Sunday, December 18, 2016

Done With 2016, On To 2017!

I really don't think about whether the year was good or bad at the end of the year, but I always enjoy the feeling of closing the door on each year and setting out on a new year. (Kind of the same way I feel about relationships... even when they were good and I'm sad they're over, the sadness is never QUITE as strong as the feeling of freedom and looking ahead to the future.)

Anyway, I am mostly done planning my 2017 race schedule. This is what I have so far:

*January: Mississippi/Alabama back-to-backs, Mississippi Blues and First Light. This one is a sure thing because I've already registered for them and bought my plane ticket. (Although that alone does not really make it a sure thing, not with these races. I have actually registered for them TWICE and bailed on them both times. Once because of injury, once because of lack of money right after the holidays.) I went back and forth between this double and the other choice for the Mississippi/Alabama double in February, Mississippi River and Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham. It was a tough choice; part of me wanted to do the Miami Marathon January 29 and then the double in February. But the thing that made my decision was the plane fare to Miami. It was really, really high. In the end I couldn't justify spending all the money on Miami and then, three weeks later, doing another expensive trip down South for the double. Also, if I didn't do Miami and just did the February double, then I would be going over two months without a marathon, and probably without many (or any) long runs here in Michigan, which is not the best way to do a double. One more reason is that I really should save a marathon in the South for January/February of 2018, and Florida seems like a good choice for that. So, Jackson/Mobile it is despite the fact that I dread another back-to-back and I still think the Mississippi Blues medal is hideous and ostentatious. (I know, I am in the minority here since the Mississippi Blues medal is consistently rated one of the top marathon medals in the country. But so is Little Rock's, and everyone knows how I feel about that one.)

*April: Oklahoma City, last weekend of April. It's this one or Tulsa (Route 66) for Oklahoma, and I always planned on doing this one if I could get the logistics right.

*May: Fargo Marathon. There really is no other marathon for North Dakota, and also North Dakota is one of only two U.S. states I've never visited (the other one being Hawaii). Time to cross this one off my list.

*September: Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, Alaska. This is going to be a full-on vacation, me and Will, touring sled dog kennels, all of that. (It has to be, because I never plan on going back to Alaska after this.) I'm just waiting for registration to open, or even just to hear for sure what the dates are. No word on the website yet, but this race has happened every year since 1962 so I'm pretty sure it will happen again in 2017.

*October: Baltimore for sure. The only race worth doing in Maryland. I'm crossing my fingers that I can be a pacer for this one but won't find out till next year some time. Regardless, I'm definitely doing it.

You may have noticed what's missing from this list -- Boston. I'm registered for Boston but have had zero enthusiasm for it this whole year. It is the complete opposite of last year when I got a thrill just from looking at my confirmation card. I really never expected to not be excited about Boston, but I'm not. Therefore, I am not going to do it. It's expensive and complicated and this year butts right up against the family vacation in Vegas for my brother's wedding. I really don't want to have to do Boston and then fly across the country to a wedding. (Even though I am now going to fly across the country for a wedding and then come back home and go down to Oklahoma for a marathon.) But, Christie, what if you never qualify for Boston again and regret not doing it? Well, then I guess I will have to live with that regret. But honestly, I don't worry about it because I am pretty sure I am incapable of regret. With a lifetime full of questionable decisions, I have yet to regret any of them, leading me to believe I am constitutionally incapable of regret, which is not something I'm complaining about!

So, I have six races planned for next year. If I do all of them as planned, that will leave me with the following states for 2018:

*Arkansas: Sigh, I'm going to do Little Rock, hideous medal notwithstanding. That's in March, and I'm not 100% sure I won't squeeze it in this year if time and money allow.

*Florida: Lots of choices here -- Miami, A1A in February, Southernmost in October, lots of others I don't even know about. Leaning towards A1A right now, but in the end it will probably come down to what fits my calendar best.

*Hawaii: Gonna' be Honolulu in December 2018.

*Kansas: Not sure which one here... maybe Garmin in April 2018, or maybe Prairie Fire in October 2018, or maybe some other random one I don't know about yet.

*New Jersey: I decided I want New Jersey to be my #50, and because I can't do Honolulu till December 2018, I can't finish till May of 2019 with the New Jersey Marathon. Why finish in New Jersey? Well, for one thing, because no one else does. There is nothing special about New Jersey, but finishing in Hawaii is such a cliche. The other reason is because I started running when I lived in New Jersey, but never actually ran a marathon in New Jersey. Also, I am sort of attached to New Jersey even though every single thing about it except The Seeing Eye sucks.

*Wyoming: Still haven't picked my Wyoming marathon either, and am not 100% sure I won't try to sneak it in this year either. All my choices are between May and September, and there are no easy races in Wyoming. So we'll see.

In the meantime, here's a picture of 2016 in marathon medals. Happy 2017, everyone!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Running Through A Resort -- Kiawah Island Race Report

State #38, Marathon #47. (Geez, I am suddenly very close to 50 marathons! How did that happen?) This one was not on my race calendar originally. I decided to do it because I was discussing it with my running friend Dennis. Both of us had passing interest in doing Kiawah even though I had pretty much decided my South Carolina race would be Myrtle Beach next year. And this is how races are impulsively signed up for, with two people agreeing with each other that, yeah, that one might be fun. Next thing you know, BOOM! Out come the credit cards and another trip is being planned, and THAT, my friends, is why running friends are dangerous. But I digress.

I flew to Atlanta because Dennis lives there and because flights to Atlanta are always cheap, so I could ride with him to Kiawah. It was about a five-hour drive, which is nothing to a Marathon Maniac. (I consider "driving distance" to be anything within 12 hours of my house, approximately, though I can be flexible on that when needed.) South Carolina is one of only three U.S. states I have never visited, the other two being North Dakota and Hawaii. I was excited, but really it just looked like Georgia, and by the time we got anywhere near the beach, it was too dark to see anything.

Kiawah Island is a very fancy golf resort. It is way, way too fancy for me. We had to have a pass just to get onto Kiawah Island, which is about half an hour from Charleston. If you felt like spending a lot of money, you could stay "on-island" in a rental. Our kind stays "off-island" in a Best Western. Once we got to Charleston, we still had to drive half an hour to pick up our packets on the island. There was a very fancy pre-race dinner going on, which at $35 a person we skipped. (We ate at Jimmy John's.) The menu included all of the following: organic local greens, fresh local vegetables, oak smoked free range chicken truffle lemon butter, baked ziti bolognese, aged sharp provolone, Burden Creek goats milk cheese, honey basil brined roast pork steamship, red wine pepper glaze, fresh local collards, Ambrose Farms fresh local harvest vegetables, bacon braised lentils with garlic roasted local potatoes, and baked macaroni and cheese. Yeah, WAY too fancy for me. My friend John from Tucson was also at this race, but because he was pacing it, he got to stay on-island for free. Pacing this race is the way to go. I had planned to find John at packet pick-up, but we were only there for about five minutes and then were so hungry we had to leave. By the time he texted me back we were walking to the car and too hungry to change course. I decided I would just see him in the morning.

The bummer about staying off-island is that the line of cars to get on-island on race morning is a pain in the ass. We left Charleston at 5:45 for an 8:00 race start 22 miles away, and it took us over an hour to get parked in the off-island lot, where we caught a shuttle to the island. It was cold, but not nearly as cold as Michigan. The wait to get into the parking lot was totally compensated for by the complete absence of Porta-Pottie lines. I have never been at any race with more adequate bathroom facilities, and this was a moderately large race with 3800 runners between the half and the full. The other awesome thing about this start line was that there were plenty of heated buildings to hang out in. One of them was a market that was serving much better food than McDonalds. I ate my bacon and cheese sandwich with about 15 minutes till start time, and was thankful for my (usually) strong stomach.

We left the building at 10 minutes before start time. I found John, who was leading the 3:35 pace group, and had just time to tap him on the shoulder and say hi before I headed back to the 4:00 pace group. I had no special time goal, just hoping to break four hours as usual.

This is a meandering course. At first it is really, really pretty. It goes through forests of big oak trees draped in Spanish moss and past beautiful rich people's vacation houses. And then, it does more of those things, and then more. After about eight or nine miles, the beauty turned monotonous. (It reminds me of that saying, that there's no woman so beautiful that some man isn't tired of sleeping with her.) The weather was chilly, high 30's at the start, but it was comfortable by Mile Three, and then a little warm. The hat got stuffed into my bra at Mile Two, the gloves got stuffed into my waistband by Mile Three, my long sleeves were rolled up by Mile Five, and I was wishing I'd opted for shorts instead of tights by Mile Eight. The perfection of the island started to annoy me. All the roads had "perfect" names -- Summer Duck Way and Sea Forest Drive and Summer Tanager and Bulfinch and et cetera. No Main Street, I guess. Also, with all of those huge, beautiful houses, there were hardly any signs of life. I know, it was cold and who would want to be outside if they didn't have to? Also, I know there are a lot of vacation homes that aren't always occupied. But still... creepy. Every once in a while we ran out of the oak forests and into sunny, open areas with views of salt marshes or the Atlantic Ocean. I wish there had been more of that and less oak tree/house scenery, but I have to admit that this is not a bad course if you're just talking about running it. There are enough turns to keep it interesting, and it is very flat. There were lots of good times run on this course, and a lot of people love it, it just wasn't my type. ("It's not you, Kiawah Island, it's me.")

I felt mostly fine through the course other than persistent mental whining that I didn't like the scenery and I was bored and wanted to be done so I could hang out with John and Dennis and eat and drink. My foot hurt a little, the plantar fasciitis foot, but just enough to nag, not enough to slow me down. My stomach was mildly unsettled, but not nearly as bad as that poor dude I saw at Mile Eighteen or so. Well, I didn't see him so much as hear him. I was running with one ear bud in, and I heard a crashing in the bushes ahead that sounded bigger than a squirrel. I glanced off to the side and saw an orange T-shirt. and then I heard some noises that I really wished I hadn't heard, noises you should really only hear in a bathroom, noises that made me wish I had both ear buds in. Someone was having a worse race than I was! (And there was a Porta-Pottie not a tenth of a mile past where he had jumped into the woods... if only he had known.)

I had broken away from the 4:00 pace group before the half and was still in front of them. I knew I would be under four hours unless something went disastrously wrong. Nothing did. I finished in a middling 3:53-something (Apple watch said one thing, Garmin another, chip time yet another) but was glad to be under 4:00. This race is supposed to have great post-race food but it didn't, unless I missed it. It had standard fare plus brownies and hot bean soup. The soup was really good, or maybe I just appreciated that it was hot. The one thing this race did have was seriously unlimited beer. The volunteers were just standing behind the table pouring and replacing cups as fast as people were grabbing them. There didn't even appear to be any checking of wristbands or even numbers. (I had a sweatshirt covering my bib and no one ever asked to see it.) So if you want free beer, do this race.

One of the perks of knowing a pacer is that we had a really, really nice place to hang out and shower after the race. We ended up spending the whole rest of the evening there before driving back to Charleston for the night. The experience reminded me again that there's really only two groups of people I almost always enjoy hanging out with -- marathoners, and guide dog instructors. The rest of the world can go fly a kite.

All in all, I would say this is a well-organized race with a nice medal and nice T-shirt. You know if you are the type of person who would enjoy hanging out on a golf resort or not -- if you are, you'd probably enjoy this race; if not, you probably wouldn't. All things being equal, I would choose Myrtle Beach over this one if I had the choice to make again, but only if John and Dennis also came to Myrtle Beach.

This is my last marathon of 2016. I'm in the final stages of planning my race calendar for next year and will post that as soon I've got it solidified. Now it's time to sit back, relax, and get ready for the holiday eating!

Monday, October 17, 2016

It's October, Back-to-Back Marathon Time! (Kansas City/Des Moines Race Reports)

In October of 2011, I did New Hampshire and Maine back-to-back. It was a miserable experience that left me unwilling to run at all for a good two months afterwards. Four long years went by before I summoned the strength to do another back-to-back in October 2015, Saturday Hartford/Sunday Rhode Island. That one wasn't bad. I won't say painless, but not terrible, and I was under four hours both days. The I-35 Challenge has been on my list for a long time. You do Kansas City on Saturday, and then drive three hours straight up I-35 to Des Moines and do it on Sunday. I wasn't sure right up until three weeks ago that it was even worth trying after my summer of plantar fasciitis, but once I got through Monument without any foot problems, I decided it was worth a shot and signed up.

It was almost a 12-hour drive to Kansas City, a place I went to once for work but never really visited. There was light frost on my car when I left Michigan, but temps got warmer and warmer the further south I went. Once I got to Kansas City, it was almost hot. Forecast for race day was mid-60's at the start line and low 80's at the finish, definitely a little on the warm side, but on the other hand, it would be nice to not be freezing at the start line. Kansas City is a big city, bigger and cooler than I had thought. And HILLIER. I knew the course was hilly, but I didn't realize quite how hilly until I drove part if it. There were some gentle rollers and some long, steep monsters. Oh well. The nice thing about back-to-backs is that no one expects you to do a fast time on either of them. I had plenty of excuses to go slow -- my foot, the high temps and humidity, the hills, the fact that I had to do another marathon the next day -- so I was set!

Race morning was warm. Even at 5:30 a.m. I was perfectly comfortable in shorts and a T-shirt. I drove from my airbnb rental downtown and saw streetwalking prostitutes -- not one, not two, but THREE -- for only the third time in my life. (Once in Tucson on 29th Street, once here in Michigan at Woodward and 7-mile, and now in Kansas City on Troost.) There was plenty of free parking by the start line, and the Crown Center mall was open with plenty of bathrooms and seating for runners to hang out. I did hang out there for a while, but then went back outside and wandered down to the start line since it was so warm.

I decided to stick with the 4:00 pace group and absolutely not allow myself to go any faster than 4:00 pace. That way if I still felt okay at the end, I could speed up at the finish and finish just under four hours, just in case I ever seriously decide to pursue 50 Sub-4. There were two pace leaders. I can't remember their real names, but they introduced themselves as Pacer Bad-Ass and Pacer Fuck Yeah. (Nope, not making that up.) One of them was pacing this race for the tenth year in a row. I would not have wanted to pace this one -- too many hills. But this guy knew the course really well and was able to tell us exactly what was coming up around every corner. There's hardly a flat spot in Kansas City; the hills were relentless, and we only got a break when they turned to rollers briefly. They were pretty steep hills, both up and down, which didn't really bode well for my legs the next day in Des Moines, but I felt pretty much okay all through Kansas City. Even though I ran it only 48 hours ago, I have already forgotten most of the details except for the following: lots of downtown including a downtown start and finish, lots of really beautiful neighborhoods, a great tour of the city with an absence of any ugly areas except for the last mile or so, a lot of time spent on the Paseo (a road that manages to look exactly like a big, beautiful park along its entire length), and tons of spectators (more than any recent race other than maybe Boston).

I was with the pace group almost the whole way but gradually pulled ahead of them at Mile 24 and stayed ahead of them all the way to the finish. I had never looked at my watch the whole time but assumed I would be under 4:00 since I had started behind the pace group and finished in front of them. So I was shocked to see that my time was 4:01:01. What happened?? I don't know. Pacers making a mistake is not something that I have any experience with. I still can't quite believe that that is what happened although I also can't come up with any other explanation. (I tried to look up the pacers' names in the results, but there was no listing for Pacer Bad Ass or Pacer Fuck Yeah. So I still don't know.) Oh well. I have plenty of over-4:00 finishes so I told myself I did not care and got out of there. I didn't feel great. My stomach was iffy, my throat was scratchy, and my legs were more sore than I would have liked. Supposedly there is great food at the finish line of this marathon but I never saw it; all I had was two cartons of chocolate milk. The medal is big and heavy with some seriously sharp edges. You could brain someone with this thing, no problem. Not that I wanted to, but if someone had attempted to mug me while I was getting gas, I'm pretty sure I could've stopped him with this medal.

It was a dreary, rainy drive up to Des Moines. My stomach definitely didn't feel so good, and my plantar fasciitis foot was in agony in the car although I had barely felt it in the race. My recovery food was white cheddar Cheezits and a Diet Coke. I also learned that eating ice kept me from getting the really bad stomach problems where I have to pull over and recline my seat. Good to know! One ice cube at a time all the way up to Des Moines, and when I got there, I felt okay.

I walked to the expo and picked up my shirt and then got sucked into a Marathon Maniacs meeting. I've been a Maniac since 2011 but never been to one of their reunion meetings. It was kind of fun. I ended up sitting next to a guy from Lake Orion, go figure! Two Michigan residents in the room of about 100 people and we randomly ended up sitting up next to each other. The Main Maniacs were there -- the founders, Marathon Maniacs 1, 2, and 3 (I'm #4295, for perspective, and new members right now have numbers in the 13,000's) -- and they were pretty funny. I have to say that in most places, if I say I ran a marathon yesterday and I'm running another one tomorrow, I get a lot of reactions, ranging from awe to disbelief to adulation. But here, there were lots of people who had also just run Kansas City and were also running Des Moines the next day. Nothing remarkable about that at all. So, in a weird way, these are my people, I guess.

After the Maniacs meeting, I went to my motel, where I finally showered off my Kansas City sweat, and then stuffed myself at the Perkins next door. It was raining and the forecast for race day was for warm temps and high humidity but no rain.

The race started at 8:00 a.m., which on the one hand was annoyingly late but on the other gave me another desperately needed hour of sleep. I woke up feeling like I wanted to stay in bed, not run another race. I took inventory of my body while getting dressed. My legs were sore but not terribly sore considering the hills. I had a little blister on my toe, some sports bra chafing, and a stuffy head, but all of those things were pretty minor (although all had potential to blow up into something major on the course; you never know). I headed downtown where, again, there was tons of free parking. One of the nicest things about this race was that the Maniacs had somehow commandeered the entire Civic Center, along with its inside bathrooms, for our use. That was so nice! (The day before, in a Porta Pottie in Kansas City, I had first ended up in one with no toilet paper -- thank goodness, I had my empty McDonalds coffee cup and a gum wrapper -- and then dropped my bandanna in a puddle of something on the floor -- bye bye, bandanna.) I hung out in the Civic Center with 100+ other Maniacs until five minutes to race time and then headed to the start line feeling cranky.

This is a nice marathon, and it's not the race organizers' fault that I was cranky from the moment I toed the line. It was 64 degrees with 100% humidity. I was damp and sticky the entire time, and so glad that no one else could hear the uncharitable thoughts running through my head. I decided to stick with a pace group again just to keep from going out too fast, but that was totally unnecessary as there was NO chance of me going out too fast, or fast at all. The race started out with several nasty hills. I was annoyed with the pace group leader for no reason other than that she had enough breath to chat on these hills whereas I was sucking wind immediately. Also, did she have to be so chipper and perky talking about her work with needy children and how they inspired her to run? I usually run with only one earbud in just in case I feel like talking to someone, but this time I quickly put in my other earbud so I didn't have to listen. It was clear from the start that this day would be about survival and pushing through suffering, and that there was not going to be a lot of enjoyment. I was annoyed with everyone from the pace group leader to the little kids holding out their hands for high-fives (like I'm going to leave my line and bend down for that? Do you know how hard it is to bend??) to the spectators holding signs saying things like "I worked hard to make this sign, the least you can do is SMILE!" (YOU smile after running a marathon yesterday and running another one today!) to the guy yelling, "You're almost there! Almost to Mile One, that is, ha ha!" (Sooooo not funny, dude, not ever! Oldest not-funny marathon joke there is!). I was uselessly wiping sweat off my face and arms every tenth of a mile or so, and hacking up phlegm about that often. My legs were tired, but I was also sleepy, like I wanted to be in bed sleeping. I entertained thoughts of quitting while at the same time knowing I would not do that; I was going home with that Iowa medal, damn it.

The first six or seven miles went through residential neighborhoods of really nice houses. The good people of Iowa were out in force to cheer on runners despite the gross, steamy weather. At Mile Seven or so we ran onto the Drake campus, and one of the two highlights of the race, a lap around their track, the Blue Oval. That soft, springy surface was paradise for my sore feet, but unfortunately it made me think about how I still had 18 miles of concrete and asphalt to go. Seeing myself on the Jumbo Tron was cool, but I couldn't help but notice that either the picture was distorted like a funhouse mirror or else I was really, really fat. Then we were off the track with nothing cool to look forward to for a long time.

We ran back through the residential neighborhood and then onto a multi-use path that ran alongside a river. It was pretty but I was dragging. The 4-hour pace group passed me at the halfway mark and I noticed with satisfaction that the formerly really big group was now down to only two people. No surprise; there were a lot of people besides me not having their best day today.

Miles 16-19 were around a lake. That was kind of cool, but I was suffering and slow jogging the whole time. Also, I was drinking like crazy. I drank at every aid station and was still thirsty all the time. I even drank lots of Gatorade, even though I knew I might pay the price later. (I never did, amazingly. My stomach was surprisingly okay.) We headed back towards downtown and I saw the capitol in the distance. I knew that running around the capitol was one of the last things we did, so in my mind I told myself I just needed to get there and then I would be almost done.

At Mile 24 we came around a corner and looked up a hill steep enough that I heard a few people around me say the F-word out loud. It was a good thing there was something cool at the top of that hill -- the capitol. I managed to jog up it and around it, powered mostly by the thought of being able to stop running soon. There was a nice downhill back to the finish, but by this point my legs were so beat-up and tired that downhill hurt almost as much as uphill. It all hurt, and really I just wanted to be done moving. We passed one guy being loaded into an ambulance at Mile 25, and I got a boost of energy from thinking at least my race was not as bad as his. (Yes, that's what I thought. Not "I hope he's okay," although, in hindsight, of course I hope he's okay. I am a terrible person.)

I finished in an unimpressive though not-horrible 4:13:33. Could've been worse. At least I could eat at the finish line, although the pizza and BBQ sliders were a little more than I could handle. The BEST food, and my new finish line favorite (well, besides chocolate milk) was the chicken noodle soup. It was so warm, bland, and salty that I felt miraculously restored to near-normalcy after drinking it. Note to all race directors: PLEASE! Warm chicken broth at the finish. It's cheap!

The saddest moment of the day: at the finish line, I saw a guy walking in front of me, in the same direction as I was heading, with a Cavalier on leash. I saw that perky white tail wagging and wanted to pet that Cavalier so bad. I followed the guy but my legs refused to allow me to catch up. He was walking quickly and I wanted to yell, "Wait! Please let me pet your Cavalier!" but he was already too far away. My legs would not do it and I had to admit defeat and watch the happy little Cavalier disappear into the distance.

I felt so bad all during Des Moines that I was planning on changing my Marathon Maniacs nickname to Christie "No More Back to Backs" Bane, but of course during the drive home, looking at my two medals, checking two more states off my list, I already started planning my next double. It's going to be Mississippi-Alabama, but I don't know if it will be the January MS/AL or the February MS/AL. Stay tuned for an update. In the meantime, here's a picture of my loot from the weekend. Two super-nice long-sleeved tech shirts, and the Kansas City one even has a hood!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Hopefully The Long Blog Silence Is Over...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Boston Marathon Race Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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