Sunday, December 17, 2017

26.2 Miles in Paradise -- Honolulu Marathon Race Report

For 50-staters, Hawaii and Alaska are the big ones. Many people save those two for the home stretch because getting to them takes a lot of money and planning. Now that I've completed Hawaii as my 45th state, and also did Alaska back in July, I finally really believe that I'm going to finish.

I had never been to Hawaii and truthfully never really wanted to go. Palm trees are nice, but if I wanted to see those, I would just go to Tucson. I am not a fan of the beach at all. I lived near the beach the whole time I was in undergrad, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I went to the beach (and still have fingers left over). It seemed ridiculous to fly all the way to Hawaii when I could be in Arizona in half the time and with half the cost. Well, I admit I was wrong about Hawaii (although my feelings about the beach are unchanged -- and I never went in the water or even put on my bikini the whole time I was in Honolulu).

First of all, Hawaii doesn't quite feel like it's really part of America. All the roads have names that are definitely not English, and the whole place feels more like an island kingdom than like the 50th state. Second, although the beaches are beautiful, the rest of the island is even more beautiful. I have never seen mountains so green and steep, and the mountains come right down to the beach. The houses are built up into the mountains from Honolulu, but only a short way, so at night when they're lit up the lights look sort of like lava flowing down the hillside. The weather also is not like anything I've ever seen. The clouds hang really low over the mountains and down into the valleys between them. It rains on one mountain while the one next to it is in full sun with no rain.

Will and I arrived on Wednesday for a Sunday race and checked into our Airbnb, which was in Waikiki a couple of blocks from the beach. We were total tourists on Thursday and Friday. We went to a luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center, the Dole plantation, Pearl Harbor, and the Kamaka ukulele factory. Then we spent Saturday relaxing and getting ready for the Sunday race.

Race morning was warm and humid. Now that we were sort of adjusted to local time, the 2:30 wake up was a little bit early. (Race start was at 5:00 a.m.; last shuttle bus from the zoo parking lot, which was four blocks from our Airbnb, left at 4:00 a.m., and I wanted McDonalds before that.) This would be a good time to say that Will had registered for the marathon back when I did, with plans to walk it. The Honolulu Marathon welcomes walkers. There is no time limit (this year's last finisher, an 81-year-old woman, took over 16 hours to finish), and thousands of people walk the course. But Will had decided months ago that he wasn't going to do it because he didn't want to train for it. Then when he got to Honolulu, he decided he would start walking it just to get some exercise and give him something to do while I ran, but he would bail and call Uber when he was tired of walking. So he was on the shuttle with me. The shuttle bus had no air conditioning and all the windows were closed, giving me unfortunate flashbacks to my worst marathon experience ever, that 26-mile shuttle from finish to start in Lehigh, Pennsylvania (in hotter weather, in full sun, standing room only). Fortunately this shuttle was only three miles or so, and even though we were drenched in sweat when we got off, it did make the outside air feel fresh and cool, which it definitely had not when we left the hotel.

I had read that the Honolulu Marathon is a hugely popular destination event for Japanese tourists, and that turned out to be true. Over 14,000 of the 27,000 (or so -- exact stats have been really hard to find) participants were from Japan. This has been mentioned in a lot of reviews of this race as a negative, usually phrased something like this: "Beware the thousands of Japanese who have no idea how the corral system works" or "You have to dodge tons of Japanese tourists walking and taking videos." This is sort of true... but so what? I mean, seriously, so what. Everything about Hawaii is relaxed. That includes the marathon, I say. Let those who care about a marathon designed for runners go to Maui, and let those who want to enjoy a relaxed Hawaiian event go to Honolulu. I have no idea why there were so many Japanese walkers in the front corrals. I know it's not from lack of instruction -- the announcements in both Japanese and English advising people to line up in the correct corrals were non-stop. Did the Japanese not care? Had they been advised to ignore the corral system? Don't know, don't care.

It was, of course, full dark when we started. The race start was accompanied by a most excellent fireworks display that went on for several minutes. The first six miles was a big loop through downtown Honolulu, bringing us back to the start point before heading through Waikiki and then out to Diamond Head. It was very warm and humid, and I was soaked with sweat before I even finished the first mile. It was also very crowded, and I spent the first several miles dodging slower runners. I didn't care; I knew from the start this would not be a fast race for me, even though I always want to be under four hours just in case I ever decide to try for 50-under-4:00. I had decided I was just going to take it easy and enjoy Hawaii, so I wasn't bothered by the fact that I wasn't feeling fast.

Once we passed Waikiki, we began the climb towards Diamond Head. This was a two-lane road that had one lane roped off for runners. The rope was held by volunteers, and these were the most enthusiastic volunteers I have ever seen. I don't know where they got all these people to not only hold over a mile's worth of rope, but also scream and cheer and otherwise motivate the runners up that climb. When we reached the top of the hill and began to descend, the sun was just coming up. After a nice downhill, we began the long out portion of the out-and-back on Kalanianaole Highway. This was a mostly-flat four-mile stretch, followed by a loop through a residential community called Hawaii Kai and then a return to Kalanianaole Highway. It was misting heavily when I started on the highway, and that mist changed to a steady rain after about two miles. I didn't mind the rain; it cooled me off. Plus, there were incredible ocean views to the right and incredible mountain views to the left to distract me.

Once I finished the loop around Hawaii Kai and started heading back down the highway, the sun came out and the temperature slowly started to climb. I loved the back portion of this out and back because we passed so many other runners. At Mile 21 for me, Mile 12 for him, I saw Will! I admit, I was surprised, and even more surprised that he was feeling good and wanted to keep going. Unlike me, Will does not like heat and sun, and there was now plenty of both. But, good for him!

The course went through another residential neighborhood before beginning the climb back up around Diamond Head. This was a pretty rough slog, but mitigated by the stunning views of the ocean (I hadn't seen them the first time around Diamond Head because it was still dark) and the volunteers handing out ice water sponges along the last few miles. Once we got to the top of the climb, we had a mile of downhill to the finish.

I barely made it under 4:20, but I felt good when I picked up my medal and my lei. The one criticism I have of the Honolulu Marathon is their finish area. Not only did I have to walk forever and have to ask a lot of people to find the finishers' shirts (could they not put up a giant banner? I mean, really...), but they also had the very worst finish line food I've seen in a long time. The ONLY things they had were water, bananas, and malasadas (a kind of fried Portuguese donut, which was delicious and everything but not what I wanted after a race). They didn't even have bagels and peanut butter! Maybe I've been spoiled by recent marathons with buffet tables (flashing back to all-you-can-eat grilled salmon in Alaska), but they really ought to do a little better with finish line food.

I walked back to the Airbnb and showered and then walked back to the finish line to wait for Will. He finished in a little more than 7 hours, which is not a bad time for walking a marathon, especially for someone who didn't train for it! I was very proud of him for completing his first (and he says his last) marathon.

Overall, my 45th state was a thoroughly enjoyable one. I had never wanted to go to Hawaii but now I can't wait to go back. It was definitely the most relaxed marathon I have ever done. Would I ever do this marathon again? Probably not, but I still think it was a solid choice for Hawaii. It was a huge and exciting event, the 4th largest marathon in the U.S. Maybe next time I go to Hawaii I'll do Maui (as all the running snobs say I should do anyway), but that's more because I want to see another island than because I was displeased with Honolulu. Anyway, I have five more states to go and none of them are states that I like (Mississippi, Florida, Arkansas, Kansas, and New Jersey) and then I will be done and looking for a new hobby.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

4:45 is Easy, Right? Wrong. Baltimore Marathon Race Report

The Baltimore Marathon was my first marathon since July. My training had been pretty lackluster and my diet has been disastrous for months, but I wasn't really worried about anything because I was pacing this race. I was even less worried when I got moved from the 4:30 pace group to the 4:45 pace group. (Not because the pace group organizer knew about my mediocre fitness level or my daily junk food consumption, but because someone else dropped out of 4:45.) I knew Baltimore is known for its challenging hills, mostly because they appear so late in the race (miles 16 or so through about 23), but at that pace, I was not worried about hills.

Every pace group does things a little differently. In this pace group, for each goal time, there are 3 pacers. One of those is designated the lead pacer. The lead pacer is someone the pace group organizer knows well who has paced this race several times. The lead pacer is in charge of setting the pace. There is also a designated "Plan B" pacer, who will take over if the lead pacer can't continue for some reason. Because I was one of the (few) pacers new to this race -- most others are locals and had paced Baltimore for years -- I was the Plan C pacer, which to me meant that I was just going to get to cruise along behind the other two -- the rules explicitly said that I was not to get in front of the lead pacer. I was just there in case of emergency. Fine with me! I like pacing a lot, but I was in Baltimore to get another state done, and if I had an excuse to be slow and lazy, I was going to take it.

Weather for the race was predicted to be very sunny. There was a lot of discussion about this at the start line among the locals. They knew the course and were worried because not only would the uphill miles be a grind all by themselves, they would also be pretty exposed with not a lot of shade, and of course they would be warm since the race had an 8:00 a.m. start, which meant that the 4:45 pace group would finish at 12:45. I still wasn't worried. Temperature at the start line was perfect, and I was just a little chilly in short-sleeved shirt and shorts. I like running in the heat and was ready for  a warm day.

We had a pretty big group of people with us at the downtown start line, a nice mix of first-timers and experienced runners. Everyone was friendly and excited to be running. (I was notably not excited, although I professionally faked it pretty well for the people in my pace group. I also have not been excited at the start lines of my last several marathons. I actually think I am getting a little tired of running marathons. Well, six more and I don't ever have to do another one if I don't want to.)

The first three miles of the course went pretty steadily up, up, and up. It was never a steep grade, more of a tiresome slog. I was sucking wind at 10:45 pace, never a good sign. We went through several cool neighborhoods of row houses, where a lot of residents were lined up to cheer us on. At the top of the hill, we turned into the Baltimore Zoo and got some nice downhill. There were also some zoo employees standing on the side of the course holding birds. There was a raven, a kookaburra, and, coolest of all, a penguin. A live penguin is something I have never seen before in a marathon. There was also a guy holding an animal I could not identify. I would have guessed maybe porcupine, or hedgehog? One of the guys in our pace group said it was a lionhead-something. I still don't know what it was, but I was happy for the downhill, the shade, and the diversion the animals provided.

We ran out of the zoo but were still on a nice downhill in Druid Park. There was a guy in our group who had run every single Baltimore Marathon since the first one. He was a local and had an endless supply of trivia about the buildings we were passing. The second-in-command pacer was also a local, and he seemed to pass someone he knew about every other block. This was clearly going to be the kind of day where any distraction from how much I didn't want to be running was welcome.

After Druid Park, there was a short uphill to the Johns Hopkins campus. This is a famous university but I have never actually seen it because I have never once had a reason to go to Baltimore. This might be a good place to say that while there are definitely some cool neighborhoods in Baltimore, and the Baltimoreans running the race were all great, I am still not a fan of the city of Baltimore. Literally every single place I went other than the race course I felt like I had to be looking over my shoulder with every step. I am not used to feeling like I have to be on guard all the time anywhere. People have so much to say about how crummy Detroit is; well, I can say I have never felt the vague but present threat in Detroit that I felt in Baltimore. Maryland has a serious shortage of good marathons and Baltimore is really the only choice for Maryland if you want any kind of interesting race at all, but even though the race organization was impressive, I doubt I will ever go back to Baltimore unless I have to.

After Johns Hopkins, we had a long, gentle downhill run back downtown and onto my favorite part of the course, past Federal Hill and into a long out-and-back on the Key Highway along the waterfront. We ran past the Baltimore Museum of Industry, and we could see the Domino sugar plant across the water. I like urban industrial areas, and this stretch was fully satisfying in that regard. The turn-around was at the Under Armour Headquarters, where there was a big aid station complete with confetti cannon. Then it was back up to downtown again, and along the other side of the waterfront. (I never did learn the difference between the Outer Harbor and the Inner Harbor when I was there, although looking at the map I could take a pretty good guess.)

I had been running slightly behind the other two pacers this whole time, not even looking at my watch. I had two jobs: chat with the other people in the pace group, and stay behind the other pacers. They were talking to each other in low voices but I didn't really know what they were saying. Then gradually I became aware that Pacer B was telling Pacer A about which streets she could take to rejoin us later if she could. I realized that Pacer A was going to be leaving us. I didn't know why, but I did remember that we had been instructed that if we couldn't keep the pace for some reason, we had to be very discreet about it, fade to the side, and take off our pacer sign. Pacer A pulled off and Pacer B said to me, "It's us now, keep me honest," and just like that, I was Pacer B. Hmmmm, time to pay attention to my watch.

We ran through the cool, hip neighborhoods of Fells Point and Canton, and then took a left and headed uphill to Patterson Park. At Mile 16 the long climb began. I was not by any means feeling great, but I was feeling steady. It was really heating up. The temperatures weren't that high but the sun was intense. Luckily the humidity was low and there was a nice breeze coming off the water to make up for the lack of shade. Pacer B told me, "I'm not going to lie, this part is a bitch," and he wasn't lying. All we could see in front of us was a long climb in full sun.

We got a little break at Mile 19.5 when the course turned off the main road for a mile-long loop around Lake Montebello. Here we picked up another pacer from a faster pace group. Another rule of this pace group is that if you couldn't keep up with your own pace group, you not only had to take your pace sign off your back, but you also had to wait and catch up with the pace group behind you. This was to try to make the pace team look professional and not have someone wearing a pacer shirt coming in at, say, 4:52 when the goal times were 4:45 and 5:00. I don't remember which group this guy was from, but he ended up having to drop from our group too. Overall, it was just a rough day in Baltimore. I saw runner carnage everywhere -- people puking, people being taken off in ambulances, people sitting on the side of the course with their heads in the hands. It really wasn't that hot -- only low 70's -- but I think it was the combo of late-in-the-race hills plus full sun. I was drinking about three times what I usually drink on course, and by Mile 20 my stomach was full of liquids and sloshing around but I still felt terribly thirsty. This was a bad combination.

We finally made it around the lake and back onto the main road. We had a short but nasty out-and-back -- steep downhill, then steep uphill, then the reverse of that, then we had a grueling mile-long climb up 33rd Street (after which we had been promised mostly downhill for the last three miles). 33rd Street was awful. I barely made it. My stomach was a mess and I was grimly drafting off the other pacer, grateful that we had a couple minutes in the bank because I was pretty sure we were going to lose them here.

Finally we got to the top of the hill and got some downhill. I had felt okay up until now but suddenly my stomach was a real problem. I told the other pacer I might have to drop back. He told me to do what I had to do. I was trying to swallow my nausea back, and was doing okay until suddenly another ridiculously steep hill loomed up in front of us. That was it; I was done. I told him, "I'm out," and he wished me good luck and kept going. We had lost literally every single person in our group on 33rd Street, so we didn't even have to be discreet.

I stepped up onto the sidewalk and ripped my 4:45 tag off my back and threw it in a trash can. I walked for several minutes. My plan was to wait for the 5:00 group and finish with them. At least I would leave here with a state finished, even if I had to suffer the shame of not being able to finish in 4:45. Then I looked at my watch and my pace bracelet and saw that I had over four minutes to make it 2/10 of a mile to the next mile marker. I had no idea how we'd gotten so far ahead on such a grueling mile. I briefly felt bad for the people in our pace group, who we had probably screwed by going too fast up that hill. Then I saw the other pacer's bright green shirt not too far ahead and knew I could catch him since we were now at another downhill. I burped and felt better, and took off.

I caught up with him. Short story -- we finished. There were several nasty uphills in this "downhill finish," and most everyone was walking them. I did the same, falling behind the other pacer on the uphills and catching him on the downs. It was terrible pacing, but by now there was no one running with us so I didn't feel that bad. My stomach was still bad, but not urgently so. I knew I could make the 4:45 finish.

In fact, we ended up finishing in 4:44:27. We had to burn up a little time in the last quarter-mile by slowing almost to a walk. We really screwed up by having those couple extra minutes at the end -- it would have been smarter to use them on 33rd Street and slow down on that hill. This was my personal worst pacing performance yet even though my finishing time was reasonably accurate. (I wanted 4:44:30, but I guess I won't complain about 3 seconds.) It was a pretty terrible race performance too.

In summary, it was a good course in terms of showing off the city, but it was a TOUGH course. As I said, there really is no other good choice for Maryland if you're a 50-stater, but I'm glad I didn't set out with hopes of getting under 4:00 here. I don't know, maybe on a cooler day it would've been fine. Anyway, State #44 is done and I'm glad I don't have to go back to Maryland ever again. I'm looking forward to State #45, Mississippi, next month.           

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Lot to Not Like: Frank Maier Marathon Race Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

43 down, 7 to go!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Marathon List Fun

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

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

Now, on to the lists.

My Top 10:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Bottom 10:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9) Nashville Rock & Roll. Ditto.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 1, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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