Sunday, December 6, 2015

Wrapping Up 2015 -- Rehoboth Beach Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 13, 2015

Losing My Pacer Virginity -- Harrisburg Marathon Race Report

I have admired pacers always. I remember being at one of my very early marathons, maybe even the first one, Chicago, and seeing the group of people with the signs and thinking, "Ooooooooo, the pace team, this must be a real race." In later marathons I ran with pace groups sometimes, although I never stayed with them till the finish. I always either dropped back or else felt strong and went on ahead. (Okay, that second one only happened one time, but it did happen!) I remained wowed by pacers. They were like... maybe not running gods, exactly, but definitely the coolest runners there were. I mean, elite athletes are cool and everything, but they are always hidden in their own private tents pre-race and long-gone by the time I finish, not mingling with us normal people, and they are laser-focused on winning and training and not on socializing and having fun, which makes them less interesting to me as runners. Pacers, on the other hand, not only talk to regular runners, but enjoy it. Pacers welcome conversation and can always talk during a marathon even during the hard miles. They never look like they're having a hard time. They look like machines no matter where they are on the course. They don't need ear buds to run. They have the confidence to be like, "Yeah, I can totally predict how fast I'll run this race down to a few seconds, no big deal." And they can do it all while carrying a sign!

So, yes, always thought pacers were cool. Then came the Detroit Marathon a few weeks ago. I knew that my running friend John from Arizona has been a pacer for a while, but I hadn't seen him since I left Tucson. Well, he came to Detroit to be the 3:45 pacer (after being the 3:30 pacer in Chicago a week before, no big deal). I wasn't running, so I went out to be a spectator and cheer on the 3:45 group. He was right on with his time and somewhere that day I started thinking, I think I might be able to do this. I mean, I've run a lot of marathons and if I picked a time that was slower than any of my normal marathons, so I knew I could do it without too much difficulty, that should work, right?

I contacted the guy who runs John's pacing team, Marathon Pacing, and he said to send him an application. So I did, and didn't hear anything back, until last Tuesday when I got an email saying a pacer cancelled and could I pace Harrisburg on Sunday? I said sure, as long as it was a pace I knew I could do. He gave me the 4:30 group, which sounded perfect for my first time, and gave me some assignments involving track repeats and a stopwatch. I did the assignments. They went okay, so I headed out to Harrisburg on Saturday.

Harrisburg is an 8-hour drive from here. I don't think I have ever been there. First surprise -- it is a really cool city! It's on the banks of the Susquehanna River, which is a really, really beautiful river, and there are like six or seven bridges right in a row. Two of them go to this island called City Island, where there is a stadium and some other tourist attractions. The state capitol building is really grand, much more than I would have thought. The downtown is super walkable and looked like a really fun place to explore, if only I had had more time there. I barely had any time at all. We got there around 3:00 (we -- I forgot to mention that I picked up another pacer in Youngstown to carpool, someone I had never met before but I just assumed he would be cool because he was a pacer, and he was cool, so I was right), and went straight to the teeny tiny expo. The expo basically consisted of bib pick-up, one gear booth, and the pace team's table. There were like six of us at the table and never more than two other runners in the expo building at once. There were 700-something runners in the marathon but it was one of the smallest expos I've ever seen.

After the expo closed, we went back to the hotel. Another cool perk of being a pacer -- I don't have to pay for my own hotel! And it was the Hilton, vastly nicer than the Red Roof Inns and Motel 6's I usually stay at. I had another pacer as a roommate, and she was cool too. After we unpacked, we went out for the pacer dinner at a little Italian restaurant close to the hotel where I met all the other pacers. ALL of them were cool. There were some seriously accomplished runners in that group but you would never know it unless someone else in the group pointed out the accomplishments. No one bragged about themselves. I really believe this is because running is amazing for keeping you humble! (That's not the only thing it has in common with being a guide dog instructor.) No matter how good you are, there's always someone faster than you, and no matter how many things you win, there will always be a day where your body just won't let you do what you want to do even when you've done everything right. Hence, humility, and humility is a very valuable quality in a person.

After dinner we had a meeting back at the hotel, where they covered subjects like logistics of race morning, what to do if someone needs medical assistance and what to do if you're having a bad day and won't be able to finish on time. The other pacers gave me all kinds of information and advice. It was great to feel like part of a group of people who were laser-focused on DOING IT RIGHT. We were supposed to aim for 30 seconds under our predicted finish time, so for me, 4:29:30. Plus or minus ten seconds on either side of that was acceptable, but more than that was not desirable. This may not be a paid job (other than the waived entry fee, the hotel, and the dinner), but I took it just as seriously as if it was, and everyone else did too. I went to bed feeling prepared.

Race morning was sunny and 43 degrees, a great improvement over the forecast of 32 degrees. There was no McDonald's within walking distance so I made do with Dunkin Donuts instead. (I prefer McD's, but I'm flexible.) All of us walked over to the start line together. I was really excited and only a tiny bit nervous. The tiny bit nervous was just because of the unknown. Sure, it's always possible to have a bad day but I felt fine, no pain anywhere, I knew the course was flat, and we had perfect weather. so the odds were totally in my favor.

People started talking to me as soon as I lined up in my spot at the start line. There were a few first timers, several who had done anywhere from one to ten previous marathons, and one guy who was on #87. I was not nervous at all talking to these people; I was filled with confidence that I would be able to get the time I wanted, all I had to do was watch my watch. I had been told that when pacers miss their time it's usually because they have gotten distracted talking to their group and not been paying attention to their watch. I vowed that that was not going to happen to me. I had a stopwatch on my left wrist for mile splits (according to the mile markers, NOT according to my GPS miles) and my Garmin on my right wrist so I could check average pace and make sure I was in the ballpark all the time. I also had a chart with the goal mile times taped to my sign. So my plan was to check my Garmin every few seconds to check average pace (which should be 10:18 per mile), and when my Garmin beeped the mile, start looking for the mile marker (which would NOT be the same as the Garmin mile, because 99% of the time the GPS measures the course as long, or more than 26.2, like 26.4), and then try to adjust my pace to the mile marker so that my time when I got to the mile marker was as close as possible to the goal mile time taped to the sign.

What I found out during this experience was that all you have to do to do an adequate job of pacing is look at your watch all the time. I mean ALL THE TIME. I looked at my watch, seriously, probably every 10 seconds or so, throughout the entire 26.2 miles. I looked at the goal mile time taped to the sign probably five or six times each mile, in an attempt to memorize it and compare it to the time showing on my watch. Note that I said all you have to do to do an adequate job of pacing is look at your watch all the time. I would like to be excellent instead of just adequate, and to do that I will need to get better at running by feel and not just by watch. My mile times were all over the place. My first one was the fastest, 9:47, which is just the opposite of what it should be. The first couple should be slow, to let people warm up. (Not that this is an excuse, but the first two mile markers were missing. Seriously. I had been planning to adjust my pace when I saw the mile marker in the distance, but that didn't happen because the first two mile markers were just not there, and my Garmin beeped the mile with no sign of the mile marker anywhere.)

This course was a nice one for pacing because there were several out-and-backs where we got to see the other pace groups. Usually I don't know anyone in the marathons that I run, so it was nice to see familiar faces at predictable intervals. I had a great group for almost 18 miles. Everyone seemed to have picked the right group because they were breathing easy and able to keep conversation going. One of the things I had wondered about was how much are you supposed to talk to the people you're running with? The answer is, as much or as little as they want to talk. I was running a pace that was easy for me so I had plenty of breath for talking. There were several locals in the group and they enjoyed telling me about local history and, for some reason, stories about the river. They all liked to talk about the Susquehanna River and when it flooded and how you can see the high water marks and how when it's low, like it was on marathon day, you could practically wade across it. (I did in fact see a fisherman halfway across the river standing out there in hip waders.) Maybe we talked about the river so much because almost all of the course was alongside it. For once I never got tired of looking at the same scenery. Usually in a marathon I like a change of scenery no matter how beautiful the scenery is. Marathons like Tucson (Catalinas on your left, open desert on your right) and Lehigh (running through shady trees alongside a canal) have spectacular scenery but get boring after about 10 miles, but this one never did. Just take my word for it, the Susquehanna is a really pretty river. Or don't take my word for it; go run this marathon and see for yourself!

The leader passed us right around the half. That's always something to look forward to on courses with a lot of out and back. Not too long after him was the 3:15 pace group, and then all the rest like clockwork. The turnaround was between 17 and 18, and there, sadly, was where my group fragmented and most people dropped off the back. (Been there, done that. 17-18 is usually where I have fallen off the back of my pace group, when I've used them.)  Even though the "back" part was mostly flat or slightly downhill, and we had a tailwind, we were running straight into the sun, and there was a lot of sun. Air temp was around 50 but the direct sun made it feel a lot hotter. I discovered one cool thing about the pace sign -- it can be used as a sun visor. Seriously, I held it right in front of the sun and took care of that problem.

My group was gone by this point except for the guy who was running marathon #87. He still looked strong and I really thought he was going to finish with me. But his back started to bother him around Mile 22, and he had to drop back by Mile 24, so I was running by myself until I picked up a couple more people in the last mile. They wanted to finish with me but I had to slow down because I had something like 50 seconds to burn up in order to come in at 4:29:30. We passed the Mile 26 marker and I slowed to the slowest jog possible because I knew that the turn at the end of the block would put me in the finishers' chute and you really can't walk there. That second-to-last block was soooooooo slow. I seriously felt like time had slowed to a crawl. People were yelling, "Go! Go!" at me but I totally ignored them and kept my eyes glued to my watch and tried to guess how long it would take me to run that last block. It was really a bizarre last .2 miles. It felt totally wrong to hold back in the last blocks, especially when physically I felt better than fine from running at a pace so much slower than my normal one, but at the same time I really, really wanted to nail my time.

I never took my eyes off my watch as I ran up to and over the finish line -- 4:29:32. Pretty good! Even better, I felt fine, which is a good thing at a marathon that has finish line food like this one. Soup, mac-n-cheese, giant pretzels, I forget what all else now but it was good food, a total "buffet" finish line spread that I see more and more often now and therefore expect all the time. I ate a little then went back to the hotel for a quick shower before the long, long drive back.

This was Marathon #38, no new state but one of my favorite marathon experiences ever. I loved being a pacer and would want to do it again even without the perks of hotel and dinner. I hope to do enough of them that I can run more even miles in the future. I also should have known the course better so that when runners in my group were asking questions about it I could have answered them instead of relying on the local runners to answer them. But overall I did okay and can't wait to do it again. (I even bought a race photo for the first time since 2009... which says a lot.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Done With New England! Ocean State Rhode Race Marathon Report

Let me clear about one thing: marathon weekends are not vacations, even when there's only one marathon involved, and when there are two marathons involved, they are closer to work than they are to vacations. For me right now, they are incredibly long travel days topped off with a visit to the expo, checking into a crappy but affordable Motel 6, dragging myself out of bed before dawn the next morning, running the marathon, and then reversing the long travel day, usually sore and often nauseous and cranky too, in order to get back to Michigan in time to work again the next day. I refer to them as "hit it and quit it" trips.

New England is the first part of the country I can truly say I am done with. (I am so close to being able to say I'm done with the West... but because of Wyoming, I can't.) I capped it off with this Rhode Island marathon, whatever its actual name is. Seriously, I am confused. still refers to it as the Newport Marathon, which it used to be, but this year there was some problem with the race organizers not being able to get a permit for the part of the marathon that went through Newport. There was talk that it might be canceled, but instead they changed the course. Anyway, if you click on the Newport Marathon link on, it takes you to what looks to be a fully functioning webpage for the marathon, only it's not. The participant information packet referred to the race as the Ocean State Rhode Race Marathon. The medal says Ocean State Rhode Races Marathon, but the ribbon the medal is on says Narragansett Marathon (Narragansett was the town where the marathon started and ended.) The company that put it on, Eident Racing, refers to it on their website as the Narragansett Marathon. I am curious to see what the final name of the marathon will end up being. I have never seen so much ambiguity surrounding a marathon name!

Anyway, after the Hartford Marathon, we stayed in Hartford one more night, and got up early the next morning for the two-hour drive to Narragansett. (Hartford is a lot cheaper than Narragansett, which is a cute and expensive beach town, and the Narragansett race was a much smaller event and allowed race morning packet pickup.) The start and finish line were both right on the beach. It was a chilly morning but a beautiful sunrise. I really wasn't sore at all, and definitely did not feel like I had run a marathon the day before, but I also wasn't really excited about running another marathon. I was excited, though, that my Achilles didn't hurt at all and that my body felt pretty much okay, so I wasn't dragging myself to the start line heavy with dread like I was in Maine the last time I did back-to-backs five long years ago.

There were a few people wearing yesterday's Hartford Marathon T-shirt, and I was wrapped up in the heat sheet until the gun went off. I chatted briefly with all of the other Hartford runners during the first couple miles, but soon passed all of them. I wasn't feeling great, but I wasn't feeling terrible either.

I had been expecting ocean views the whole way. For the first three miles the road paralleled the coast, and then we turned off on a 4-mile loop through a neighborhood of fancy houses with ocean views. This was my favorite part of the course even though there were some hills. I was feeling good, not really sore at all. I talked to another Maniac who had done this double before and was doing it again to keep his sister company. Good for him. As for myself, I am becoming more obsessed with marathons than I ever have been, but I can say for sure that there is no way I would be doing back-to-backs if it wasn't getting me more states, no matter who else was doing them. I passed this guy and then passed a bunch more people and was running pretty much by myself for a while. The course headed away from the coast and spit us out on a main road. It was lined with trees and I couldn't see the ocean anymore. The weather was perfect, but the views were a little boring, especially because I knew this was the start of a long out-and-back so I would be looking at these views again on the way back. We had a slight tailwind and a slight downhill, which was all well and good for the moment but not so much when I thought about how those conditions would be reversed on the way back. Still, I counted my blessings because I wasn't nauseous or injured, just bored.

I got to the turnaround point around Mile 15 and began the slog back up the hill. (These were little baby hills, but still seemed plenty big.) Just past the Mile 17 marker, I hit a big hill and ran out of gas. I was tired, bored, knew there was no spectacular scenery to look forward to, had sore feet, and missed the cheering crowds of Hartford. I walked for quite a while but eventually managed to pick it up and jog slowly. Then I told myself I could walk for the first 1/10th of every mile as long as I ran, no matter how slowly, for the other 9/10th of it. In the end I ran almost the whole rest of the way, and even got back down to 8:30 pace after a while.

I started passing people who had walked the half-marathon at about Mile 23, and continued passing them all the way to the finish. Perhaps this says something unpleasant about my character, but in a race I always get a boost when I see someone feeling worse than I do. (Probably I should not admit this in print, but... I believe in honesty.) I enjoyed the feeling of flying past walkers, and it made me even faster. I knew I would be under four hours because I was at 3:45 when I passed the Mile 25 marker. From here it was a gentle downhill into the finish chute on the beach. I do not excel at finishing kicks -- I have walked into finishing chutes before -- but I was able to finish this one strong, with a time of 3:53:09, just a little over a minute faster than Hartford on tired legs and a course that was more challenging both mentally and physically. The race announcer said, "And here's Number 15, Christie Bane, a strong finish. This is someone who paced herself well!" And I had to laugh because I did NOT pace myself well -- no negative split here -- but still, I know I did well. My last back-to-back I finished in 4:22 the first day and 4:21 the second day, pretty close to half an hour slower than I was this weekend.

Conclusions reached this weekend:
*My body is used to marathons. I really don't feel like I did much, and I never got sick in either race.
*My obsession is growing. I want to be doing another marathon this weekend.
*I love other crazy marathon people.
*I am running really well right now.
*This one-marathon-a-month is good for me.
*Back-to-backs are not scary at all anymore.
*I'm pretty sure my brain manufactured that Achilles injury, since it did not bother me on either day and still is not bothering me now. (This is not the first time this has happened. See my race report on New Hampshire and Maine for another example. I also remember being barely able to walk to the start line at Missoula and Marine Corps only to be able to run without pain the whole way. It is just my brain trying to talk me out of doing crazy stuff like this.)

I just got the official race results and found that I got second in my age group (women 30-39), but because I didn't stick around, I didn't get my prize and don't even know what I won. I was 6th woman overall (out of 67) and I am pretty happy about that. I mean, I know this was a small race with not that many people running, but I am still willing to bet that none of those five women who beat me ran Hartford the day before!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Hartford Marathon Race Report -- A Surprisingly Cool City, and a Surprisingly Great Marathon!

Connecticut: State #29, Marathon #36. Throughout the month between Pocatello and now, I wasn’t sure this marathon was going to happen at all (or the Rhode Island one tomorrow). I have been dealing with a constant, chronic, low-grade Achilles tendon problem, or maybe plantar fasciitis, or maybe both at the same time. I’ve been foam rolling, stretching, icing, taping, wearing a night splint… pretty much everything except resting the foot and going to a doctor. When I finish a day of training dogs, I am so sore I take the elevator from the second to the first floor, and I park myself on the couch as soon as I get home and don’t get up other than to hobble to the bathroom and to bed. But I had pretty much decided that if I could walk at all, I was going to at least do my Saturday marathon. If the foot blew up, I could skip Rhode Island with no shame at all. (There is no shame not starting; to me that is different than a DNF. Not that there is any shame in that either, I just have never had one in 75+ races, so I don’t want to start now.) So when I could still walk on Thursday, I knew I was heading east on Friday as planned.

One thing that made this marathon weekend extra special was that I was going to finally get to see Fidelco, the guide dog school in Bloomfield, Connecticut, that breeds and trains only German shepherds. I lived in New York and New Jersey for seven years, but somehow had never seen Fidelco. Will came with me this weekend for the road trip, and he contacted Fidelco to ask if we could stop by and see the place while we were in town. They said sure. Then they went a step further and invited us to their pre-marathon lunch. It turns out that “Team Fidelco” was one of the official race charities. I wish I knew that before; I totally would have joined Team Fidelco! It’s just that the intersection of my career with my marathon hobby is practically nonexistent, so it never would have occurred to me to think that the two had a connection. Anyway, everyone we met at Fidelco was very nice. And they have some beautiful shepherds. I have always thought they have the nicest-looking shepherds in the business (not to impugn any of the beautiful Seeing Eye, GEB, and Leader shepherds I know). We got to see their facility, have lunch with other GDMI’s, and play with a litter of shepherd puppies ready to go to their puppy raisers this weekend. Much appreciation to Fidelco for the warm welcome and the puppy fix!

This marathon had a good-sized expo right in the middle of downtown. I bought a new case for my iPhone that hopefully will actually fit and not migrate down my arm to my wrist even when it’s on the tightest setting, and also these great flip-flops with a big, gently cushioned arch support. Around the house I usually wear my 2011 Boston Marathon flip-flops, which are thin-soled and have as much cushioning as five-year-old flip-flops that see heavy use could be expected to have. I slipped these new ones on my feet and it was like I could hear my feet singing “Thank you!” They cost $40 but are probably worth it because I am not going to stop wearing flip-flops around the house and I’m sure that habit is not helping my foot problems. I put the new ones on at the expo and have not taken them off other than to actually run the marathon and sleep since then.

We stayed at Motel 6 because of the dogs. It is $50 a night for a reason. It is the kind of place where I don’t go anywhere, not even to the vending machine, without Frieda (the criminal element retreats from her like vampires from garlic), and after returning from a stay at this motel, I suspect I would fail a drug test even though I myself did not smoke anything. But, it is cheap and walking distance to lots of different restaurants, so for that I can put up with the unsavory environment.

The marathon had an 8:00 a.m. start, which was nice because it meant we got to sleep in. Marathon weather was perfect – 50 at the start, low 60’s at the finish, sunny with a light breeze. New England colors are spectacular this weekend – orange and red everywhere – and Hartford is really kind of a pretty city. I never thought it was, but then I never spent any time there either. They have an actual living downtown, and really nice parks along the Connecticut River. There were plenty of parking lots, garages, and street parking, all clearly labeled on the map they gave us, so finding parking was no problem at all. This is the biggest marathon I’ve done since Nashville, and I like big marathons. There is something about the energy of many thousands of runners coming together, especially in the heart of a big city like Hartford, that creates a spectacle just not present at Pocatellos and Grandfather Mountains and Deadwoods, not that I didn’t enjoy all of those, because I did.

Right before the gun went off, the race director announced there were people here today from 46 states, as well as three people finishing their 50 States quests here. I have always planned my 50th to be Honolulu, but Honolulu is a super popular final marathon for 50 Staters, and I kind of wish I had held out NYC or Chicago instead of doing them first. Or maybe I should finish in North Dakota or Oklahoma or some other random place instead of Hawaii? Something to think about.

Anyway, the gun went off and we started. My plan was to run at a pace that 1) didn’t hurt my feet, and 2) kept me breathing easy, so that I would have something left for tomorrow in Rhode Island. I planned this to be a 4½ -5 hour marathon. But within the first mile it was clear that my feet weren’t bothering me at all. I sped up a little but not much. A marathon is an entirely different experience when you run it completely unconcerned with your time – almost enjoyable. Miles ticked off without me really paying attention. The first couple miles were in the city itself, and heavy on screaming spectators, which was great. Then we went into one of the parks along the Connecticut River, also great. I passed one of the 50 State finishers. She was wearing a laminated tag that said “Finishing my 50th State today!” and everyone was congratulating her. I congratulated her too, and said, “I want to be you some day.” I do; I am becoming obsessed with the thought of how it’s going to feel to finish this crazy quest. This year I will have done eight marathons (and I’m not promising I won’t sneak in one more state before the end of the year, like maybe Rehoboth Beach in Delaware in December), twice as many as I’ve done any other year. It would actually be possible logistically to finish in Honolulu in December 2017, though I’m not sure if I can afford to do that or not.

A good chunk of this marathon is a long, long out-and-back through a residential area, something like nine miles total. I was dreading this part because I hate out-and-backs, but it turned out to be awesome. The area and houses were beautiful, and the community was totally into the race, with more spectators than I’ve seen in a long time, maybe more than I’ve seen at any race all year. Lots of them were having neighborhood yard parties, offering all kinds of food, et cetera. We had a headwind on the “out” part but it was barely noticeable because the course was so flat. Other than a few little climbs, like on-ramps and bridge approaches, this is a flat course, and I think it could easily be a BQ course.

On both the “out” and the “back” parts, I passed a lot of Maniacs coming the other direction. That was fun. I love being a Maniac and meeting other crazy Maniacs. I love it so much that I am taking the time to do laundry tonight just so I can wear my Maniac shirt again tomorrow.

I hit Mile 20 feeling great. In fact, the whole race I never had one moment of feeling bad. No pain, no nausea, no cramps, not hot, not cold, not even tired. At Mile 22 and Mile 24 I was still feeling strong. I hadn’t looked at my watch but knew I had passed the 4:00 pace group a while back. While some part of me thought, “Oops, I should have run this slower”, another part of me knew that I had not pushed myself at all the whole race. Considering that, and the flatness of the course, and the total absence of any pain, I think (hope) that I did not make any gross errors in judgment that would make me unable to finish the Ocean State Marathon tomorrow. I guess we will see tomorrow!

At Mile 25 we ran up and over the Founders Bridge back into the city. Downtown Hartford looked clean and sparkly in the clear fall air, and was a beautiful and motivating sight. I passed people right and left during the last two miles, and got down below 8:00 pace, still feeling good. I just couldn’t believe how good I felt. I have the feeling that in my race pictures, for once, there will be more pictures of me smiling than of me wearing my usual grimace of pain. We finished in Bushnell Park by running under the arch, which was a great finish and absolutely packed with spectators. I was handed not only a medal but also a heat sheet (which I haven’t gotten at any other marathon this year – I wonder why?) and a snack bag with a brownie, granola bar, pack of almond butter, and fruit cup. Then I walked through the athlete’s food tent, where I got a banana, a cup of chili, a piece of cheese, two pieces of pumpkin bread, a bottle of chocolate milk, and a cornbread pancake. I ate all of those things voraciously while icing my foot, even though I didn’t feel like I needed the ice. I was ravenously hungry and didn’t have a reason not to inhale the food since my stomach felt totally fine. Presumably, unlike that poor guy who finished at the same time as me and leaned over the ropes on the side and threw up an unbelievable amount. I just averted my eyes, kept walking, and focused on my accomplishment – 3:52, my second-best time this year, no injury, not even a moment of discomfort. Go me!

I am now in my motel room writing this and icing again although I still feel pretty good. I feel like I CAN run another marathon tomorrow, but that is not quite the same as saying I want to. I don’t want to. But I do want to check it off my list, and I do feel like I can finish it. We’ll see. Meanwhile, Hartford is a solid choice for Connecticut. I don’t think it would be possible to find a nicer marathon than this one in Connecticut, at least for people who like big crowds and urban marathons.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Boston 2016, I'm Doing It!

I never planned on doing Boston again. It was amazing to do it once, but I've still got 22 states left to get done on a finite income and with limited vacation time, and Boston is not cheap and takes an extra day of vacation because it's held on a Monday. While I had thought I probably had another BQ in me -- especially since I move up to a new age group with five more minutes of cushion next year -- I did not think it was imminent. I knew Pocatello was a fast course and I knew I was in pretty good shape, but I was not as skinny as I was when I qualified in 2010, and I had never had a long run at BQ pace.

Pocatello went surprisingly well. Not looking at my watch the whole race, and then looking at it when I had the finish line in sight and seeing the beautiful numbers 3:33 on my Garmin (when I needed 3:40 to qualify) was an amazing feeling, one of the best in all my years of marathons, something I will remember again and again and privately rejoice over every time I think of it. But even when I finished Pocatello, I did not think I would be going to Boston next year, for the reasons I mentioned above.

I got home and started googling Boston registration, and found that my registration window opened up two weeks after Pocatello. Wow, the whole process has changed since 2010. In 2010, it was still a given that if you qualified for Boston, you could register. The online buzz that year was that it was expected to fill up fast and that you shouldn't delay in registering. But no one suspected it would fill up as fast as it did -- eight hours. I remember my single-minded determination that day in 2010 --NOTHING was going to stop me from registering, not if I had to sit at my computer all morning and try again and again. My registration was smooth and by the end of the day I had my confirmation email and a lot of people were bitterly disappointed because they were shut out. Following that day, registration procedures were changed and qualifying times were dropped by five minutes for every age group. There now exists a Facebook group called "Team Squeaker Strong Run for Boston One!" It is for "squeakers", those who beat their BQ time by five minutes or less.

Here is how the registration works now. On Monday, September 14, everyone who beat their qualifying times by 20 minutes or more was able to register. All of these people got in. On Wednesday, September 16, it opened for people who beat their time by ten minutes or more. All of those people got in. On Friday, September 18, it opened for people who beat their time by five minutes or more. All of those people got in. Then, on Monday, September 21, it opened for the masses -- people who had beat their time by less than five minutes. Registration opened at 10:00 a.m. and I submitted mine at 10:01 even though it is no longer a race to see who can Internet the fastest. For this last, biggest group, everyone can submit during the same time period -- September 21 through September 23 -- and then the race organizers were going to sort through the thousands of entries, order them by time, and establish the official cutoff (which depends on race capacity and number of people wanting to register).

There was endless, rampant Internet speculation on what the cutoff time was going to be. In the Squeaker group, you are identified by the minutes and seconds by which you are under your cutoff time. For me it was -4:33, a pretty good squeaker time. The people who were less than -1:00 know they were not going to get in; the people over -2:30 pretty much thought they would, but the people between -1:01 and -2:30 had to sweat it out for the last week, waiting for today when the announcement went out. Even though I was relatively safe with a -4:33, I have been sweating too and wishing I didn't have to wait. This morning the announcement came, no doubt hurried along by my obsessive checking and rechecking Facebook and the BAA home page every few minutes, practically every time I came to a down curb while I was working a dog. At 11:15 my name wasn't on the entrant list, and at 11:16 it was, and at 11:20 I had an email confirmation.

The cutoff time this year was -2:28, the toughest it's ever been. I don't think anyone was anticipating that. There were an awful lot of disappointed people out there, and a couple real heartbreakers with times of -2:27 and -2:25. Ouch! To think you were well under the cutoff and were surely going to get in, and then to get shut out... wow. But if that had happened to me, I think I would've been okay with it. Boston is supposed to be competitive, and getting in is supposed to mean something. It's really about how you measure up to all other runners finishing marathons during the qualifying window. Every year besides this one and 2010, I have not measured up. This year and 2010, I did. Next year I probably won't. Either way is fine with me.

So why did I sign up for it after all, when it's expensive and complicated and won't help me finish 50 states? Well, because... it's Boston. It's epic and iconic and thrilling. I am going to do better this year than I did in 2011; I am going to bring a sleeping bag to the start line and curl up inside it until 15 minutes to gun time as opposed to shivering away all my energy sitting outside in the cold for three hours, and I am going to train on hills and I am NOT going to get a layer of Michigan winter fat and I am going to carry salt with me. I can actually wear my Boston Marathon jacket and shirt from 2011, which I hardly ever wear because I've always been afraid I would wear them out and there would never be a chance to replace them. Sure, I should be able to qualify again but there are absolutely no guarantees, ever for people like me when it comes to BQ'ing. I could never be that fast again; I could get a running-ending injury; I could have a car accident or get some disease and never be able to run again at all. Some things you just have to do when you get the chance, and Boston 2016 is one of those things.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Surprise B.Q.! Pocatello Marathon Race Report

I signed up for this marathon, my 28th state and I think 33rd or 34th marathon overall, way back in February. It is my sixth marathon of the year. Getting to Idaho was a pretty big pain in the neck logistics-wise -- an expensive flight, eight hours in airports, a rental car, and a two and a half hour drive through country that was not as pretty as I had expected. But at least Pocatello is a cheap town to stay in, and all the hotels are close to the marathon hotel, the Clarion Inn. I got into town in plenty of time to go pick up my race packet. Although the expo was so tiny I didn't even bother to walk through it, they did give us a pretty cool race backpack, that was already tagged with our name and number and was to be used for our gear check bag in the morning. Also, the shirt was cool -- long-sleeved and Day-Glo yellow, which is a color always desirable for visibility but seriously underrepresented among race shirts.  I actually went to the pasta dinner, mostly because nothing else sounded good, and ended up sitting with several other Marathon Maniacs and 50-staters. There were lots of them at this race. It seems like I hardly ever meet first-time marathoners anymore; I only meet people who are on their 20th or 30th marathons. Surely there are first-time marathoners out there, but I never seem to run into them.

My running has been going pretty well lately, with the exception of the nagging Achilles pain, which I was actually pretty worried about even though it has not (yet) done anything other than nag. I am pretty sure that the biggest reason I've been running well is that I am 27 pounds lighter than I was on January 1 of this year. Nothing fancy, just watching calories. It is easier to run fast when you're not schlepping around the equivalent of a bag of dog food on your body, just my opinion. I really didn't know whether the tendon would blow up in this marathon or not, but I knew that if it did I would be out of marathons for many months, probably well into next year.

The marathon started at 6:15. We had to catch a shuttle bus that took us up the mountain to the race start, which was about a fifteen-minute ride from the hotel. This is one of the few marathons I've done where you have to shuttle both to the start and from the finish. The start was at a little farm. It was chilly, with a good wind blowing. Luckily there was a barn for us to wait in. I was immediately sucked into a crowd of Maniacs, and soon we were pressed shoulder-to-shoulder and no one was cold anymore. Into this crowd walked "Larry, 1400 Marathons" who had also been at Shires of Vermont. I think I read somewhere that he was now "Larry, 1500 Marathons" but I couldn't say for sure. I cannot wrap my mind around 1500 marathons. Does this guy do anything besides run marathons? He must be independently wealthy, or something.

It was still dark and cold when the gun went off. This marathon is well known for having a fast downhill first half, 1500' drop over 13 miles (and a vast improvement over my last three marathons, which have had about the same amount of elevation gain). The conventional advice is "Don't go out too fast, or you won't have anything left for the second half" (which was still downhill, with a drop of 150', but mostly flat). Bullshit, I say. I will always go out too fast, bank some time, and then walk at the end if I feel like it. Anyway, the first many miles -- probably eight or nine at least -- were a delightful romp down beautiful winding roads with spectacular mountain views and a gentle, cool sunrise. My Achilles was sore but no more than usual. My bigger problems were that my fingers were frozen and that I could not keep my phone armband on my arm. I've lost so much weight that even when it's pulled to its tightest it still slides down. Finally I took it off and held it in my hand, where it served as a quasi-glove until the feeling in my fingers finally came back around Mile Five.

The weather was absolutely perfect, with light cloud cover, temperature around 50, and what felt like no humidity at all. It has been a long time since I've run any distance without feeling like I was swimming through a murky pool of moisture in the air. The perfect conditions plus the downhill plus the fact that my Achilles wasn't acting up at all had me feeling great. I was passing all kinds of people and not breathing hard at all. I passed the 3:35 pace group knowing they would pass me later but not caring.

It seemed like we were at the half-marathon start before I knew it. In this race, the half-marathon starts at 8:00, an hour and 45 minutes after the marathon, and the two races share the same course. I had been looking forward to passing the half-marathon start and picking off slower half-marathons one at a time, but actually I got there right before it started, which meant I was doing way better than I thought I would be doing. A 1:50 is the first-half time I would need for a 3:40 marathon, which is my Boston qualifying time. I had not for a second thought I would Boston qualify in this marathon, and still didn't. I only wanted to run at a pace that caused me moderate exertion for as long as I could, until I got tired or sick or injured. I was about 2/10 of a mile past the half start when I heard the gun go off, and instead of me passing slow half-marathoners, the fast half-marathoners began passing me.

This was also when the course changed direction. It turned onto a road that was sort of like a frontage road off I-15. I'm glad I hadn't looked at the course map at all, because if I knew that we would be running basically straight on this road for pretty much the rest of the race, I would have despaired. We now had a head wind, for one thing, a fairly strong one. Also, I could see so far ahead on this basically flat road that the runners in front of me looked like a giant line of ants disappearing into the distance. I so much prefer a winding course where I can always tell myself that around the next corner is a downhill. Here there was no doubt that there was no serious downhill for a long time. Still, I told myself that I would just keep running as long as I could, to get it done as quickly as possible.

My Achilles flared up around Mile 14, and I had a moment of panic before it subsided again, not to be heard from again for the rest of the marathon. I can't explain why it didn't cause more of a problem. Maybe because I finally got new shoes? (And the guy at the running shop had me go up one full size, which I thought was ridiculous -- are my feet EVER going to stop expanding? -- but was so, so grateful for today, since I finished a race for the first time this year with no painful blisters.) Anyway, I never got sick, never got injured, never really had anything happen. The road went along a valley between two mountain ranges. There was lots of beautiful Western scenery, like a freight train running alongside us for a while and some beautiful horses running along a fence line, throwing up their heads when they reached the end of the fence, and then turning and running back the way they came. The sun was out but the strong headwind kept us from getting hot. That wind was more than a little discouraging because I could see from looking ahead that we wouldn't be changing direction any time soon, so the wind wasn't going to quit either.

I hadn't looked at my watch this whole time, not once. I got to 20 miles and realized the 3:35 pace group hadn't passed me yet. I knew it was inevitable that they would because I was getting mentally tired of the headwind and was slowing down. I also knew I wasn't going to qualify because there was no way I would have enough energy to stay strong to the finish. This didn't really bother me because I knew I was going to get my best time this year by far, and it's not like I set out to qualify at all or even thought it was a possibility. Still, the 3:35 pace group didn't pass me till well into Mile 23. I tried to keep up with them but absolutely couldn't. Oh well.

Another pace group passed me toward the end of Mile 24: the 1:50 half, which should have been going the same pace as the 3:40 full. I knew the 3:40 pace group would be coming soon, but then suddenly it was Mile 25 and 3:40 still hadn't passed me. Maybe I could pull this off after all. I was superstitiously afraid to look at my watch. We changed direction -- out of the headwind with a long, easy downhill in front of us. At the very end of the downhill, tiny in the distance, was the finish sign. I finally looked at my watch: 3:33. I realized that even if I walked now, I was going to qualify. But I didn't want to walk, I wanted to beat 3:35 so I could beat my qualifying time by more than five minutes and get to register for Boston in the second wave instead of having to wait for the third one. Well, that did not happen. I finished with a Garmin time of 3:35:27, still 4:23 under my qualifying time but not enough to put me in the second wave for registration. But who cares -- I qualified!

A surprise qualifying time has to be one of the best feelings on earth. I could hardly believe it. Still can hardly believe it. Even more unbelievable is the fact that I felt great at the end of the race. No nausea at all. I could hardly wait to stuff my face at the post-race spread, which was unbelievable. Everything from the standard peanut butter, bagels, fruit, and chocolate milk to steak-ka-bobs and rice pilaf and gourmet popcorn. They even opened up the showers at the community pool for us to use. So I was able to make the drive down to Salt Lake City without having to smell myself; that was nice.

The Pocatello Marathon was all-around a great experience. Beautiful course and great weather, well-organized, great shirt, nice medal, and the best post-race food ever. What a nice surprise. I am going to be basking in the glow of surprising myself with my second-best time ever for quite a while.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Mostly Uphill But Really Pretty and Perfect Weather -- Grandfather Mountain Marathon Race Report

I've been excited about two marathons this year -- Nashville and Deadwood. I was not excited about Trailbreaker, Shires of Vermont, or this one, Grandfather Mountain (North Carolina), even though I registered for it a long time ago. The more I heard about it, the less I looked forward to it. Reports were mostly in agreement that it was 1) hot, 2) humid, 3) difficult, 4) not exactly runner-friendly. I hadn't trained on hills at all (because we don't have any in Michigan) and had only done one post-work run in high temps and humidity, and that one did not go well. So it was a nice surprise that I ended up really enjoying the race.

The start line is at 3300' and the course goes up to almost 4300'. Originally I had thought that 1000 feet over 26 miles wasn't that bad, but then I looked at the elevation profile for the first time (morning of the race) and realized that the course wasn't exactly straight up. There was quite a bit of downhill mixed in there with the uphill: down 200' here, up 500' there, switching from down to up every few miles. This changed it from a steady slog into something a little more interesting, although it is admittedly hard to appreciate the downhills quite as much when you know they are just losing you elevation that you had already gained once and now would have to gain again. On the other hand, at least now I would know that no uphill would last forever. (Except the last three miles at the end of the race, which did last forever, or at least till the finish line.)

We got so, so lucky with the weather. I was planning on this being a 4.5-5-hour race, and only the perfect weather allowed me to get a slightly better time than I had hoped for. The marathon started in Boone, North Carolina, in the stadium of the GOOD A.S.U. (Appalachian State University) as opposed to the NO-GOOD A.S.U.; we all know which one I'm talking about. Stadium start = lots of real bathrooms, about the best thing you can hope for at a marathon start line. It was also a small race, 320 runners, so there were no bathroom lines. Humidity was 96% but temperature was only 66, so it was wet but not steamy. One more good thing -- the race started at 6:30 a.m. Shires of Vermont, Deadwood, take note! 6:30 is the correct start time for a summer marathon.

The gun went off and we did two laps around Kidd Brewer Stadium before leaving campus and running a little over 2 miles downhill through the town of Boone. Then we turned onto a residential road that went up, up, up into the hills. It was a beautiful road, narrow and winding and sort of hidden in a tunnel of trees. Every time we passed a small clearing in the trees, we were rewarded with grand views of the Appalachians and mist rising from the hollows. The running was moderately difficult but it just made me miss living near mountains more. Even though these are green, wet mountains that could not be more different from Tucson's brown, dry mountains, the point is that the difficulty of slogging up them is rewarded with 1) the feeling of looking down on everything else, and 2) the feeling that you are a badass. Man, I would have to run a hundred miles in Michigan before I ever even began to get that feeling.

We topped out and then got to a screaming downhill, so steep I was worried about falling on my face. It didn't last long before we got to another long, steep climb, a few miles. It still wasn't hot, though. There was a nice, cool breeze that kept us from being absolutely miserable despite the slog. Then downhill again, then up, up, up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I was excited about the part of the course that was on the Parkway. That is a great American road that I have never seen or driven on. But it turned out to be one of the few disappointments on the whole course. The views weren't that great, mostly grass and trees on either side of the road with occasional glimpses of the mountains in the distance. Kind of like Stony Creek plus mountains, pleasant but nothing to get excited about. It was also a really, really long downhill, over two miles. My toes, shins, and stomach were all starting to bother me, and I was relieved when it finally leveled out and we turned off the Parkway onto some other road and started climbing again.

Let me mention my foot problem du jour. I had one dead toenail from Deadwood that was almost, but not quite, ready to come off. It was hanging on by a flap and the other night I had caught it on the blanket and woken up from the sharp pain. The only thing to do was tape it down for the marathon and deal with it afterwards. So I did, with a Bandaid, and that was fine except that the Bandaid was now rubbing up against my big toe and causing a blister. I had totally anticipated this but figured a blister was something I could just deal with. Most of the time I could, but sometimes I would step on the foot the wrong way and get that feeling like I was scraping a cheese grater along the side of my foot. While this was not debilitating, it was very demoralizing. It got worse when I left the paved road for what the website said was three miles of gravel road. The uneven gravel surface meant that my feet rolled around a lot more, so my blister hurt a lot more. I started looking ahead to pick out places where I could stop and remove my sock and shoe and Bandaid and... I wasn't sure what I would do once it was off -- the original nail would still be painful. So instead I just kept going instead of sitting down on a fencepost or a flat rock or the open tailgate of someone's pickup truck. This was really the only place where I walked for more than a short distance. To my relief, the gravel road ended after barely a mile, and the blister hurt a lot less once I got back on asphalt again.

Here, at Mile 17 or so, began the most beautiful part of the course. According to the elevation profile, it was a steady climb up to the finish, but the elevation gain was so gradual I barely noticed it. It felt flat. The road was winding and shaded, a cool breeze was blowing, there was light cloud cover but also plenty of bright blue sky, and there was a more beautiful mountain view around every curve. The Mile 18 aid station had banana halves and a jar of salt to dip the banana into, only the second marathon I have ever seen this at (the first was Pikes Peak). I was thrilled to see the bananas and salt. I was just beginning to feel like I maybe needed a little more electrolytes than what I had in me, because of how much I was sweating, but the thought of GU made my stomach roll over. I swear, just when I think I have the perfect water-GU equation down, my system changes again. Today I was chugging Gatorade at almost every station, when for years I could barely drink it at all because it made me so nauseous. Anyway, the salty banana recharged me and I was okay running for a few more miles to the next aid station.

Somewhere in here I caught up to a guy wearing a shirt with the acronym SCROTUM on the back (South Carolina Runners Of Trails and Ultra Marathons, of course). I laughed and said, "Nice shirt! That's just what I need at this point in the race." Then I realized how that sounded and so did some other much older guy running right ahead of me who had also just passed the SCROTUM guy. This guy started laughing and said, "You need a scrotum?" I thought about explaining but decided I didn't have the breath to spare, so I kept on going, but I was still laughing.

This marathon ends at the top of Grandfather Mountain, where the Highland Games (second largest Highland Games in the world) are taking place. You can hear the bagpipes from a mile or two away. It was a very cool finish, if a little overwhelming. After miles and miles of peace and beauty, you leave the mountain road for a dirt and gravel track, and there are volunteers every few steps pointing the way through the parking lot and people wandering around, and you go up a short but incredibly steep little hill, and suddenly you are smack in the middle of a gigantic crowd and roar of noise. All the different clans have their family tents set up, and there are bleachers full of spectators all around the field. There is a track running around the field, and you run a lap around it past all the cheering spectators. Man, that track feels reeeeaaaaaallllly long but there is no way I could've walked, not with the crowd. I finished with a time of 4:22, moderately crappy but better than I had expected considering my total lack of mountain training. The medal is really cheap-looking, flimsy with nothing specific to Grandfather Mountain except the name. It's one of the worst medals I have ever gotten from any race, not even worth putting a picture on Facebook.

The funniest thing about this marathon is what was on the refreshments table. There were bananas and oranges and bread and peanut butter, but there was also an entire table full of Little Debbie cakes of all different kinds. Probably 1/3 of the available finish line food was Little Debbie, which I found absolutely hilarious. I mean, I am not by any means a strictly healthy eater or anything, but seeing that spread of Nutty Bars and Swiss Rolls and Zebra Cakes simultaneously cracked me up and made my stomach turn. I am trying so hard not to blame that display of junk food on the fact that this marathon was in the South, but it's really difficult.

That Bandaid did a nice job of shredding off a good-sized flap of skin on the side of my big toe, but other than that I didn't feel too bad. I wasn't sick, my legs didn't hurt, and I even felt all right the day after, good enough to run five miles after getting back to Michigan. I now have 27 states done, with three more planned for this year to bring me to a total of 30 by October. This was also my fifth marathon this year, which is the most marathons I've ever done in a year. (I had lots of years where I did four, but never did five until now.) I am really enjoying this one-marathon-a-month schedule; it is making it totally unnecessary to ever do any other long runs besides marathons.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Run Detroit!

There are a lot of things I don't like about living in Michigan, but of the few things I do like, most of them have something to do with running. Running along rivers and around lakes in summer, running through showers of falling leaves, and now I can add running in Detroit.

I love urban running. Marathon courses through manicured downtown tourist loops are all well and good, but I actually prefer the grittier sections that take you through the parts of town where the factories are and where pit bulls live in the front yards and old cars are up on blocks and there is no HOA to care whether you cut your lawn or not or whether you do driveway oil changes. Detroit is like the epicenter of ruin porn in America, with its hundreds? thousands? of abandoned buildings, and I have always wanted to run in and around Detroit. One time a few months ago I ran from Royal Oak to downtown Detroit, down Woodward Ave the whole way. It was early enough that hardly anyone was out although I did see a few hookers in Highland Park, and no one at all bothered me. I didn't exactly feel safe -- I never let my guard down -- but I never felt directly threatened, either. Most of the few people I did see were so visibly impaired that they couldn't have run alongside me for a car-length, let alone long enough to catch me and do anything to me. And the streets were so empty you could have run or biked right down the middle of them, ignoring traffic lights, and only had to move a couple times in that whole 13-mile stretch.

I have also run the loop around Belle Isle followed by an out-and-back to Cobo Center, mostly on the Riverwalk but partly on Jefferson. The stretch on Jefferson is not exactly a nice neighborhood but also not a place where you feel like your life is in danger all the time. But still, my knowledge of the geography of Detroit, especially the running geography, is extremely limited, which is why I was so happy to find out about Run Detroit.

Run Detroit is a running store in midtown Detroit. "Midtown Detroit" is another term that I am ashamed to say I did not know the definition of until now. My previous knowledge of Detroit geography was limited to what I could see from the People Mover loop. Midtown Detroit is a part of Detroit that is doing okay. It's not close to Greektown or the Renaissance Center, the tourist places where we train dogs; it's close to Wayne State University and Detroit Institute of the Arts. Literally every business on the street that Run Detroit is on is cool. There is not a single one that would be out of place in the downtown parts of any of the coolest cities in America. I had never been to Run Detroit because I've always gone to the Hanson Running stores. For one, I thought they were closer. (They're not; Run Detroit is actually closer, or at least easier to get to.) Also, they're bigger, but I don't think bigger means better in this case. Run Detroit didn't have a ton of inventory, but what they did have was better, and their prices were definitely better. I haven't really liked Hanson's the last few times I've been there, whether we're talking about the one in Royal Oak or the one in Utica or the one in Lake Orion. Their salespeople were just okay, but didn't seem that interested in helping me find a better shoe or that passionate about running. (And one of them told me it was normal to lose toenails regularly and that changing shoes wasn't going to help with that. Really? I mean, I was too lazy to try on a bunch of different shoes and prove him wrong -- I will just live with losing toenails -- but I don't think it is true that if you lose a lot of toenails it could not possibly have anything to do with your shoes.) So I was totally ready to find a running store that I like better than Hanson's, and I am pretty sure this one is it.

Every weekend they host a 3-mile run, a 6-mile run, and a 10-mile run. The runs aren't supported -- they're so short they don't need to be -- but the store prints up and hands out little pieces of paper with the routes marked on them. They rotate each weekend between the Red Loop, the Green Loop, and the Blue Loop, each of which has a different loop for each of the three different distances. I actually ran the Green Loop a month ago, the one that goes out to Hamtramck and back (I defy anyone who doesn't live here to pronounce that!), and sort of got lost because I was following 6-milers who I thought were 10-milers. Today I was determined not to do that, and memorized the 10-mile Red Loop the night before.

It was pouring rain this morning when I woke up, a wild, windy, wet, chilly grey day that just screamed "Stay in bed! Watch Netflix!" And I so almost did. But then I thought of the chorizo macaroni and cheese and whiskey I had last night, and knew if I stayed in bed I would feel like a big, fat slob, and hate myself, and probably be unmotivated to get any of the other stuff I had to do done today. Besides, I always claim to be able to "Embrace the suck." That means when you KNOW you have to do something that will suck (like bad-weather marathons, or any marathon at elevation or that  is all uphill, or any ultra-marathon at all), the best strategy is simply to get excited about how much it will suck. "I wonder if I'll hallucinate? I wonder if I'll cry? I wonder if this will be the one where I finally throw up? I wonder if I'll actually get a little frostbite and have a cool story for everyone?" It is best to work yourself up into a frenzy of morbid curiosity at the start line so that you're dying for the gun to go off so that you can start finding out whether it will suck epically or just be a drag. So that is what I did with this run.

When I did the Green Loop a month ago, there were probably 50 people in the tiny store and hanging out on the sidewalk in front. The weather was much nicer that day. Today there were maybe 20 people, if that many. Most of them were doing the 6-mile loop, but there were a handful for the 10-mile. I didn't know any of them. We set off for the first mile and a half down Cass. The rain had actually lightened up a little and there was a sweet tail wind. All but the most out-of-it street people had sought shelter elsewhere, and we only had to dodge a few sidewalk sleepers. Most people ran in the road. The roads of Detroit are bad, but the sidewalks are often worse. There is really no reason not to run in the road because there are hardly any cars at all.

I have to say that I like Detroit very much. I like that it is gritty and unpretentious. I feel like if Detroit could talk, it would say something like, "I'm Detroit -- f*** you." I even like the empty high-rises and the abandoned old houses that were obviously really beautiful when they were first built. This route showcased all of those things. Honestly, I fantasize about buying something in Detroit. Like a house or a warehouse or something. I don't know how to renovate anything, couldn't afford it, and know anything I tried to fix would be vandalized immediately, but I still want to own a piece of it. I don't know why. Maybe buy a falling-to-pieces old house and sit inside it and write this blog? Or run a training class for thugs with pitbulls? Or... or...or... so many possibilities. I especially like Detroit in the rain and gloom. That is kind of like the natural look for it in my opinion.

I know where a lot of things are in Detroit -- Wayne State University, the Renaissance Center, Greektown, Mexicantown, Michigan Central Station -- but I totally do not know how to get from any one of those places to any other ones. I don't know at all how the city fits together. These runs are great for that. After running a mile and a half down Cass, we turned right on Michigan, and I realized this is how you get to Corktown on surface streets. (I have driven to Corktown for the Corktown 5K, GPS'ing it and staying on the freeway the whole way, but again, I had no idea of where it actually was in relation to the rest of Detroit.) In Corktown the road is part brick and part paved. I think it is actually less uncomfortable to run on it than to drive on it. We were on Michigan until 16th, where we turned left and suddenly there was Michigan Central Station, Detroit's most-famous, most-iconic ruin, towering over me. When I got to Michigan Central, there was another runner in front of me taking pictures of it. He asked me if I knew what it was, and it was cool to be able to say that I did! He was from China, here in the U.S. for two years. I never did quite understand why. Something about his brother. We didn't talk a lot because we were both busy gasping for breath. I stayed with him the whole rest of the run (six more miles). We ran down Vernor Highway to Mexicantown, another destination I could only reach from the freeway until today. We turned left again at Clark and left again at Fort, where we picked up a headwind in our faces that was just as nasty as the earlier tailwind had been nice.

It felt like we were on Fort forever, though I think it was only a mile and a half. The whole time, I was carrying the piece of paper with the run instructions on them. The paper had gotten wet and was unreadable, and I wanted to throw it away, but there were no trash cans anywhere to be seen. Finally the paper just kind of disintegrated in my hand and I let it fall to the ground. I mean, I felt bad but what was I supposed to do with it? No trash cans on the sidewalk = trash on the ground.

We turned right on Rosa Parks, which became Jefferson, and ended up on the Riverwalk, where we waved "Hi" to Canada. We left the Riverwalk at the Detroit Princess Riverboat and ran the rest of the way back up Woodward to Canfield, where we turned and ran back to the store. The wind had picked up by now to bend-trees-in-half strength, and it was nice to be inside looking out at it instead of outside running in it.

I did not get the name of the guy I ran with, but I thanked him and told him without him I would've been slow. He told me he was slow when he ran by himself. We were well under 8:00 pace, and it felt pretty good the whole time. I know if I was by myself I would've been at least a minute a mile slower. This is why group runs are the best!

Also, as soon as I came into the store I got a drink, then walked out to my car and got my wallet, then came back in to buy stuff. Another couple of guys finished their run and came in as I was picking out Gu. "You do the six-mile?" one of them asked me. "Nope, ten," I said casually, whereupon the guy raised his eyebrows and said, "Wow, good job!" That felt pretty darn good. I was not that fast at all and if I was still in Tucson at WOG, half the other runners would have beat me at that pace, but still... it feels good to have a fast-looking, good-looking dude say "Wow" about my running.