No matter how bad I feel a run or race went, there is always a part of running where I am smiling from ear to ear. If running can keep me smiling like that, it will always be a part of my life.
I put a lot of pressure on myself to make 2013 the year I accomplished my ultimate marathon goal of running under three hours. In doing so I developed chronic Achilles tendonitis and spent a lot of time on the bike, neither of which got me any closer to my goal.
In the three weeks leading up to the Chicago Marathon, it became very clear that sub-3 was not going to happen on October 13. I made peace with that, and hung on to the hope that I could fight my way to a 3:10 finish.
The running gods, in all their ironic glory, would have a little something to say about that.
Sunday, October 13, 2013
It’s race morning and I’ve been up since I went to bed. Did I ever sleep? Not really. And all this tossing and turning through the night has left me achy, nervous and cranky. I better eat.
A banana, a bagel and a half a cup of coffee later, and I feel much better. Being up on my feet and totally awake now has slowed the constant loop of worry that was going through my head: Will my heels hold up? Am I fit enough for the distance? Have I set myself up for failure?
Now it’s just a matter of going through my regular routine and getting to the start line.
It’s a tad chilly, but perfect for running. I suspect the temperature is hovering around 50 degrees, and though I’m wearing sweats while I wait for the corrals to open, I have to keep moving to keep warm.
I got here early, in anticipation of large crowds and heightened security, and now all I can do it is wait. And think.
My game plan for today is to start with the 3:10 pace team and just stick with them through 20 miles, then see what happens. Over the last several days, I have convinced myself I can indeed run a 3:10 marathon despite not having done any speed work since mid-September. I have convinced myself that my long hours in the gym and muscle memory from races past will be enough to propel me towards the finish line at 7 minutes, 15 seconds per mile.
I mean, c’mon, it’s 7:15 pace. That’s easy.
Oh Mr. Confidence, sometimes you can be a sly, deceiving little punk.
I’ve hit the head four times now, so surely there’s nothing left. I make my way to A Corral and slip myself into the warm-up loop circling with svelte, uber fast specimens. After a couple of revolutions, I see John Kiser and immediately say hello.
My newly coiffed mohawk must be throwing him because he squints and tilts his head to the side questioningly.
“Hi, John, it’s me, Jeff.” I say.
“Yes! Hi! How are ya?”
We both give each other the look. The look is: I don’t really know but we’re gonna find out soon.
A few days ago, I emailed John, a friend I met through the New Leaf and M.U.D.D. groups, to see if he would be leading the 3:10 Nike Pace team as he has done in years past. He assured me he was, but that he had been dealing with some aggravating tendonitis in his knee that may limit his abilities. Of course, I told him about my Achilles tendonitis, and we bonded as only extremely competitive, marathon maniacs on the mend are wont to do.
Now, here we are, just a few minutes from the start, exchanging the look with nervous undertones disguised as light conversation.
“Did you see the Bradley/Marquez fight last night?” I asked.
“Nah, did you see the Michigan/Penn State game?”
We carry conversation to quell the anticipation.
Joined by John are two other pacers, Dale and Brian — both skinny and fast, looking the part. I remind myself to just tuck in with these guys and hold on. Whatever happens, happens.
The elites are introduced, the Star Spangled Banner is sung, a fly over misses its mark and then…
Um… why is it so quiet? I think to myself.
Ordinarily, the beginning of the Chicago Marathon is a raucous roar of people down Columbus Drive. But due to the increased security measures brought on by two lunatics earlier this year, no spectators have been allowed at this traditionally jam-packed part of the course. And it sucks.
As my legs move underneath my feet and the pace set by our leaders begins to set in, the eery quiet makes me think: Oh boy, we got a looooong way to go. And this might be too much.
Doubt. I knew it would pop up eventually. It usually does and I’m usually ready for it. But I didn’t expect it to pop up before we reach the first mile marker.
When I began marathoning, a wise runner told me to “always respect the distance.” Running 26.2 miles is never easy. The distance makes sure of that. So running it at a particular, fast pace is never easy either. To think that I’ve reached a level where I can just go through the motions to accomplish what I consider a relatively speedy finish is as dangerous as it is foolish.
Respect the distance, or it will beat your ass.
Pretty sure today is gonna be one of those ass beatin’ days, regardless.
After the symphony of Garmin beeps signals the first mile, I look down to see I never even started my watch. Oh, nice move, Jeff.
All the more reason to stick with John, Dale and Brian.
Our group is probably 15-20 people but I can’t tell for sure because we are all spread out, still trying to get through the early maze of runners bunched.
As we approach Lincoln Park around mile 5, I realize I haven’t looked up from the ground hardly at all. I am so intent on staying with the pace group that the only way I feel comfortable is by not paying attention to everything around me. In some ways, this is a shame, because the Chicago Marathon is one of the most supported races I’ve ever run, with exuberant crowds lining the streets. It’s also a fantastic tour of the city I love so much. But today I am giving up aesthetics for performance, and right now all I can do to hang on is watch the feet in front of me.
Surprisingly, I feel pretty good.
In fact, 7.5 miles in and I’m still feeling pretty good. Except… I have to pee.
It must be nerves still because I’ve never peed so many times just before a race. Plus, other than a half cup of coffee, I haven’t had anything to drink since 7 p.m. last night!
Too bad, bladder. I’m not stopping.
I can’t believe I’m holding pace as well as I am right now. If I stop to pee I’ll never catch up.
As we zip through Boystown and the rest of Lakeview, our even split pace and building camaraderie in the 3:10 group is enough to silence my bladder. As long as I concentrate on staying with the pacers, I am able to forget about what ails me. Watching Dale’s feet — one step in front of the other, over and over and over again — has hypnotized me into a time trance. I’m totally focused on breathing and breathing alone.
The miles go by. The crowds continue to cheer. I’m completely oblivious.
This holds true until we reach the halfway mark about 30 seconds faster than goal pace. The celebrations within our group wake me from my trance, just as both Achilles remind me they are not having much fun.
I knew I was gonna take a beating, I was just hoping it wouldn’t be this soon into the race. But it is.
Keeping pace isn’t so much of an issue, but keeping pace with the annoyance of Achilles pain is. With each compounded step I can feel the calcaneal bursa sacs rubbing against the back of my shoes — tender and inflamed. I try to convince myself that it will all go away, but I’m not as stupid as I think I am, and the convincing doesn’t succeed.
This is where I should be sucking it up. This is where I should be lowering my head and digging deep.
Instead, this is where I begin to think about alternative goals.
But why!?! some part of my conscience interjects. You’re right with the 3:10 group. You’re fine! Just keep going! You can rest your heels when you’re done!
Every time this voice encourages me, its mirror opposite gets in the way:
You’re not in 3:10 shape, dude. You’re not gonna make it. Just take it easy. No use fighting. You’re gonna conk out any minute now. Just wait and see.
Back and forth they go, those voices in my head.
Don’t lose the group!
You’re gonna lose the group.
Don’t listen to that asshole!
This asshole wants you to be able to walk tomorrow.
As the argument builds, so too do my efforts to stay with the group. It becomes increasingly difficult with each step. The latter asshole voice gets louder. Still, I hang on.
Everythiiiiiiiing sloooooooooooows dooooooooooooooooowwwwwwn.
Boom. Just like that. The wheels fall off and there is no question: 3:10 pace is too much.
Yes, my heels hurt, but it’s not my heels that shut me down, it’s my cardiovascular system.
My body has had enough of that pace and it refuses to go any further unless I slow it down. Every muscle, every breath is against running another step at that pace.
Before giving in completely, I put forth one last valiant effort to catch back up to the 3:10 team now quickly disappearing before my eyes and… I… struggle… to…
Fuck it. Just not gonna happen today.
I take about 30 seconds to feel sorry for myself, to wallow in my shattered hopes. And then I recall Ali Tremaine’s words:
No matter how bad I feel a run or race went, there is always a part of running where I am smiling from ear to ear.
Hot damn, yes! That’s the perspective I was looking for! Mentally, I put on my big boy pants, hold myself a little taller, and keep on moving.
I’m still RUNNING! In the CHICAGO MARATHON! And all these strangers are cheering for me, so let’s go!
Suddenly 8:30 pace doesn’t feel so bad, in fact, it feels GREAT!
I go through Pilsen on 18th street screaming “Viva Mexico!”
I turn right onto Halsted and high five my buddy Omar.
I turn left onto Archer and stop to give my girlfriend a great big hug and kiss.
Before I get to Chinatown, I stop to take a piss.
Feeling infinitely better now that my bladder is empty, I charge down Wentworth, tucked in close to the crowd for support, smiling ear to ear.
At mile 23 I see my friend Alison, so I stop to give her a big hug, and now I’m really feeling good. Well, I’m feeling as good as a fatigued, wonky-heeled runner with 23 miles in his legs can feel.
I’m still movin’ ain’t I!?!?
Ah, yes, here we are on the home stretch down Michigan Avenue. This part of the race sure does feel different knowing that I won’t accomplish my goal for the day, but the warmth from the enthusiastic crowd cheering me regardless and the perfectly blue skies above remind me that I am indeed lucky to be where I am right now.
Be glad you can run, period.
And eat some humble pie, dude.
Enjoy the last few miles to the finish.
Absolutely. I make eye contact with volunteers. I high five random kids. I smile big and cheesy.
Then someone pinches my butt.
I turn around to see it’s John, my pacer friend. Apparently his knee issues came up and slowed him down too. But he’s smiling! And moving relatively well (faster than me) as he darts on by.
“Wasn’t expecting a butt pinch 2 miles from the finish line, John, but I’ll take it!” I yell as he speeds on by.
I laugh to myself all the way to Mt. Roosevelt before I make the last left turn towards the finish line. It’s a good day after all. It’s a good day indeed.
3 hours and 20 minutes after I took off on this journey, I am humbled and finally done.
One minute later, I have a beer in my hand.
Two minutes later, I’m thinking about the next marathon.
A very wise person once told me that I should learn something from every race, regardless of the outcome. Well, I learned a whole lot in this one.
I learned that, just like anything else in life, a race is what you make of it. If you want to feel sorry for yourself and miss the beauty of reality, then that’s on you. Attitude is paramount. And with the right perspective, one can truly find joy, even in defeat.
I also learned that it’s okay to give myself a break every once in a while. Setting goals and being productive towards achieving them is great, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of my health.
But most of all, I was reminded that running is what matters for me. It’s not speed, not distance. It’s not splits or weather or terrain.
Running brings me to the state of now.
And that’s where I always want to be.
When it comes to running long and having a blast, the McHenry County Ultrarunning Dudes and Dudettes (M.U.D.D.) sure do set the bar high. Over the last couple of years I have gotten to know many of them through volunteering, running the trails and of course, through racing, so when they announced they would be hosting the first ever Earth Day 50K in nearby Crystal Lake, I circled April 22 on my calendar and made sure I would be rockin’ a smile, ready to race.
All day long.
Man, this is like a party! To look at all the happy faces around me, one would have a hard time believing any of us are in for 31 miles of pain and suffering today. That’s ultrarunning for ya!
I say hi to Alfredo, to Brandi, to Juan, to Edna, to Carrie, Jerret, Tony and so many others. I compliment the collection of yellow “Ultra-Virgin” shirts adorning an anxious crowd. I meet Dorn Peddy, who created all the earth-themed hardware. And there is Michele Hartwig, Team Inov-8 member, trail runner extraordinaire and Earth Day 50K race director!
We runners gather for instruction from Michele and Dorn, pause for the national anthem, and at the sound of the horn… we’re off!
The Earth Day 50K is comprised of five loops of 6 miles with an extra mile added to the first (remember, I LOVE LOOPS). It is run on the trails of picturesque Veteran Acres: a good mix of winding singletrack with some multi-track interspersed. It’s about 50 degrees, the sun is out and everything is GREEN! Mother Earth decided to show up to this party, and so did I!
At the start, my first move is to… lead the way! In fact, my goals coming into this race are to to finish in the top 10, be in the lead pack as long as possible and smile at everyone I see along the way.
David Epstein’s recent S.I. article on Sammy Wanjiru is fresh in my mind, reminding me of a ballsy (read: dangerous?) yet effective racing strategy: beat them at the beginning. The idea is to go hard at the start — to create a gap so immense that it is nearly impossible to clip. The unfortunate part of this strategy (as I will later find out) is that it could leave one gassed at the end, when finishing speed is needed to put it away.
But at this point, I’m only ONE mile into this journey, with THIRTY to go. I have a looooong day ahead, so I just go fast enough to get out front, but not fast enough to kill myself. Yet.
As the field spreads out, we step onto luscious singletrack, and I am not alone. On my heels is Trey Robinson, an awesome runner from Gurnee. We talk a little, but it is obvious that running this hard and talking is easier for him than it is me. His movement is fluid and deliberate. His stride is near perfect. I can’t keep up with him, so I just run my pace. Sure it’s fun to be competitive, to push my body to see what I’m capable of, but thrashing too hard too early and not running my race is as pointless as it is debilitating, so I let him go and just focus.
I have a song in my head: “Rapture at Sea” by Eastern Sun. I don’t run with music, but I do find it helpful to have a song that I like stuck in my head, to act as an equalizer between body and mind when things really get tough. Also, any time I can prevent “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am” from getting in my brain, I take advantage of it. Thankfully, “Rapture at Sea” has me cruisin’.
In fact, this first cruising loop is all about taking in the terrain. There are rolling hills. Bombs away on the down, bound on the ups! A couple steep climbs require power hiking, but barely. There is a lot of variation. Sometimes I’m enveloped by green forest only to escape into an open field. Sometimes I’m running on soft earth, sometimes crushed limestone. I come out of one downhill trail section that empties onto a paved bike path and BOOM. There are two curious deer staring straight at me, just 10 feet away. More like me are a comin’, fellas. Ya might wanna stand clear. They bound away, as if to say, naa naa na boo boo, we’re faster than yooouuuu!
Besides the one at the start/finish, there is also an aid station at the halfway point of the loop. The volunteers there are a jubilant and supportive bunch! They are so quick and efficient that I barely get to see who they are before I’m off again.
Just as I come up on a rather ominous group of trees that boast gigantic, man-made question marks on their heavy trunks, I realize I’ve lost Trey. He’s gotta be waaaaay ahead. Go get ‘em, bro!
I feel like I got a lock on second if I can just hold pace. I’m having fun. I feel good.
Loop 1 done in 51:52.
Um… about that “lock on second”… hmm… you’re 7 miles in, pal. Let’s just focus on the here and now. M’kay, thanks.
I blow through the aid station and look behind me to see I’m not as alone as all that singletrack would have me think. There’s a chase pack of three and they’re not far behind. Everybody looks good too. Not a struggler in the bunch. This is where my meditative mindset needs to take over: focus on the now. Right now. And then, RIGHT NOW. What’s going to happen later, or what has already happened is not going to help me. I need to just stay focused, take advantage of all the downhills and remember that this is something I enjoy.
WEEEEE! I scream as I leap up and over a section the locals call “Little Pig Hill”. I also marvel at the dandy and equally descriptive handmade signs put up all along the course, reminding me how creative and fun ultrarunners are: Land of the Aliens. Snake Hill. Costa Rica. Every time I get to Costa Rica, a section at the top of a gnarly downhill, I tell myself THIS IS FUN! IT’S LIKE A TROPICAL VACATION! Anything to get my mind off the guys gunning for me from behind.
At the end of the loop, the single track empties into the park where a girls softball game is going on and I must look like a mad man: A sweaty mess in short-shorts, a singlet and armsleeves. One softball spectator asks me, Are you okay?
Yep. I’m good. Actually, I feel great!
Loop 2 done in 48:14.
It’s easy to tell myself I feel great, but with the chase pack closing in and gaining every time we reach a clearing (the only time I can actually see them), I realize it’s getting harder for my body to buy into the game plan. Mentally, all is well. I think. Before I can decide, I hear blazing footsteps approaching from behind. They’re coming so fast that I have no choice but to stop, turn and look. Here comes a dude so full of energy and so strong that I feel absolutely deflated about my own performance.
Hey, man, keep up the good work. I think you’re in second, he says.
Uh… yeah. I am. I am? Wait –
I’m in the relay. Just starting out.
Comic relief to the rescue! Thank you, running gods! Thank you, Mother Earth! I needed that! Now, back to work.
With the spark of a good laugh, I put my head down and focus on turnover. Quick. Rapid. Turnover. I begin to pass people still on the second loop and I make sure to give words of encouragement to all, just as they do to me. Singletrack can be lonely sometimes, but coming into contact with others who love running and are as passionate about the trails as I am is a welcome comfort.
Meanwhile, my butt is starting to hurt. Literally. Both the left and right piriformis muscles are beginning to ache, but I’m not gonna let a pain in the ass stop me from tearing up dirt.
Loop 3 is done in 49:34.
As I leave the aid station, I think I’ve lost the chase pack. But then, as I power hike the steep climb to the trail head I hear footsteps right behind.
Hi there. You’re doing great, man. C’mon!
It’s Damian Nathaniel. I recognize him from my frantic looks back earlier. We exchange names and salutations.
Man, you’re running way stronger than me, I offer, somewhat deflated. After running in second by myself for 20 miles, then being caught on an uphill climb, I start feeling sorry for myself. But before I can give into the despair, Damian puts his hand on my shoulder and says, C’mon, let’s go!
Who is this guy and why is he so awesome!?!? He takes off downhill, balls to the wall and I follow, injected with energy I didn’t know I had. This dude could have totally smoked me but instead he offers encouragement and talks me through a low point.
After a couple of miles, we reach the paved section and talk about how much we hate it compared to the singletrack. We jockey back and forth on position, but I know he’s going to go ahead of me once we reach the aid station so I wisely ease off the jets. My butt hurts and I need some Coca-Cola to give me a jolt. I doubt he’s gonna stick around for any of that.
I make peace with this development. I accept it. Hell, I’m out running my butt off (literally) and I’m still having the time of my life!
I realize that, when discussing my running adventures, it appears that I often use hyperbole to describe my experiences. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There is no hyperbole. If I’m doing it right, every run is the best run I’ve ever had, because it’s happening NOW and I’m loving it NOW more than I’ve ever loved it before.
Competitiveness, for me, is a healthy addition to my running. When I choose to embrace it, it pushes me to do things I never thought I could do. So I use Damian as inspiration. Follow that runner! I tell myself. Head down. Back to work.
Then, out of nowhere, my own body throws up an obstacle by way of… a gastrointestinal scare. Yikes! Where’s my ginger? I grab a Ginger Chew (a must-have for any race) out of my pocket, quickly unwrap it and throw it in my mouth midstride. Of course, chewing this thing would be easier if it wasn’t so damn hard! The chilly temps have left it solid, nearly impossible to bite down on, so instead, I just swallow it.
Now I’m choking at the top of Costa Rica. I try to cough it up. Can’t do it. I pour the water/Gatorade mix from my handheld bottle down my throat and desperately try to swallow again, and again…
So how did Jeff die again? Oh, he ran himself silly then choked to death on a Ginger Chew. He was also wearing short-shorts.
Gulp. Whew. Got it down.
Back to work.
Loop 4 done in 52:01.
Suddenly. I’ve been running around in circles with a big, goofy grin on my face for 3 and a half hours now, talking to deer, choking on Ginger Chews, high-fiving strangers. Also, my butt hurts.
I’m at a low point, but these things come and go, so I just go back to what’s been working: the song in my head, bomb the downhills, focus on the now.
And then, just as quickly as I felt terrible, magically, I feel good again. I feel so good that I don’t even care when John Kiser clips me, leaving me fourth overall, with just 3 miles to go. Dude, you look fantastic! I holler at him as he blazes by (he eventually took 2nd overall). He did look fantastic.
I slam some Coke at the last aid station and put my head down one last time. Song in my head. Bomb the downhills. Focus on the now.
I feel the earth under my feet. I marvel at its touch, its beauty. I smile each time I see one of the M.U.D.D.ers’ clever signs.
I am so happy. This is what makes me truly happy. This land, this Earth. This life, this journey. This is why I’m here.
Loop 5 done in 56:24.
At an event like this, there is no going home right after. I rehydrate, I eat. There’s something delicious here called “Taco Soup” and I’ve eaten two servings. There’s homemade muffins and cookies and cakes. I devour everything in sight.
I change my clothes. I hug anyone who will hug me, including the race director! I call my Mom and Dad and then I sit my sore butt on the ground and cheer on all my friends coming through the finish.
Congratulations to Trey Robinson on the win. That was some spectacular running, my friend.
I won my age division, took 4th place overall and set a 50K trail P.R. of 4:17:55.
I could use a beer. And a nap.