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.