairbanks one in September, but then I found out it didn't have finisher medals, and no medal = no race for me. So Juneau it was.

It took 3 flights (one of which I missed) and 8 hours on a plane to get here. As my plane descended, I was looking forward to awe-inspiring mountain views. Instead I saw... clouds and rain. Very occasionally, I caught a brief glimpse of a mountain, but then it was gone. Finally, right before touchdown, we broke through the clouds and I could see a dark, forbidding grey and green landscape. The forecast for my 36 hours in Juneau was dismal -- rain, rain, rain, and low 50's. Even though I had checked the forecast before coming, I somehow forgot how cold 50 degrees is, and had packed only one thing with long sleeves, a zip-up a little bit thicker than Kleenex that clearly was going to be totally inadequate for anything outside, including a marathon.

The town of Juneau is really pretty small. It stretches out in a line between the base of the mountains and the water. I was staying at an airbnb on Douglas Island, which is across the Gastineau Channel from Juneau. As I drove from the airport to Douglas Island, I saw a bald eagle fly overhead. I was like, "Oh my God! A bald eagle! So awesome!" Ten minutes later, I had seen about 15-20 more, and they were no longer interesting.

I took a nap at the airbnb, then set out to explore. I went to see the Mendenhall Glacier, and that is worth making a trip to see. I know what a glacier is, of course, but actually seeing one up close was awesome in the literal sense of the word -- inspiring awe. I saw a sleeping bear (who the ranger told me had just eaten a salmon), a porcupine up a tree, and so many salmon swimming up the little tiny stream that I wanted to reach out my hand and catch one. I also crossed paths with a near-hysterical woman from New Zealand who told me her husband had gone for a walk on the beach and she couldn't find him. She was really freaked out, even more so because a porcupine had crossed her path and she was afraid it was aggressive. She asked if I could help her find him and stay with her because she was scared. I said yes even though I had already been to the falls and was walking back and I didn't know this park any better than she did, partly because she really was terrified and partly because I needed to walk a little more to even begin to justify the amount of food I was eating. We soon located her wayward husband on the beach, where he had stopped to take pictures of rocks. His reaction to his wife's hysteria made it pretty clear this was not the first time this had happened. I left them and walked back to the visitor's center. It rained on me the whole time I was at the glacier, and my plantar fasciitis foot was seriously hurting for the first time in a week, which did not bode well for the race the next day.

Packet pickup was a non-event in the community center in town. No expo, just someone sitting there handing out numbers and T-shirts. I asked if there was anything I needed to know about the early start option. This race offers an early start of 6:00 a.m. if the standard 7:00 a.m. start is too late. The woman asked me if 6:00 was okay or if I wanted an earlier one, and said I could start whenever I wanted as long as she knew about it and was there to mark my bib. I said no, 6:00 would be fine.

After that, I walked around downtown Juneau for a while and was unimpressed. I needed to buy a good warm long-sleeved shirt, but do you think I could find one? No. None of the dozens of tourist shops had anything as useful as a warm shirt, although there were infinite supplies of little carved wooden walruses, reindeer skins, and snow globes full of fake gold. I had to drive all the way back to the Sportsman's Warehouse by the airport to get what I needed.

I woke up at 3:45 a.m. and it was already getting light, so I figured I may as well do the early start since I was already awake. The start line was in a park on Douglas Island. There were about 20 other people also opting for the early start. It was chilly and damp, 49 degrees, but not really raining, more like seriously misting. I was excited because there was an actual public bathroom and I didn't have to start the day with a Porta Pottie. Another girl and I were heading in that direction when the race director called after us, "Make sure you lock the doors!" and laughed. We could not figure out why she was laughing -- was there a bear outside the bathroom? Or a pervert? Once we got into the bathroom, it made sense. There were three stalls and none of them had doors. Why, I ask? This is a capital city -- I know, the capital of Alaska, but still, surely money could have been found somewhere for doors in the bathroom of a city park? Anyway, we managed.

I had made a major amateur mistake when packing for this trip, and hadn't packed my arm band for my phone, my fuel belt, or any gels. I cannot explain this, but it happened. I had gone to the one bike shop in Juneau (they didn't have a running shop, of course), and they had exactly one flavor of gel -- Honey Stinger, strawberry kiwi. Ewwww. They had five in stock and I bought four. Since I didn't have my fuel belt, I had three of the gels stuffed in my bra and the last one in my hand. No fuel belt also meant no chapstick, no Advil, no salt tabs, and no Tums, so I just had to hope I didn't need any of those things. No phone meant no music, which was a shame on this course since there turned out to be so few spectators I could count them all on the fingers of my two hands and still have fingers left over.

It started raining lightly as soon as we took off. The first mile was a pretty good climb followed by a lengthy downhill. This was predictive of the rest of the course as it was nothing but rolling hills all the way, with hardly any flat. That is actually my favorite kind of course. Hills break it up, and always give me something to look forward to -- either the uphill will stop soon, or I get to enjoy a downhill.

We had been promised aid stations every 2.25 miles or so. I had specifically asked if they would be functioning for the early start and was told yes. I didn't get to the first one till almost Mile 5; the Mile 2.25 just wasn't there until later in the day. Not that I needed it -- I never drink till Mile 8 unless it's a really hot day -- but that's not the point. Also, the second and third aid stations only had Gatorade, no water. The volunteers looked confused and apologetic when we asked for water. You can't get mad at volunteers -- they're out there because they want to help -- but how can there not be water at an aid station? I grudgingly drank Gatorade at Mile 8, and thought to myself that if I got an upset stomach from it, I would be pretty mad.

It was not the race's fault that the promised mountain views, bald eagles, and cruise ships did not materialize due to the heavy fog and steady drizzle. It was pretty much me and the pine trees. I was ahead of most of the other early starters except for two guys who were faster than me. I know there are some runners who prefer to be out in nature, alone with their own thoughts, no people or technology needed. I am not one of those. I like music, fans, and city views, of which this course had zero. Nevertheless, I was making good time and the miles were clipping by. My foot hurt not at all -- amazing, considering how it felt the day before at the glacier. It seemed like I hadn't been running that long when I came to the turnaround. On the way I passed Larry "1700 Marathons", who had started at 4:30 am because he was walking. He was walking because he was doing another marathon tomorrow. He asked me if I was too, and I said I was not. No more back to backs for me!

On the way back, I passed one of the guys who had started out faster than me. Then I started to pass a bunch of people who had taken the regular start at 7:00 a.m. I was still feeling strong, which has not happened in any marathon this year. Superstitiously, I didn't look at my time. I was going as fast as I could, and didn't want to worry about feeling like I should go faster.

At Mile 19-something, I passed the half marathon turnaround. The half had started at 8:00 (early start) and 9:00 (regular start), so there was one big clump of runners at the turnaround and another about 3 miles later. I enjoyed passing these people very much. It's nice to be almost done with my event and be passing all these people who are just starting.

I finished in 3:57-something, not a great time, but my best time in 2017 so far. This should have been a bad race for me for so many reasons -- no music, gels chafing inside my bra, no spectators, plantar fasciitis, hills, near-total lack of training, the approximately 5000 calories of mostly junk food that I ate the day before -- but somehow it turned out okay! I even felt totally okay at the end, which was a good thing. The end of this race is known for its feast of unlimited grilled salmon. I gorged myself like a grizzly bear pulling salmon out of a river, and topped off my salmon feast with a giant grilled hot dog. Then I had time for a hot shower and a nap back at the airbnb before heading back to the airport.

I've been in Juneau for 36 hours and that is just about the maximum amount of time I would like to stay in Alaska, although somehow I just promised Will I would come back with him... to Fairbanks... in the winter... What was I thinking?? I don't know -- I will worry about it when it actually gets close to happening. For now I'm just glad Alaska is done. I don't have any other marathon planned until Baltimore in October, and I'm pacing that one. Usually when I say I don't have any other marathon planned until... a long time from now, the unspoken conclusion to that sentence is, "...but that will probably change." This time I really don't think I will. There are no marathons in the states I need in August, and I'm teaching class in September, so I'm heading into a dry stretch.

43 down, 7 to go!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Marathon List Fun

I am getting closer and closer to being done with 50 States. I can practically taste it. I think about it more than I care to admit. I may, or may not, have just registered for another REALLY EXPENSIVE MARATHON this year that I totally cannot afford to travel to, at least not without borrowing money from my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel fund. Anyway, I was looking at my medal rack, something that I spend a lot more time than you would think doing, and thinking about the races I liked the best, the ones I liked the least, and the ones I can't even remember, and I thought it would be fun to make some lists.

There is always an element of subjectivity to any "Best Of/Worst Of" lists, and mine are no exception. For the most part, I like big, urban marathons better than small-town marathons, no matter how poorly organized the first or how well-run the second. My impressions of races are also heavily influenced by how I felt and what the weather was like on race day. So these are not really lists of the best and worst races; rather, they are lists of "good race experiences" and "bad race experiences."

Now, on to the lists.

My Top 10:

1) Boston. For an epic event, it has no equal. Every Boston runner feels like a rock star walking to the start line in Hopkinton. For a lot of runners, including myself, a BQ is the greatest running achievement they will ever get.

2) Pikes Peak. I really had a hard time deciding whether this or Boston was my #1. They are so, so close even though they are two completely different types of races. Walking into Athletes Village in Hopkinton is a monumentally awesome feeling, but so is standing on the street in Manitou Springs looking up at the impossibly distant treeless summit of Pikes Peak and knowing that you will be getting up there on foot.

3) Georgia Publix. Atlanta in March is a gorgeous place to go for a marathon if you live in the cold, grey Midwest. This is the only marathon that loops a big city without including a single ugly industrial stretch. Slightly complicated logistics and relentless hills do nothing to diminish this marathon in my eyes. (I'm sure my surprise BQ there helped cement my feelings of affection for the city and the marathon.)

4) Chicago. My first, and still a grand event in my memory. The city has a mural of the marathon alongside the freeway! I will never forget the energy of the expo and the way it felt to be part of the ocean of runners on that perfect October morning in 2005. Who knows, if I had done a less spectacular marathon as my first, I might never have gotten hooked on marathons the way I did.

5) Monument. No, I don't mean Monumental in Indiana; I mean MONUMENT, this beautiful small marathon in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska. Glorious downhill start, stunning views of bluffs throughout the whole course, saturated with Oregon Trail history. I would do this marathon again in a second, and that's high praise for a small race, especially one three hours from the closest airport.

6) Kentucky Derby. Not only a very well-organized race, but also probably my favorite course with its hills that are just gentle enough to shake out the legs but not tough enough to ruin a race. Also, Churchill Downs! Running by giant, muscular Thoroughbreds on the track was a unique experience.

7) Marine Corps. Unseasonably hot and humid the year I ran it, but still a great course through one of my favorite cities. Running along the Mall and finishing at Iwo Jima = unforgettable.

8) Hartford. Another perfect fall marathon. I was very surprised by the beauty of the city and the crowd support. A really, really pretty course, easy on the legs and the eyes.

9) Kansas City: A surprisingly cool city, with a great course that shows off many of the thriving Kansas City neighborhoods. Also, I have never seen more alcohol on any course anywhere.

10) Fargo: Fargodome start and finish combined with big, beautiful open skies and a river path I actually enjoyed make this a unique and excellent marathon experience.

My Bottom 10:

1) Trailbreaker. Getting to run up to the top of a fire tower and ring the bell at Mile 14 or so in no way made up for the tedious out and back on the deserted bike path or the 4 mile out and back on trail. (2 miles out on frozen mud, 2 miles back on churned up melting mud from all the runners' feet.) The lousy medal is just one more thing to not like about Trailbreaker.

2) Via/Lehigh. I can't even remember the actual name, but I will never forget two things: the terrible traffic jam at the race start (caused me to MISS a race start for the first and only time), and the horrendous, mentally scarring experience of the 26-mile shuttle ride from the finish line back to the start on the bus with no A/C and windows that would not open on a sweltering September day. I still can't believe I didn't see someone die of heat stroke on that bus ride.

3) Ocean State. This race had like three or four different names. I registered for it thinking I was registering for the Newport Marathon, and didn't find out till the day before the race that it was actually in Narragansett, and the race organizers stubbornly insisted on holding it the same day as the bigger and better Newport Marathon right down the road. The medal is great but doesn't make up for the crappy course.

4) Indianapolis. This marathon did not show off any of the city of Indianapolis as it was held entirely in a state park with no spectators. I don't think it exists anymore, and that is a good thing.

5) Tucson. The Tucson Marathon may be the only thing I don't like about Tucson. I HATE this course. It runs alongside the highway for almost the whole 26.2 miles, and the view never changes. I love Tucson but I will never do the Tucson Marathon again.

6) New Mexico. This was a long time ago, but I have dim memories of a long slog up in the beginning, a punishing, long downhill after that, and an eternity on a boring bike path at the end.

7) Shires of Vermont: Well-organized, but 8:00 start time was way too late for an end-of-May race. Also, we had to run with traffic on roads with zero traffic control. A miserable, sweltering humid, hilly experience (albeit one with a really incredible buffet post-race).

8) P.F. Chang/Phoenix Rock & Roll. Either the city of Phoenix is really one of the ugliest in the U.S., or the marathon just showcases ugliness on purpose.

9) Med City. Heat, humidity, and long out-and-back on bike path = one of my least enjoyable marathons ever.

10) Maine. May have been a good course, or may have been a crappy course. Impossible for me to say due to the heavy rain that fell throughout the entire race. Also, it was Day 2 of a double, which only made the rain more joyful.

Races That Would've Been in My Top 10 If My Top 10 Were a Top 20

1) Flying Pig. Beloved by just about everyone, and has everything I like in a marathon -- hills, comprehensive city tour, bridges over the Ohio River, stadium start with indoor bathrooms -- but somehow, I liked every single one of my top 10 better than this one.

2) Deadwood Mickelson. The Black Hills of South Dakota -- one of the most beautiful parts of the country. A very well-run event, but a little too much of a grind with that 14-mile climb to make the top 10.

3) Marshall University. Kudos to them for finding somewhere flat in West Virginia to have a marathon; that's no small accomplishment. Loved the double loop, loved the stadium finish. Just not quite a top 10.

4) Harrisburg. Not sure why I liked this one so much but suspect it's because the Susquehanna River is so surprisingly beautiful. Who knew that Harrisburg was a cool city? Not me!

5) St. George. Beautiful canyonlands scenery; too bad it was cold and rainy the day I ran it.

6) El Paso. I'm pretty sure I'm one of the very few people who rates this marathon high. I loved the screaming downhill start, the road around and through the base, and downtown El Paso. Not a lot of people love El Paso, but I'm one of the few.

7) NYC. Couldn't ask for a better course, but I just can't deal with the logistics. It's just too much of a pain in the ass. I lived 30 miles away from the start line when I did this race, and it still took me 3 hours to get there, then I had to wait 2 hours for the race start.

8) Seattle Rock & Roll. Nice course, awesome city. Just not quite nice enough.

9) Nashville Rock & Roll. Ditto.

10) Missoula. I remember the following: cute town, big hill, nice scenery, tendonitis. Not much else.

Races That a Lot of People Love That Didn't Do It for Me:

1) Rehoboth Beach. Nothing wrong with it except the line for the food tent afterwards, but I expected better based on the way people rave about it on (I admit their medal is stellar, though.)

2) OKC. I know, it's meaningful and for a good cause. Also really well-organized and a nice tour of the city. But I will never chance Oklahoma weather in April ever again, and I will never forget the misery of that 10 miles of freezing head wind and rain. Yuck.

3) Los Angeles. Don't remember hardly anything about the course. Wonder if it's more memorable nowadays than it was in 2006?

4) San Francisco. To be fair, I might've liked this one better if I had trained for it.

5) Casper. Really excellent organization, too much out-and-back, too much bike path, too much sun, too much elevation.

6) Pocatello. In my opinion, just an okay race, despite my surprise BQ there.

7) New Hampshire. Such an adorable little small town New England race! So cute! Well-run, but absolutely uninteresting.

8) Kiawah Island. I know what! Let's run around a golf course community! On second thought, let's not. Good organization, great medal, nothing else I really enjoyed about it.

9) First Light. But it has medals that are handmade by people with disabilities, and the proceeds go to charity! Who doesn't love that? Me. I don't love that. Nothing wrong with the race or with Mobile, just nothing great about it either.

10) Des Moines. I like Des Moines, but this course was nothing special. Nothing terrible either, just nothing special.

Races That Didn't Make Any Other List (I don't want them to feel left out):

1) San Diego Rock and Roll. Gave me my first BQ and has some cool parts, but I will never forget that 1-mile long shuttle line at the finish. I know what! Let's stand in an asphalt parking lot with no shade on an 85-degree day for a couple of hours! (I'm sure they fixed that, but no one can ever fix my memory of the experience.)

2) Portland. Literally remember almost nothing about this race except that I was really disappointed with my time.

3) Prescott Whiskey Row. Not a bad race if you like mountains and nature.

4) Mt. Lemmon Marathon. I ran up parts of this mountain so many times that the only thing different on marathon day was that I had a stress fracture.

5) New Orleans Mardi Gras Rock & Roll. New Orleans is one of my least favorite cities. The race was okay and the medal was excellent.

6) Las Vegas Marathon. Not a night marathon or a Rock & Roll marathon when I ran it. Unremarkable course. Strip start was sort of cool.

7) Ann Arbor. Lame choice for Michigan. Nothing wrong with this for a small town marathon, nothing exciting either.

8) Grandfather Mountain. Running up a mountain in North Carolina in July is not a great idea, but ending at the Highland Games and having a table of Little Debbie at the finish line was sort of memorable.

Well, that's all of my races to date. (I've done 3 twice -- San Diego R&R, Boston, and Pikes Peak -- which is why I have 48 listed even though I've done 51.) I have 8 states to go, and wonder where those races will fit in on these lists?

Monday, June 5, 2017

At Least It Wasn't 40's and Windy -- Casper Marathon Race Report

State #42, marathon #51. My last two marathons, OKC and Fargo, have both been cold, windy, and a little bit wet, and I was really hoping that Casper would have nice weather. When I finally got around to checking the forecast a couple days before the race, I saw that the forecast was for sunny with a high of 89 degrees. That was pretty warm, even for someone like me who loves warm weather, but it had a 6:30 start time so I figured I would beat most of the heat.

My foot felt okay going into this one, though of course I never really know whether it's going to start hurting during a race (or randomly not during a race). Everything else felt okay too. I finally lost the 5 pounds I gained during class and vacation, so I was closer to race weight, and I was happy to be out West again and out of Michigan.

Wyoming is not a particularly interesting state to me, but at least it was a western state and not Michigan. I flew into Denver and then drove four hours north to Casper. My impression of Casper as a town was moderately crappy with beautiful scenery. It's an oil and gas town on the banks of the North Platte River. Of the parts of Casper I saw, most were at least a little rundown, but with gorgeous mountains in the background and a pretty river in the middle. Also, there were just enough dirty guys with missing teeth walking around at random hours that I didn't want to leave anything valuable in view in my car. I was afraid that a pile of loose change in my car might attract the attention of some desperate tweaker. It was that kind of town. But at least there were plenty of cheap motels to choose from, including the host hotel, the Ramada. At $89 a night, it was one of the cheapest host hotels I've ever come across. I stayed at an even cheaper motel right next to the Ramada, and all I had to do was walk next door to catch the shuttle on race morning.

The race starts at the Events Center, which is up on a bluff overlooking the city. The start line is a little over a mile walk from the Ramada, but the race also had a shuttle from the Ramada. I opted for the shuttle. I would've enjoyed the walk, but was afraid to chance any extra miles with my foot.

Weather at the start line was perfect, sunny but with a little chill in the air. The Events Center was open to runners, and the race had put out a table of food -- muffins, bagels, fruit, peanut butter, even Clif Bars and gels -- and coffee. If I had known there would be that much food there, I would've skipped McDonalds. There were also free massages available in the Events Center pre-race. Pretty classy for a marathon with just over a hundred people! I alternated between standing outside looking at the view and going back inside to stay warm. It seemed like everyone I talked to was a Maniac or 50-stater or both, and most of them were pretty high up in their numbers, in the 40's like me. I think a lot of people leave Wyoming for the end because it's not easy to get to. Like with Fargo, you either have to buy a really expensive plane ticket or else drive from the closest big city, in this case Denver.

The first four miles of the course consisted of a loop around the bluff where the Events Center was. My legs and feet felt good, but I was sucking wind immediately because of the elevation (5000 feet). I hate being a flatlander! I remember when 5000 feet was the number of feet in elevation that I gained during a typical weekend trail run. In Michigan I can run 20 miles and gain no more than 25 feet in elevation. Anyway, these first four miles were the hilliest of the race. I was so happy about my foot not hurting at all that I didn't mind not being able to breathe comfortably. I was also happy about the views. I could see far in all directions, and wasn't hemmed in by trees like I am in Michigan! Also, there were pronghorn antelope, and that was cool. This race's slogan is "Run With the Herd" because of the pronghorns. I was glad I actually got to see some.

After the loop around the bluff, we went down a long, steep hill into town and got on the bike path. Most of the rest of the course was on bike path. This is usually a pet peeve of mine because I think of those as places for training, not racing. Casper's bike path was less annoying than most of them, just because the scenery changed a lot (some tree-shaded stretches, some industrial areas, some mountain views) and because the Platte River is prettier than other rivers.

At Mile 10 or so we passed the Ramada. I could see my car but for once had no desire to quit running. I was feeling pretty good, all things considered. I could breathe again, my foot didn't hurt, my stomach was fine, and it was still cool. I began hoping I could get back to being under four hours.

Around Mile 12, we started a 3-4 mile loop around the golf course. Suddenly it got hot. The aid stations had watermelon, which was about the best thing I could imagine on a hot day. I ate a lot of watermelon on this course. When I got to the halfway point, my time was 1:53, and I still felt good, and under four hours totally seemed within reach.

When we finished the golf course loop, we returned to the bike path for a very, very long out and back. The sun was out in full force now, and there was not a lot of shade. We crossed the Platte lots of times, I think nine times total. I HATE long out and backs, and I hate them more when they're on bike paths. Still, I was doing okay until the Mile 17 thing happened. What happened at Mile 17 was that my watch beeped 17 miles, but I didn't see the Mile 17 sign. No problem, I had been a little less than 1/10th of a mile ahead of every mile marker for at least ten miles. That's common in marathons. I ran underneath a road on the path and came up on the other side, still no Mile 17 sign in sight. My watch now said 17.33. I figured something must have happened to the Mile 17 sign, and kept going. Then, a few minutes later, I saw the sign. My watch said 17.55, a ridiculous distance to be off. Nevertheless, you can't argue with the mile markers. Regardless of how unfair it was, I was now just starting Mile 17 instead of getting close to finishing it.

I was mad and hot. I walked. I got a fresh piece of gum, put on chapstick, and looked at the cool lifesize statue of the Indian spearing the buffalo on the side of the course. (Casper has LOTS of cool statues.) I looked in front of me and behind me. I could only see a few runners, and all of them were walking too. It's like every runner simultaneously said, "Screw it," right there in the race.

I managed to get running again, but I never got even close to how well I was doing earlier in the race. I knew I wasn't going to, either. I know I promised I was not going to complain about running in the heat, and I'm not -- I would still choose that over the cold, any day -- but it definitely slowed me down. Also, the last few miles of the out-and-back were the most exposed of the whole course. There were a few little rolling hills, but nothing serious. I drank at every aid station and even took salt caps twice, and was still thirsty the whole time. It reminded me of Deadwood, which is this same weekend in South Dakota.

The turnaround came at Mile 19.5 (well, Mile 20 for me, since my watch was still way ahead of the mile markers). I hoped I would get my second wind knowing I was heading back, but I never really did. I mostly slow jogged, but walked the hills. I didn't see anyone running except the relay runners. Not one single thing of interest happened during the last six miles. I didn't talk to anyone; I didn't see anything interesting; I didn't feel great and I didn't feel miserable. I looked at the Platte River, which was flowing in the same direction I was walking, and fantasized about jumping in and just floating downstream to the finish line. I'm sure I'm not the only runner who thought about that.

I knew I wasn't going to be under four hours, but I hoped I would at least be faster than my last two races. I ended up finishing with EXACTLY THE SAME TIME as the last two races -- 4:14. (Well, not EXACTLY the same time, but within 20 seconds.) At least I'm consistent! Consistently bad, that is. The finish line had the best food I have ever seen at any race. They had at least ten different kinds of fruit (all kinds of berries, melon, bananas, and oranges), pizza, cookies, peanuts, Clif Bars, soda, chocolate milk, I don't even remember what else. I was too hot to eat anything but the chocolate milk and a plate of fruit, and I was in a hurry because I had that four-hour drive back to Denver for a night flight back to Michigan.

Overall this was a well-done race that I would not do again despite the fact that it is cheap, well-organized, and has lots of good things like a big selection of motels, indoor bathrooms at the start line, and that incredible food at start and finish. I wouldn't do it again because 1) the travel was a pain, 2) there were hardly any spectators, and 3) that out-and-back on the bike path. Nevertheless, pickings are slim for Wyoming marathons, and at least this one was very well-organized and didn't have actual mountains in it, so it was doable for flatlanders.

I don't have any marathons planned till Baltimore in October, but that thought is depressing, so I have a feeling I will find another one somewhere between now and then as long as my foot stays in good working order.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

I Loved It Even Though It Hurt -- Fargo Marathon Race Report

State #41, marathon #50, and my right foot is f****d.

I apologize for offending the sensibilities of my more proper readers, but after lengthy consideration and use of a thesaurus, I've concluded that there is no other single word that describes the condition of my right foot today. Here are the things that caused problems in today's race: plantar fasciitis (most recent flare-up started after OKC and just went away two days ago), Achilles tendon (came back today after lying dormant for almost a year), mystery pain in the ball of my foot that felt like a stress fracture but I'm HOPING is just worn-out shoes, and blisters on the tops of three of my five toes because for some reason today my foot was just too big for my shoe.

Despite the fact that almost every step of this marathon was painful, it was still a great marathon, good enough to earn a spot in my top 10 list. There was not one thing I didn't like about this marathon other than the fact that getting to Fargo is a little bit of a pain. You can choose whether to make it a logistics pain (by flying into Minneapolis and driving 3 1/2 hours to Fargo) or a financial pain by flying into Fargo. (My round trip flight from Detroit would've been over $1000.) I went the Minneapolis route because I like to drive. The drive was painless. The freeway through Minnesota was as nice as the ones in Michigan are horrible. It was smooth, like driving on a road made of glass. Can someone tell me why Minnesota has nice roads and Michigan does not? I do not believe that it's weather, so it must be money. But I digress.

North Dakota was the second-to-last state in the U.S. that I had never been to. (The last is Hawaii, and I'm going in December.) I was excited to visit it. My great-grandparents were homesteaders there. I like the idea of being descended from North Dakotan homesteaders. I mean, seriously, it takes tough people to farm out here, especially in the 1920's and 1930's. I totally intended to drive out to the middle-of-nowhere town where they actually lived, but I ended up not having time because it was two hours west of Fargo, and I was on a tight schedule. I will just have to come back some time, I suppose.

The first thing about this race that is awesome is that it starts and finishes in the Fargodome, the giant stadium at North Dakota State University. The Fargodome is huge! 7000 people can fit on the floor, and 25,000 can fit in the stadium. So parking and bathrooms were more than adequate for the 2000 marathoners and 6000 half-marathoners. The expo was in the Fargodome too. This race has the best goodie bag ever. Not the goodies, but the bag itself. It is a really nice Under Armour bag, with zippers and lots of pockets. And the shirt is a lightweight hoodie, which is my new favorite kind of race shirt. But the best thing of all about the expo was that I easily got a (free) parking spot about 200 feet from the entrance. (Hear that, Oklahoma City? I did not have to drive around for 20 minutes and then walk through four blocks of wind and rain on my sore foot to get to the expo.)

After the expo, I went out to dinner with three random strangers. Actually, they were not quite random because I "met" them on the Marathon Maniacs Facebook page, and they were staying close to my hotel. So we all went to a pizza and pasta place right across the street from my hotel. I like when I get along well with total strangers and am actually interested in what they have to say. That's a rare experience for me! All of them were also 50-staters. There were lots of 50-staters here checking off North Dakota, because North Dakota is really slim pickings for marathons, and Fargo is clearly the star of the ones they do have.

I had done everything possible for my foot (everything, of course, except rested it) -- rolled it on the lacrosse ball for literally a couple of hours every day, taped it, deep stretched my calf at every opportunity, taken Advil all day, worn a night splint -- for the past couple weeks. It was pain free for two days in a row prior to race day, good enough for me to take a chance. I suspected there would be problems, though. I had such bad pain at work last week that if it hadn't improved, I would not have gone. When getting through a day of dog training was agony, even I wouldn't be so stupid as to try to run 26 miles. But it resolved just in time, so I figured it was worth a try. I have all of my remaining states planned out so I can finish in New Jersey next October, but that schedule is heavily reliant on me remaining injury-free. Fargo was one I really did not want to miss because there are hardly any other North Dakota marathons, and none I wanted to do. I figured in the worst case scenario, I could walk the whole thing, as long as I made the time limit. I was secretly hoping my foot would be totally fine. Plantar fasciitis is weird. It flares up and goes away for seemingly no reason sometimes. Maybe today it would just go away?

My foot felt good on race morning, no pain at all. I loaded up on Advil and stuffed three extras in my shorts pocket. I stretched and rolled my foot. The forecast leading up to race day was for rain, but luckily the morning was clear, with no rain predicted till after noon. Now it was supposed to be cloudy and mid-to-high 40's, with no wind to speak of, another vast improvement over OKC. This would be a good place to point out again how nice it is to have a stadium start. It was warm! I was comfortable! There were no vile porta potties and I didn't have to hide under my blanket shivering like a homeless person until gun time! Even gear check was in the stadium. One more word: Jumbo Tron! This alone would've been enough for me to give this marathon a 5-star rating even if everything else sucked, which it didn't. Nothing else sucked. I'm telling you, it's a great marathon.

The actual start and finish line were both inside the stadium, but they had opened up one of the big doors to the outside, so of course we weren't inside very long. Outside it was chilly, but the kind where you know you're going to be really comfortable really soon. There was plenty of room on the roads for everyone to spread out because we had the whole road. Another thing this race is, is FLAT. It's like running in Michigan. I think I had something like 160 feet of elevation change over the whole marathon, and nothing that I would actually consider to be a hill.

The first several miles of the course went through very pretty residential areas. Just like in OKC, there were huge numbers of spectators out. This course also had a lot of bands and DJ's to keep things fun. There were just enough turns to keep me interested in finding out what would appear around the next turn. Everything was great until Mile 2, when I started to feel a nagging heel pain. Naturally, I began catastrophic thinking immediately. "It's going to get worse -- it's going to feel like it did at work last week -- I need this state done -- what's the time limit -- what if it's so bad I can't walk -- when is it going to become really painful?" By Mile 3, it had gone from nagging to dull, steady pain. By Mile 8 (when we switched to running through a park along a river, and also when, by coincidence, I looked up and saw a bald eagle flying overhead), it was painful enough to alter my gait. My Achilles hurt just as bad as my heel, and I really didn't know what that ominous pain in the ball of my foot was. I slowed down and walked a little, but it hurt exactly as bad when I walked as when I ran, so I figured I should run as long as I could if the pain was the same either way. That became my strategy for the whole rest of the race.

I saw a marathon cheater for the first time in any race right after Mile 8. The path we were running on bended and curved and generally meandered along close to the river. This guy skipped most of the curves and ran the shortest straight line he could find, even if that put him on grass and very far away from all the other runners. He did this for about a mile. I could hardly believe he would do something so blatant and obvious, and wondered what his reasoning was. Did he not know you weren't supposed to do that? Did he not notice that he was the only one doing that? He probably saved himself a good quarter mile, not that it really helped him, because I passed him walking and looking terrible around the half, and never saw him again, but still, what a dummy. Not that I really cared; I cared much more about my own feet. After all, that guy is the one who has to live with himself, not me!

At Mile 10 I learned that stuffing Advils into skin tight shorts is a bad idea. They had dissolved from heat and sweat, and left their coating all over my shorts and car keys. Luckily the actual tablets were still intact, just minus their coating. I swallowed them and told myself now I had one 10-mile run and one 6-mile run left, and that was doable. The Advil would kick in and get me through the 10, and then I could walk the 6 if I had to.

I was right at 2:00 when I got to the half, which was much better than I thought I would do, and then I relaxed a little, because I knew that even if my foot fell apart, I would still be able to finish. It hurt, and I wasn't running fast, but I was still running and felt like I could continue as long as I could accept a moderate level of pain. I could. It was worth it to me to get this medal and finish my 50th marathon without ever dropping out of a race.

At Mile 19 there was an aid station with a sign that read "Medical Dropout." The guy manning the station had a little Cavalier King Charles with him. It was the same color as Duncan. I had to stop. I stepped up on the grass and the guy came walking over with his clipboard, looking concerned. I said, "I'm not dropping. But can I please, please pet your dog?" She was looking at me with big, adoring brown eyes just like Duncan's, and wagging her tail. "Sure, she loves to be petted!" the guy said. "Of course she does!" I answered, and petted her for about a minute while the guy took picture after picture of me petting her. I really hope they end up on the Fargo Marathon's Facebook. I got renewed energy from petting the Cavalier, which was great! Usually I only get renewed energy when I see someone else suffering more than I am.

At Mile 21, I gradually started overtaking a girl who looked like she had had a most unfortunate accident. She had white tights (why any runner would get those, I can't even imagine), and one leg was splattered with brown swirls from the crotch all the way down the leg. I stared, horrified. Sure I have heard of people deciding to just go on the run if they were about to PR or something, but we weren't even going to break four hours. I couldn't take my eyes off of this disaster. Finally, when I was immediately behind her, I saw other random swirls of the same color on the front of her tights and way up by her hips, and realized that they were colored that way on purpose! I was relieved that she hadn't had an accident, but it was absolutely inconceivable to me that anyone would either make or buy those tights. To each their own, I guess.

We had a couple miles through Fargo's downtown at the end, which is a great place for a downtown stretch in any marathon. Fargo has a cool downtown, and again I wished I had more time to spend there. From there it was a little more than a mile back to the Fargodome. It started sprinkling just as I turned into the Fargodome parking lot. Do I have good timing, or what?

I got to see myself finish on the Jumbo Tron. I was 20 seconds faster than I was in OKC. My foot hurt in all those different places, but at least I could still walk on it, which was by no means a foregone conclusion. I got my medal and then dove into the food. Chocolate milk, donut holes, pizza, and something I had never seen at a marathon before -- little plastic cups of cookie dough! Not cookie dough ice cream, but actual cookie dough. Oh yeah!

One final awesome thing about Fargo -- we got to use the Fargodome showers for free. And there was good water pressure and the water was hot. Imagine how great that felt after 26 miles in the 40's? Pretty amazing!

I am more proud of races like these, where I get a bad time after suffering, than I am of races that I breeze through and get a good time. I believe that pushing through suffering in races like these gives people strength for getting through the Mile 19's of life. Not that I have any of those in my life; my life is perpetually Mile 5, where I'm all the way warmed up and full of energy, but I guess no one gets Mile 5's in life forever, so I can only hope that when I hit Mile 19, I'm prepared.

I'm registered for Casper in two weeks. While I know I probably shouldn't do it, I also think I will be able to get through it since today's race didn't cripple me. I will get some new shoes and probably not run at all between now and Casper. I'll do what I need to do to get through Casper, then take a month off running, then maybe actually train for Baltimore in October. (What a concept, I know! I'm not sure I can actually stick to that, but it seems like a good thing to try.)

Monday, May 1, 2017

Great Event, Lousy Day for State #40-- Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon Race Report

This was my second marathon of 2017, and I don't think I ever had any hopes of it being a good one. I hadn't run more than 10 miles at a time since the marathon in Mobile in January, partly due to that massive ankle sprain that happened in February (and cost me a month of training) and partly because it was winter and gross and I didn't feel like running. Also, I'm at least 10 pounds heavier than I should be. This makes a huge difference in comfort when running, trust me. Finally, I had bought a pair of Altras about a month ago just to try them. They are very comfortable when running, due to their incredibly wide toe box and incredibly generous cushioning, but after every run in them, my heel hurts again. Meanwhile, when I ran in my regular Brooks, they hurt while running (because my toes felt all cramped in them) but my heel didn't hurt afterwards. So I didn't decide until the day before the race which shoes I would wear. I settled on the Brooks, because I ran an easy five miles two days before the race in the Altras and afterwards my heel felt as bad as it had at the worst of my plantar fasciitis, so bad that it was very painful to walk through the airport the next day. 

As if all that wasn't bad enough, the weather was also dismal. I flew into Oklahoma City on Saturday through violent skies, with giant black thunderheads, scary lightning, and wind that slammed the plane up and down and side to side while we were coming in for landing. We had already added 45 minutes to the 2-hour flight because the plane had to go far to the west and circle back to get around the worst of the storms. Nevertheless, it was all supposed to clear out for race day although the cold temperatures were predicted to remain. (By "cold," I mean mid-40's, which some runners -- not me -- would call "ideal.") Saturday, though, was a total wash. It poured most of the day. It was absolutely not a day to make anyone feel like getting out and exploring the city. 

People in Oklahoma are friendly, and I mean really, really, aggressively, in-your-face friendly. I remember that from the one other time I was in Oklahoma City. I did a home training there more than ten years ago. Everywhere I went with the guy, it was like I had a dozen new best friends there immediately. At the time I thought it was charming; now, older and crankier, I mostly think it's annoying. For example: the woman at the rental car counter greeted me with an enthusiastic, "Welcome to Oklahoma! What brings y'all here?" When I told her the marathon, she said to her coworker, "Oh my gosh, Becky, did you hear that? She's running the marathon! Wow! Is this your first?" I responded, "No." She asked how many, and I reluctantly told her it was my 49th. A very long discussion ensued during which she made sure every single person renting a car knew how amazing that was. Meanwhile, I was like, give me my car so I can go to my motel and SLEEP!

Finding parking for the expo was a pain. I drove around and around downtown in the rain but literally could not find anywhere to park where I wouldn't get soaked walking to the expo. Finally I parked six blocks away and walked -- or more accurately limped on my very painful right foot -- through the rain and through the gigantic puddles at every intersection. I was very annoyed about the parking situation. I know Oklahoma City is a big city, but, at the risk of sounding like a coastal snob, I believe that every city in flyover country should have plenty of free, available parking everywhere, downtown included. 

The expo was huge. I hadn't really realized quite how big this race was. Over 25,000 runners between the marathon, the half, the 5K, and the kids' run. It was one of the biggest expos I've been at in a while, but a lot of the vendors had nothing to do with running, and there weren't a lot of free food samples, so it wasn't a very exciting expo either. I was feeling pretty blah about the day and the whole event until I checked out some of the displays on the history and meaning of the race. It was established to commemorate the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building back in 1995, which I had sort of forgotten about. I definitely didn't remember how many people had been killed -- 168! I would've guessed 20-something -- and I had no idea how much damage had been caused to the building. There were plenty of pictures, videos, and other things on display from that day that reminded me what a massive tragedy it really was. There are still a lot of first responders and friends and family members of the victims who run in one of the races. When I saw all that stuff I felt a little bad about being so cranky about the weather and the race.

After the expo, I went straight to my motel and slept for several hours while the storm went on outside. There were several races in surrounding states that were cancelled on Saturday, and I'm sure this one would have been too if it was planned for Saturday instead of Sunday based on the amount of damage I saw driving around later. There was one street where a whole row of power poles were done, some snapped in two or three pieces, and several places with giant trees blown down. Stop lights were out all over the city. It was a big mess. Even when the storm passed, the wind was blowing like nothing I've ever experienced. Let me tell you, it takes some pretty violent weather to make Michigan weather look tame, but Oklahoma had that weather this weekend!

Race morning it was raining and still very windy. I went back and forth -- tights or shorts? It was 45 degrees out, but felt much colder with the wind. I went with shorts. This race had a 6:30 start, which is early for marathons. I totally could've used another hour in bed, but at the same time, I was happy about the early start. Just like teaching class -- you can't finish it and be done with it until you start it, so you might as well start it sooner. 

I had made a point to find the closest McDonalds for my race breakfast, and check to make sure it was open 24 hours, but when I got there it was completely dark. I found another one and drove to it. It was also all dark, with a handwritten sign saying "Closed for weather." I was forced to settle for a Circle K ham and egg sandwich and coffee, and now I was a little late, too. Fortunately it was much easier to find parking in the morning than it had been for the expo. Unfortunately, as soon as I got out of the car I knew shorts was the wrong choice. I should've had tights, and also a buff and a hat. The wind was so strong it was hard to hear anything else. 

I sat wrapped up in my blanket right next to the gear check tent until the last possible moment, wondering how all those volunteers in gear check could possibly be so cheerful. I couldn't have felt less cheerful. I so did not want to be running a marathon in these conditions! Or in any conditions really, with my sore foot and my ten extra pounds of fat. Nevertheless. I wanted that medal and I wanted to check Oklahoma off my list, so I was at the start line at 6:30, even though surrendering my blanket to gear check was very difficult, and I was instantly freezing. 

This race is known for both hills and iffy weather. Rain and wind have both been factors about half the time in this race's 17-year history. I did not mind the hills at all, but the wind was a different story. If there is one weather condition that is more depressing to run in than any other, it's wind! I would rather have rain, heat, snow, even extreme cold. There is just something about wind that has always sucked every bit of motivation out of me, and now I was facing 26.2 miles of it. The hills, on the other hand, I didn't mind at all. I like races with a lot of up and down. They keep me from getting bored. I was hoping that the challenge of the hills would keep me going.

The race started downtown, right next to the memorial and museum. We had a couple miles of downtown and then started heading toward the capitol. My legs were dead. I felt like I had already run a marathon on them. At least my foot didn't hurt, though. I told myself that I would warm up and feel better, and that the wind couldn't be head wind all the way.

We ran up to and past the capitol building around Mile 3. That was the coolest part of the race in my opinion. You could see the building up on a hill in the sunrise, silhouetted against the sky. There is an oil rig in the middle of the road on the way up to it. I think I read somewhere that Oklahoma is the only state that has an oil rig on capitol property. That whole thing was cool, but then it was done. 

I don't really remember that much about most of the rest of the race. There were some really nice neighborhoods with amazing numbers of spectators out there freezing their asses off but somehow still managing to cheer with enthusiasm. There was more crowd support than any other big race I've been in lately. I think it may be because residents of this city really care about the cause. It's personal to them, therefore they don't mind being out there in the cold cheering. Good for them! It's just too bad that I was still so cranky that nothing could cheer me up. Not first responders, not family members of victims, not adorable little kids with their hands stretched out hopefully for high fives, not hot men in uniform manning water stops. This was just not going to be a good day for me, and there was nothing to do but grit my teeth and gut it out. 

Mile 15 was where it really got bad. Several miles of the course runs along the shoreline of Lake Hefner. This is a very pretty part of the course I'm sure, but it turned us directly into the wind. Wind blasted across the lake and into our faces. Worse, I knew how far we had to run in this general direction. There were giant whitecaps on the lake, making it look more like the ocean than like a freshwater inland lake. That was one of the most depressing stretches of any race ever. And still, STILL, there were happy, cheering Oklahomans, even some out on boats, getting slammed up and down but still cheering for runners! How could that be? I would never, not for any reason, be out in this weather if I didn't have a very good reason, and cheering for runners would not be a good enough reason. 

Nothing really exciting happened the rest of the race. Oh, except that it started to rain, despite the weatherman's optimism that the rain would have cleared out. The sun was shining, but it was still raining. It rained most of the last ten miles, never hard, just enough to soak my clothes and make me colder. There seemed to be a lot more uphill than downhill in the last ten miles, though my perception was not to be trusted by that point. I walked when I felt like it, ran when I had a little extra energy. I knew I wasn't going to break four hours, and when I know that, I sort of give up. Also, my foot started hurting around Mile 18 or 19. Not like a real injury, just like I'm tired and I'm sore and it would've been nice if you'd trained properly -- or at all -- for this race. My calves also started to cramp going up hills, something that never happens to me in races, but, again, I never go almost four months without running more than ten miles at a time, either, so I pretty much deserved this. 

I finished in 4:14:43, one of my worst times and definitely one of my worst race experiences. The finish line had decent food -- Carl's Jr cheeseburgers among other things! Because I hadn't run fast, I didn't feel nauseous, and immediately inhaled a burger and two chocolate milks before I realized I was in danger of hypothermia if I didn't get warm quick. I picked up my bag from gear check and walked to the YMCA, where they were letting us shower for free. I was the only one in the YMCA, and even though the water in the shower was barely a trickle, it was deliciously hot. I stood there in the scalding trickle for half an hour and discovered something even better when I came out -- a sauna! I sat in there for even longer, roasting comfortably. I love heat. I love it so much I swear that I will never, ever complain about heat again. 

When I was done showering, I put my bag back in the car and then had to make a decision. My race bib got me free entry into the memorial museum, which was only two blocks away, but that would require me to go out into the terrible cold wind for two blocks and hobble to the museum on my sore foot. What to do? Finally I sucked it up and went to the museum, and I am so, so glad that I did. Anyone who is anywhere near Oklahoma City should not miss this museum. It has some horrifying stuff in it, but is also very tastefully done, and overall is one of the best museums I have ever seen in my life.

State #40 is done, and even though it was a terribly unpleasant experience due to weather and my own lack of training, I can't say anything bad about the race itself. It's a great course, a great experience, and a solid choice for Oklahoma for 50 staters. Now I can just hope that this counts as a training run for my next marathon, in Fargo on May 20, and that that one is not as painful as this one was. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

Supposed to Be #2 of a Back-to-Back, Ended Up Being Just Another Marathon -- First Light Marathon Race Report

That first hour on the road between Jackson and Mobile was terrifying, but once I was a little further south, the ice and snow were all gone, the sun was out, and it was a beautiful, if cold, day in the South. The ice and snow were just a memory. By the time I parked outside the expo in downtown Mobile, I could almost forget it was January except for the harsh wind that slapped me in the face as soon as I got out of the car. Oh well. I do not like wind, at all; I consider it one of the most demoralizing weather conditions to run in, but I would take it if it meant I got to take home at least one medal this weekend.

I had never been to Mobile. Forgive me for saying that I expect mid-size southern cities to be crappy – poor, ugly, not well-maintained, et cetera. This does NOT include Atlanta, which is fast becoming one of my favorite cities, or Nashville. I’m talking about the Birminghams and Little Rocks and Jacksonvilles and Montgomeries, and yes, I know there are awesome parts of every one of those cities but that does not keep my overall impression from being “crappy”. I expected Mobile to be this way too, because why wouldn’t it be? But no. It was clean, cute, historic, and had a downtown that would have been highly walkable if not for the frigid temperatures.

The First Light Marathon benefits the L’Arche charity in Mobile, an organization that provides services to adults with developmental disabilities. The medals are handmade by L’Arche clients. This is generally considered to be something that makes this race special. Marathonguide and other race review sites are loaded with comments about how these handmade medals are so much more meaningful than other races’ medals. I am an asshole because I don’t want my medal to be handmade by anyone, but especially not by an adult with a developmental disability. I cannot believe the number of people who could put a handmade medal side-by-side with, say, a Rock and Roll medal and say that the handmade one is superior. So I was not excited about the medal, but did not, of course, say so to anyone at the expo. They had also handmade a canvas… thing, I guess a plaque of some kind, with canvas stretched tight over a frame and painted in tie dye colors, for all Back 2 Back finishers. On the back of the plaque was a biography of the L’Arche client that had made that plaque. I felt like even more of an asshole for not going, “Awwwww,” about the plaque, but I did smile and say “Thank you.”

I was staying at the Holiday Inn downtown, which was one of the host hotels and was a block from the start line and like eight blocks from the finish line. I sat in the lobby and wrote my blog about yesterday’s race that didn’t happen while the hotel steadily filled up with runners. Lots of them were wearing the Mississippi Blues jacket, as was I. Hey, it is a nice, warm jacket and every time another guest came into the lobby, an icy blast of wind entered with them, so I needed the warmth.

Downtown Mobile had lots of restaurants that looked awesome, but I decided to eat in the Holiday Inn restaurant because I was too cold to go out. The night before in Jackson, I had eaten at the best marathon restaurant I’d ever eaten at, and last night in the Holiday Inn, I ate at the worst one. I ordered chicken alfredo, which should have been safe. They brought out a giant pile of linguini smothered in lumpy, room temperature cheese sauce with two thin, floppy chicken breasts the exact size of tilapia fillets perched on top. The whole mess was sprinkled with some kind of orange seasoning. I was dismayed to see that the chicken wasn’t cut up – you’d think for $17 they would have. I cut it up with resignation. My steak knife had a lot of trouble getting through the chicken. That was because it was the consistency of a rubber dog toy. Not a Kong, but the kind that costs $1 at the dollar store, the kind that no responsible dog owner would give their dog. If you had handed me a frozen chicken breast and said, “Cook this to the texture of rubber,” I would not have had the faintest idea how to proceed. The linguini was edible, barely. The chicken, no way. The waitress was so nice and overly helpful I did not have the heart to tell her how awful it was. I just asked for a box, trashed it on the way out, and dined on Sun Chips, Snackwells, and microwave popcorn from the machine for my pre-race dinner.

The morning was chilly, 24, with a 10 mph wind blowing but I had the clothes for it so I was okay. There are so many good things about having a hotel right by the start line! I got to relax in my 79-degree bedroom and read and drink coffee and use my own bathroom rather than a stinking, freezing, dark Porta pottie. The race was supposed to start at 7:30. I went down to the lobby at 7:15, and out to the start line at 7:25. Somewhere in there, I realized two things: 1) I hate winter races, and 2) I was so relieved that I was not starting the race on dead legs from the B2B, that I was GLAD the Blues was cancelled yesterday. Actively glad, not just accepting-the-cancellation-because-it-was-the-right-thing-to-do. Furthermore, I am not going to do any more B2B’s. I have a good job, I have disposable income, and I am almost done with the states, and I don’t have to do B2B’s! That’s it. No more. I stood and shivered on the start line and thought about how I didn’t want to do this race, but I did want the medal. I knew I was going to do it, but I wasn’t going to enjoy it.

The first part of the course went through some beautiful historic neighborhoods, with old, grand houses and giant, moss-covered oak trees. Then we went out onto a main road. There is a big gap in my memory as to what was between the main road and the I-65 overpass at Mile 10 or so. The course was flat until the overpass. Then we got to a couple of hills in a row that climbed around a park and golf course. The scenery was beautiful and I welcomed the hills to stretch out my legs. Despite the beautiful route, I was so not into the whole thing. I was stressed about a lot of things: whether I would finish in time to shower at my hotel (they wouldn’t give me a later checkout time than noon, which I think is pretty crappy for a host hotel), whether I would feel sick during the 4.5-hour drive to Atlanta, whether my flight would be delayed and I would have to worry about the dogs being stuck at home alone since Will left to go to California. My foot hurt but no more than it always hurts just walking around. Mostly I just didn’t want to be outside in the cold. It wasn’t even that cold, relatively speaking, high 20’s; I was just cranky because it was January and I knew that the next week temps would be in the 70’s every day down here and it just wasn’t fair. I could not imagine how bad I would have felt if I had run a marathon the previous day, especially one in weather as shitty as it was in Jackson.

After the golf course, the course went through the University of South Alabama, which was gorgeous and totally, 100% empty. Not a single person was moving around outside other than race volunteers and runners. Then came The Hill at Mile 18. This one was steep enough that it was referred to as The Hill or the big hill on most of the race reviews. Right before it was an aid station serving chicken broth. Oh yeah! Is chicken broth not the perfect winter marathon aid station food? Warm, salty, bland, totally balances out the viscous GU. I would like to say the chicken broth gave me wings and I was able to fly up that hill, but that would be a lie. I ran some and walked some just like everyone else.

There was lots and lots of downhill after The Hill, but I didn’t even enjoy that. My foot hurt, my IT band was twinging, and my guts hurt, like I’d been brutally beaten instead of just run 20 miles. Something definitely felt biomechanically off. I was running on old, pretty dead shoes because the orthotics in the new ones I bought last week didn’t feel quite right, so maybe that was it. No matter what the reason, when I got to Mile 20 I started really thinking about time. I was at 2:55, which meant sub-4:00 should be easily attainable. All I had to do was keep 10-minute/mile pace. But I was sore and now my stomach was sort of bothering me too. I always say I don’t care what my finish time is, but lately I have been caring, and really wanting to always be under four hours. There is a thing called 50 Sub-4:00, which is running a sub-4:00 marathon in all 50 states. I’m not saying that I’m taking that on after I finish my 50 states, but I’m also not saying I’m not. (Not that I’m counting, but I have sub-4:00 finishes in 20 of the 39 states I’ve completed so far. That means 19 I would have to repeat.  If I was going to do that.) I always say it’s not worth it to me to get a good time if it means I will feel bad afterwards, especially not today with a 5-hour drive right after the race.  But I wanted that sub-4:00 and so I kept going. The last few miles of the course were a repeat of a section we had already done, one of the most boring sections of the course, so it was even more difficult to stay motivated, but I managed.

As I got into the downtown area, I saw that it was going to be close. When I most wanted to slow down, I had to speed up. Well, okay, I did, and squeaked in with a time of 3:58:51. Totally unimpressive, but at least I was under 4:00. I got my medal, which did not look handmade (and I mean that as a compliment), and also my back-to-back medal even though I didn’t do the back-to-back. Now THAT is a nice medal, a shiny blue and yellow spinner medal with Alabama on one side and Mississippi on the other.  Too bad I didn’t really earn it!

This race is supposed to have great post-race food. I guess the people who say that like red beans and rice more than I do. All I ever want post-race is chocolate milk and they did not have any. Hot chocolate is not the same. I took a corn muffin and jogged back to my hotel in an effort to get a shower before they kicked me out at 12:00. The corn muffin crumbled apart in my hand but I didn’t really care because I didn’t want it anyway. I got into my hotel at 11:41, in the shower at 11:44, and walked out my door at 11:58. Housekeeping was lurking outside my door like they were ready to knock at exactly 12:00. I was more proud of my record-breaking shower than I was of my race time.

The 4.5-hour drive back to Atlanta took 6.5 hours because I had painful, nauseating hiccups the entire way, and had to take several breaks to put my seat back and my feet up. Reclining made the hiccups go away, but they came back as soon as I sat up again. I hope that the next time I think about saving a couple hundred bucks by getting a cheap plane ticket that requires several hours of post-race driving, I remember how much fun that drive from Mobile to Atlanta was not.

This was supposed to be States #39 and 40 and Marathons #48 and 49, but it only turned out to be State #39 and Marathon #48. For some reason, missing out on Mississippi has fueled a reckless, budget-ignoring passion to do MORE races this year. All of the states! Not really; Hawaii and New Jersey for sure and most likely Mississippi, Florida, and Kansas are going to have to wait, but I want to knock all the rest out this year. The next one I’m for sure doing is Fargo on May 20, but I am pretty sure I’m going to find a way to do both Little Rock in March and Oklahoma City in April. Why is it that finishing one marathon only makes me want to do another one more, even when I do not actually enjoy either the marathon or its aftermath? That is one of the great mysteries of running.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Marathon That Didn't Happen (AKA Mississippi Blues Non-Marathon Report)

Races get cancelled because of weather, and runners start races and do not finish them. But in nearly 50 marathons, I have never had either one of those things happen to me... until today.

I was supposed to do a back-to-back -- Mississippi Blues in Jackson, Mississippi, on Saturday, and First Light in Mobile, Alabama, on Sunday. The forecast was for extreme cold both days, with some precipitation for Saturday's race. Maybe snow, maybe ice, no one seemed to know. As race day got closer, the forecast got more dismal -- colder, windier, more inclined toward ice and sleet than snow or rain. Still, the thought of the race being cancelled never seriously crossed my mind.

I flew to Atlanta and drove to Jackson. It was supposed to be a 5.5 hour drive. I love driving long distances, so it was a no-brainer to me to fly to and from Atlanta and save myself almost $300 on the plane fare. It's always cheap to go to Atlanta. The road was fine almost all the way to Jackson, although there was a general sense of impending panic on the roadways, with dramatic freeway signs warning "STORM PREDICTED! SNOW LIKELY! LIMIT DRIVING AND USE CAUTION! BEGINNING 4:00 PM FRIDAY AND CONTINUING THROUGH 1:00 PM SATURDAY!" When I stopped at Kroger to get peanut butter and bananas, the store was packed with parka-wearing Southerners loading up their carts with milk and bread like they might not be able to get to the store for weeks after this (even though temps will be back in the 60's in a few days). There was literally only ONE banana left, and I bought it.

A wintery mix started coming down somewhere around the Mississippi/Georgia state line, but the roads were utterly unaffected. As I got closer to Jackson, the roads finally got a bit slick. Sleet was pounding on the windshield so loud I couldn't hear my audio book. I still wasn't worried even though the last 20 miles took me an hour. By the time I got to the expo downtown, the ground was carpeted with an inch or so of slush. My feet were soaked as soon as I got out of the car, and I slipped three times walking across the street from the car to the expo. There was a cop stopping traffic so runners could cross the street, and he was so cold he got back into his car between runners to warm up. For the first time I had a flash of doubt. It was impossible to walk without slipping. This inch-thick layer of slush was on everything, and the temperature was supposed to plummet to around 20 degrees overnight. What was going to happen to this slush? Why, of course, it would freeze, creating an inch-thick layer of ice. And what would be done about the frozen slush in the 12 hours between then and race start? It would be a huge logistics challenge for a northern city that is used to snow and ice, but what would a southern city do?

The atmosphere in the expo was subdued. The race officials behind the tables had to answer the same question over and over: "Is the race going to be cancelled?" There had been an email sent out earlier that day saying the race was still going on as planned and we would be informed of any changes in plans as they happened, and they were telling people the same thing at the expo. There was one guy playing the blues and he was amazingly good. I don't even like music and I wanted to sit down and listen to him, but I didn't, because I more wanted to get to my hotel and then get something to eat.

The sidewalk and road had gotten even more slippery during the fifteen minutes I'd been in the expo, and they had closed the main entrance because the floor had gotten too slick, and were directing people around the side of the building to use a carpeted entrance instead. The roads were pretty much deserted as I drove to my hotel. (The hotel looked very familiar, and when I parked my car and got out, I realized it was exactly where I had filmed a Leader Dog client's application video almost two years ago. Random! Never would have guessed I would be back here in this same exact spot, in an ice storm, getting ready to run a marathon.)

Still no word about cancellation. I wished I had brought my DueNorth traction aids with me -- I could've used them in the hotel parking lot! I googled, trying to find a place in Jackson where I could buy DueNorths. Nothing; the closest place was in Georgia. Same with Yak Traks. I tried to imagine some circumstances under which it would be remotely safe to run any part of tomorrow's marathon when it was totally unsafe to walk anywhere at all right now and it was only going to get colder. I knew there was no way running the race was a good idea. I also knew that I was stupid and stubborn and would do the race if it was not cancelled. Even if I broke my head open or broke my leg and put my job in jeopardy and wouldn't run another marathon all year, or ever. There was no chance I would fail to be on that starting line if the race went on, no matter what, and that was when I began earnestly hoping for cancellation.

I went out to dinner at the Iron Horse Grill. This was the very best restaurant I have ever eaten at before a race. Oh my God, it was so good I can still taste the roll and the chicken I had right now if I think about it. I don't really like Jackson but I want to go back just for that restaurant. By the time I left the restaurant, every surface including the parking lot and my car was covered with a pebbly glaze of ice, the texture I imagine a Gila monster's beaded skin would be if I could touch it. I was stalking Facebook like a madwoman, hoping for that cancellation so bad. Still no word, although there were plenty of posts from people stuck here and there along the way or stranded at airports because of the weather. Oh, God, this thing was going to go on. Resigned, I laid out my clothes for the next day, pinned my race number on my shirt, took a long, hot shower, and set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. I checked Facebook one more time and there it was -- officially cancelled. Oh, what a profound relief. I didn't have to break my neck. I could sleep in without hating myself for bailing on a race. Yes, yes, it's a bummer I won't get to color in Mississippi on my map or get to pat myself on the back for being a bad-ass back-to-backer AGAIN, for the fourth time, but I can live with all that.

The general sentiment on social media seems to be that it was the right decision, but there are always a few people who like to bitch about stuff. Specifically, I heard the following:

1) They should have told us earlier! So I wouldn't have had to (choose one) fly here to Jackson or drive 12 hours through snow to get here or take off work on Friday. But the thing is, no one knew exactly how bad it would turn out to be. Imagine if they had cancelled it 24 hours in advance and then there had been no accumulation of any kind and running conditions would have been fine. You think people wouldn't get pissed then? Oh yes they would! They cancelled it at the point that it became apparent that there was no way conditions would be acceptable.

2) We should get a free race entry next year instead of just a discount! Right, because the companies that supplied the medals, jackets, expo expenses, porta-potties, Gatorade, and all the other marathon necessities will just give the money back to the race director in exchange for their stuff back. Or else they will supply it all for free next year because they feel bad about this year. Nope, our registration fees paid for that stuff this year and will again next year. It's great that they are going to give us a discount for next year and I am going to take advantage of it, but I wouldn't even think of asking for anything more.

3) We should have been able to choose whether we can run or not! Now, listen, I am a pretty selfish person. But even I know that a marathon is not just about the runners. What about the volunteers manning the aid stations? 20 degrees with 10-15 mph winds is cold for runners, but doable. But can you imagine being stuck at an aid station for 6-7 hours, pouring Gatorade or water, standing still, spilling liquids on yourself, worrying about spilled liquid freezing? Or can you imagine getting up at 5 a.m. and driving over the (practically impassable) ice highways just to go do something for which you are not going to get paid and are not going to get the satisfaction of crossing off a state? I know that if I were a volunteer, I would not do that under any circumstances because that level of misery and danger is something to which I would not expose myself for any reason!

4) It's just ice, I live in Michigan/Minnesota/Canada and we run in that all the time, it's no big deal, just put on some traction aids or put screws in your shoes and go! Well, okay, but again, this is a SOUTHERN race and for many or maybe most of the people involved, this weather is not something they ever have to deal with. Jackson has no sand, no salt, no plows, no experience functioning in these conditions. It seems like people just don't go out on the rare occasions this happens. They stay home and wait for it to melt, which it always does. Also, our northern winters may be brutal, but I can say that I have never felt as imperiled by weather as I did during this brief little stay in Jackson. I have never felt so little confidence in my own abilities to stay upright and stay on the road, and I run outside in virtually all conditions, work outside all day almost every day, and have never once been unable to drive somewhere because of weather in all of my four years in Michigan and seven in New York/New Jersey, so don't talk to me about winter weather!

5) Just start the race a couple hours later, let it warm up a little! What, from 20 to 25? Race logistics, especially in a city, can't just be changed on a whim. Also, how do you communicate those changes to everyone? Also, the biggest reason of all, that ice wasn't going anywhere! It was still horrible hours later. It might still be horrible now for all I know.

In case you haven't figured it out, I am as sure as can be that that race director made the right choice. I think the majority of other runners think so too, especially those who made it into Jackson and saw how bad it was. I can't imagine how it must have felt to be the guy who had to make the call. Actually, I can. I have a vivid imagination. I can imagine all of it -- the hoping that it wouldn't be as bad as predicted, the denial as it got worse, the communications with law enforcement who were no doubt unanimously in favor of calling it off, the thought of all the months of training that people had put in for this, the thought of the expense that people had incurred buying plane tickets, the thought of all the people who struggled to get to Jackson and risked their necks on dangerous roads who would now find out that it would all be for nothing, the despair at the flood of incoming emails saying  Is it cancelled? Please don't cancel it!, the worry that the stellar reputation of this race would take a hit -- but deep down, the growing certainty that there was NO WAY I could justify the risk to the volunteers and runners, and the knowledge that if one person, volunteer or runner, was killed by a car sliding through an intersection, or by losing control of their own car driving to the race, I would see that person's face in my mind every day of my life and know I could have prevented that. I can imagine the moment when he (or maybe she, I don't know the race director) accepted the inevitable and put the word out. If I was him, I would probably sat down and looked at all the beautiful shiny medals and classy jackets that people hadn't been able to pick up and cried. So much work went into setting up this event, and now it's all for nothing. (Except it isn't. The race organizers did the right thing, and they know it, and I think 95% or more of the runners know it too, and the ones that don't know it right now because of disappointment will eventually accept it.)

This morning I had planned to sleep in, but I decided to leave Jackson earlier than planned because I thought the road probably was not going to get any better throughout the day, and I thought that probably it would be smarter to try to get on the road before it was too crowded. So at 8:00 I was on the interstate. I was literally the least intelligent person in Jackson at 8:00 this morning. Every single other person was smart enough to know the interstate was not drivable. I was the only person on it. Every overpass and bridge was iced over. Not just a little ice, but an unbroken sheet of ice. I crept over them one at a time at 5 mph, knowing I had essentially no control over my little Kia. As I drove up over yet another five-lane-wide bridge, it opened up in front of me looking like an iced-over football field. I felt a little slip under my front wheels. I couldn't go any slower than I was going, but I knew enough not to touch the brakes or try to correct the slip with the steering wheel. Somehow the slip got worse and my little car was fishtailing from one side to the other. I was looking at the guardrails from entirely the wrong angle and my car was facing the wrong way. I have almost-wrecked a car three times in my life, and every time it's like time slows down. I had time for all of these very conscious thoughts: This shit is out of my hands. Guess I should've gotten the insurance on this car. At least I'm not going to die; not going fast enough and no other cars on this road. Will I freeze while I wait for help though? Or should I walk for help? I am so, so dumb for trying to drive. What a dumb ass. Guess I won't be able to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail next year; I'll be paying off this crappy little Kia forever. Then my car miraculously righted itself and the slide stopped. My pulse was 159 (thank you, Apple watch!), pretty close to Zone 5, which I cannot hit even when I try during workouts. I am totally counting my drive out of Jackson as a cardio workout. After that terrifying episode, I decided that's it, I'm getting off the road. Only there was no exit right away. And when I got to a place where there was an exit, there was nowhere to go off the exit, no Waffle House or coffee shop, just a deserted industrial area where the road was even worse than the interstate. And then I reached the highway that I would take to Mobile, and it was slightly better than the interstate because at least there were tire tracks laid down in the ice that I could follow. I just had to straddle the ice line in the middle. And then after a few very slow miles on that highway, the tire tracks got wider and the ice thinned out. And then the ice disappeared and it was a cold, but very beautiful, day, and the memory of that terror on the bridge faded. (But it's never going to go away entirely, just like the memory of my other two near-wrecks, in 1994 and 2006, have not. You tend to remember moments when it could've all gone south quick.)

I've made it to Mobile and it is bitter cold outside, but there is no ice and I'm running that race tomorrow. If I'm bummed about only being able to color in one state on my map, I will try to balance that out by being happy that I'm still alive despite my stupidity and that I don't have to spend the next few years paying for a totaled rental car.