For over a year I dreamed about what it would feel like to run in the 118th edition of the Boston Marathon. Like many others, I felt compelled to be there no matter what it took. I was inspired to stand up as part of the running community, to help New England heal, to show my compassion and my support by doing what I love to do most: run long.
The whole world would be watching.
This is my story:
Saturday, April 19, 2014
Sitting in the airport terminal, donned in a bright orange and blue Boston Marathon jacket, I see I am not alone. The head nods and thumbs ups from complete strangers come from runners and non-runners alike, but the runners are easily identified by their Boston Athletic Association gear. Hats, tech tees and of course, the iconic marathon jacket, like the one I am wearing, bring a sense of togetherness for what would otherwise be just another boring plane ride.
Once on the plane, the captain makes his welcome speech. He ends it with the following:
“And for all of our marathoners onboard today, we wish you the best of luck and hope you have a fantastic run.”
The cabin erupts with applause.
*Chills up and down my body*
Wow. This ain’t just your everyday marathon, I think to myself.
– – –
In Boston, having checked in to my hotel, I enjoy a pleasant walk along Charles Street, scoping out the perfect spot for a bowl of clam chowder. Along the way I am greeted by many a passerby and random shouts of “Good luck on Monday!”, “Hope ya have a great run!”, “Thanks for being hee-ya!”.
The street is dotted with other marathoners, coming and going along Boston’s iconic Beacon Hill neighborhood, and the sentiment throughout remains equally enthusiastic for all.
It’s not every day that strangers go out of their way to make you feel welcome. I experienced it here last year, so I’m not surprised at all. I’m relishing the moment. Bostonians love their marathon and what it does for the city. I love them for it.
Full of clam chowder and ready for more walking, I make my way to the Hynes Center for the marathon expo. The closer I get to Boylston Street, the more powerful the city’s buzz and when I finally find myself standing at the finish line I notice its reverence is like that of a Greek temple. I too pay my respects.
Sunday, April 20, 2014
I arrived in Boston on Saturday specifically so I could have all day Sunday to sit around and do nothing. For the last year or so, I have been working a lot of 13 hour days, so this break is exactly what I need. I start the day off with a nice 2-mile shake out jog along the Charles River and then spend the rest of the morning and afternoon with my feet up, napping, reading and munching on overpriced hotel fare.
In the evening, I head over to the Government Center to meet my friends Mike and Rita for the official pasta dinner. They are also from Chicagoland. In fact, Rita finished the 2013 marathon just minutes before the bombs went off, giving all of us Chicago folk quite a scare until we knew she was okay.
Now it’s a year later, and I don’t think any of us can wait much longer to toe the line for this 2014 Boston Marathon. There is a deep sense of urgency felt throughout the running community to get this race off and going, to make it the best marathon ever run. The chorus of smile accompanied chatter here at the pasta dinner serves as a grand prologue.
But to make sure this prologue is just grand enough, Mike, Rita and I find ourselves randomly sitting at a table with Lisa and Jeff, a couple from Winona, MN. This choice meeting is grand because Rita met Lisa at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota several months ago while on a college tour with her daughter. To make things even more coincidental, after some conversation we discovered that Jeff knows Rita’s brother from the mountain biking community.
In a sea of 36,000 runners, from all around the globe, we randomly sit down next to familiar ones. In gleeful unison, we stuff ourselves with pasta.
After dinner I head back to the hotel and count down the minutes before Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 3. For a solid hour I abandon all thoughts of marathoning for the dramatic tribulations of Westeros. Fiercely satisfied, with an acute obsession for the mother of dragons, I close my eyes and find myself fast asleep.
Monday, April 21, 2014
**BEEP BEEP BEEP**
Here we go!
I shoot out of bed, hit the power button on the coffee machine and eagerly flip on the news to check the weather. Reporting live from Hopkinton, the weather man confirms what I already know from countless weather app checks over the last 24 hours: low 40 degree temps at the start with highs reaching the mid to upper 60s by the time I hit the half marathon mark.
Could I be any more excited for this race? For this day? For this moment?!?
I eat my regular breakfast (bagel, banana, Clif Bar) and go through my regular pre-race preparations, which this time includes as much sunscreen as it does Bodyglide. A quick mental and physical check-in combined with some gentle foam rolling reveals an all-systems-go status.
But when it comes to another familiar routine, that of strapping on my watch, I hesitate.
Can I really do this? I ask myself. Can I really run without a watch?
You’re going to, I answer myself. You’re going to today. And you’re going to love it.
Sometimes I’m not sure if I believe myself. Today I choose to believe.
It’s been no secret that this training cycle has been one of my worst. I know that I don’t have the legs right now to run my best race. I have long made peace with this. But as much as I declare myself acceptant of my current condition, I know that if I run with my watch I will be checking it obsessively. And if I do that, I’m quite sure my competitive self, the one who often shows up to these sorts of events regardless of physical condition, won’t like what he sees.
Leave the watch at home, I tell myself. Run by feel. Give whatever you got today, but most importantly, enjoy the moment. Be present in it. Today doesn’t have to be about you or your performance. Let it be about people, about compassion, peace.
I leave my hotel room before I can change my mind.
In the elevator, I run into another, equally giddy runner.
His name is Steve and he’s from Pennsylvania. This is his first Boston Marathon and he plans to break three hours today. We split a cab to the Boston Commons and I give him the lowdown on the course: be conservative early on; don’t let the first 10k of downhill seduce you into blowing out your quads; kiss the girls at Wellesley; be ready to suck it up in Newton; when you hit the 21 mile mark let ‘er loose; when you see the Citgo sign you’re almost there.
He’s probably heard all of this already but I still lay it out there like it’s the most important speech he’ll ever hear. He thanks me for the advice and the conversation and before we know it we’re packed into a bus on the way to Hopkinton.
I close my eyes. I sleep a little. I turn off my mind.
When it comes back on we’re at the Athlete’s Village, deboarding the bus. The sweet chill in the air is invigoratin, the adrenaline in my blood plenty. This will be my 8th marathon. I have had butterflies before. I have been nervous. But today I feel none of that. Only adrenaline.
I feel pure adrenaline.
I look down where my watch should be to see how many hours I have to wait until the start.
Oh yeah, I forgot. No watch. No time.
No worry, no obsessing.
The Athlete’s Village is at Hopkinton High School. I head towards the baseball diamond, camp out next to the backstop and, now lying prostrate with a poncho as my mattress, I calm myself back into a deep, meditative state. The noise all around slowly fades and soon all I hear is the metronome of my breath.
– – –
I wake and find that I am now surrounded by a field of runners. The one almost uncomfortably close to me says, “Hey, mate. You were sleeping mighty well right then.”
His name is Robert. He’s a ginger. And he’s from London. This is his first Boston Marathon, and he too plans to run sub-3 hours.
If only I were in shape for a sub-3 hour race… struth gov’nr, cor blimey!
Robert and I chat, helping tick away the time that I can’t keep.
After a thorough comparison of races past and bucket lists to come, he finally notices, “You forget your watch?”
“Yeah, on purpose.”
“Wow, that would be hard for me.”
“Might be hard for me too.”
Nature calls Robert away while the PA announcer calls me and the rest of Wave 1 to our corrals.
Here we go…
With 15,000 more participants this year, I feel like a tuna fish tightly packed inside his school. During this long march from the Athelete’s Village out to the corrals I am hit by a cacophony of smells — from Icy Hot to Starbucks to b.o. — it’s a mixture specifically attune to running culture.
Once in line for my corral, I follow the leader even further down a long road towards Main Street (Route 135) in Hopkinton. It is here that I shed my warm-up clothing and feel that first skipping heart beat — nothing a short series of concentrated deep breaths can’t fix.
Here the crowds are already deep in support. On one lawn in particular stands a man with a sign yelling “Free Donuts, Cigarettes and Beer!” Like everyone else, I enjoy a laugh, but immediately after, the mood grows somber, reflective.
As we draw closer and closer to Main Street, the crowd of runners grows eerily quiet. This is the direct opposite of what I experienced last year. This is the group mind understanding the implications of this moment, the group mind preparing itself for an epic day.
– – –
Packed deep inside my corral now, squeezing elbow to elbow with my fellow tuna runners, I bump into Robert again.
“Hey, mate. Have a good run.”
“You too,” I say as the National Anthem begins.
Hat in my hand, hand on my heart, every hair on my body stands on end.
A massive cheer is followed by a Blackhawk helicopter flyover and finally…
Miles 1 – 6
I cross the first timing mat and instinctively try to start the timer on the watch that isn’t there. Whoops. Laughing at myself and feeling somewhat liberated as I go watchless, I begin the long descent out of Hopkinton. Already the crowd is loud, boisterous and Boston strong.
The adrenaline runs thick so I remind myself to not let my emotions dictate a fast pace. From experience, I already know that it is here, in these first 10 kilometers, where most people ruin their Boston Marathon. For we go down, down, down, banging our quadriceps in the opposite way mother nature designed them. If one goes too hard early on and blows out his quads, when he reaches Newton and really needs them to get up the longer climbs, he is going to feel a lot of pain and suffering.
Knowing this and having the good sense to reel myself in, last year I managed to run my one and only negative split marathon. Maybe today will yield similar results.
Still, it’s pretty demoralizing to have so many people pass by me — correction: FLY BY ME — so early on in the race. To avoid getting stomped to death, I straddle the center line of the narrow roadway and let everyone fight to go around me.
I step over the first 5k timing mat and think about all my friends and loved ones who are receiving a text message as a result. Technology is pretty sweet. I look down at my wrist to check my split but oh wait, yeah, never mind.
Look around you, I remind myself. You will never live this moment again. Soak it in!
Oh, man. I apologize for my rough language here, but How fucking cool is this?!?! I repeat to myself. This is just so fucking cool: the deep, cheering crowds; the speedsters; the gentle downhill making me feel like I’m floating on air.
And BAM, just like that, I’m over the 10k timing mat, texting my mom and dad again.
I finally break my habit of looking at my invisible watch.
Miles 6 – 12
After the initial 10k of quad thrashing, I do a full mind-body scan to take inventory. I feel great. My breathing is consistent and calculated. I’m running on feel, adjusting pace and cadence based on the course. My smile is about as big as it can get. If anything, my cheeks are beginning to hurt.
But most importantly, my quadriceps are perfectly fine. And they should be. I spent a lot of time over the last 18 weeks working and building my quads, just for this moment. Since I was confined to a treadmill for 90% of my training runs this winter, one of my favorite workouts was warming up for 10 minutes followed by 5 minutes at 6:30/mile pace, followed by 1 minute of air squats, 1 minute of lunges and a 1 minute wall-sit before going back to 5 minutes at 6:30/pace. I would repeat the 8 minute segment 3-8 times, depending on where I was in my training cycle. I typically like to think of myself as a pretty humble guy, but I can’t stop myself from saying I have big ass horse legs right now as a result of all the hard work.
They are coming in handy now.
As my mind drifts from those treadmill workouts to right this second to what kind of beer I’m going to drink after this, I try to always come back to right now. This moment. This little bit of history. This awesomeness.
I pass Team Hoyt and I give them a “WAY TO GO, TEAM HOYT!” while marveling at all those two have accomplished. Just thinking about how many people they’ve inspired the last 30 years makes me feel extremely appreciative to share the road with them. The crowd reacts to their presence appropriately and I am happy to be along for the ride.
Despite the roaring support, there are a couple of quiet spots in between Framingham and Natick. Just before mile 11 now, we hit another brief quiet spot before Wellesley when I feel a man approaching fast on my left side. As he sails by me I take one look at him from behind and immediately yell: “DEAN!”
It’s Dean Karnazes. No one has a body composition like that besides Dean. He’s also ridiculously tan, wearing his famous North Face singlet and visor.
“Hey, bro,” he replies looking back but not slowing down one bit, “how’s it going?”
“Wow! Going great!” I say, suddenly finding the energy and the turnover to keep up with him. I park myself on his right and match him stride for stride. “This is awesome, Dean,” I gush. “I gotta tell you, my name is Jeff and you’re the reason I run ultras! ”
“Cool, that means a lot to me to hear that. I’m glad to see you’re still running marathons too.”
“Yes, sir. In fact, I was training for my first marathon a few years ago when I wondered if people were crazy enough to ever run more than 26.2.”
“So I Googled it and up came your book, Ultramarathon Man. I bought it, read it in one day and about halfway through the book I said to myself ‘I’m doin’ that.'”
“That’s a great story,” he says, smiling almost as big as me. “Thanks for sharing that with me.”
We chat on about upcoming ultras and about how awesome this Boston Marathon is. But just as I start to hear the screaming women of Wellesley off in the distance, I realize there’s no way I can keep up this pace much longer without crashing hard. So I tell Dean as much and wish him an awesome second half of the race.
“Thanks, Jeff. You too, man. Take it all in. Today is special.”
Indeed, today is special. I just ran with one of my running idols in one of the biggest races of my life!
And now I’m in Wellesley, where hoards of women are screaming, asking me to kiss them! Woo hoo!
Admittedly, I don’t spend as much time with the Wellesley women as I did last year. It’s tradition here to kiss the girls, but I am in a happy relationship now and don’t need the attention nor the flattery. What I do need is the boost of energy their voracious cheering provides, so I tuck in close to the guard rail and sail on the power of their collective voices.
Miles 12 – 17
In the town of Wellesley I am greeted by “Sweeeeeeeeet Caroline…. BAH BAH BAHHHH!”
Oh boy the chill I get when that song comes on is a great boost to my psyche. And now that I cross the halfway mark (thus texting my friends and family again) I know I am going to need it. It’s getting warm, the sun is bright and high in the sky and yes, I’m starting to get a little tired.
I know the infamous Newton Hills are coming. Thinking about them, my mind begins to drift towards thoughts of suffering.
Now, Jeff! Stay in the now! Stay in the now!
That’s right. Stay in the now. After all, my love affair with running long is deeply rooted in being able to stay in the now for as long as I’m in motion.
Don’t think about mile 18 or 25 or the finish, just think about RIGHT NOW… then RIGHT NOW… then RIGHT NOW.
I do. I stay right here, right in this magical moment at the center of the world. I hug the left side of the road and high five as many hands as I can, riding on the cheers of countless strangers intent on making right now as special as it can be.
The more I begin to suffer, the more I hear my name. “Go Lung!” “You can do it, Lung!” “Pump those arms, Lung!”
My last name is prominently displayed across my chest specifically for tough times like these as I enter the town of Newton. Each time I hear my name I’m able to focus on the now, eschewing thoughts of discomfort.
Miles 17 – 21
As I embark on arguably the toughest part of the race, I fight back a brief bout of nausea. For some reason, I feel like I am going to throw up a the top of the first big Newton climb, but I remind myself that it’s just a phase and I’ll feel better soon.
I take water and Gatorade at every aid station, just as I have been doing all throughout the race, and after a half mile or so I feel much better. Dumping cold water on my head every chance I get helps. The sun is really shining on me now. I’m getting burned but there’s not much else I can do about it.
My heels are stiff and sore too, but running by some blade runners reminds me how lucky I am to be able-bodied, so I tell myself to suck it up and focus on the glory all around me.
“Go Lung! Get up that hill, Lung! You can do it!”
Good god these people are awesome!
While all day long the crowd has featured an array of wicked smaht signs, one seemingly boring one grabs my attention now. It reads: HAVE FUN. MEB WON.
WHAAAAAT???? MEB WON????
“Did Meb really win?” I yell back, corkscrewing my body into an awkward position not meant for marathoning.
“Yes!” the gentleman holding the sign says. “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
Wow, that is really cool. Meb Keflezighi won the marathon. This declaration provides me with even more untapped energy — enough to take me all the way up to Heartbreak Hill.
This spot, famous for its place in Boston Marathon lore, is also one where the crowds really provide a boost. Though my body is aching, I am happy knowing it’s simply fatigue and nothing else. My pace has slowed considerably, but I have not stopped running. I will NOT stop running, especially now. I will conquer this hill on the shoulders of this animated and positive crowd. While I shorten my stride to get to the top, I high-five little kids and blow kisses to those cheering me on.
At the top, finally, I think to myself, now that wasn’t so bad.
Miles 21 – 25.6
My reward for cresting the last of the Newton Hills is a nice, long downhill. Recovered and feeling the excitement of almost being done, I decide to let ‘er rip down this one.
In Brookline now and I am simply amazed at how the crowd just grows more and more intense the closer I get to the finish. My ears are ringing!
Do these people lover their marathon or what?!?!
My constant mind-body feedback loop yields the familiar aches and pains associated with three hours of continuous running but it’s all masked by the enormous amount of love I feel radiating through my every cell. My emotions are starting to come out. It’s a good thing I’m wearing sunglasses.
I have run in a lot of marathons, including three Chicago Marathons where I thought the crowds simply couldn’t be beat. I am being proved wrong. This moment, right here, in Hopkinton-Ashland-Framingham-Natick-Wellesley-Newton-Brookline and now BOSTON, MASSACHUSSETS is the most alive I’ve ever felt. This is history! Like 36,000 of my brothers and sisters, I am an integral part of this celebration of life, this festival of compassion, this party of love.
The Citgo sign greets me and I know I’m almost done.
My god, what am I going to do when I get to the finish line, I ask myself. Am I going to cry like a baby? Am I going to pass out?
STAY IN THE NOW, JEFF, IN THE NOW.
In the now. High-fiving this kid. In the now. Blowing kisses to that crowd. In the now. Being uplifted by the sound of my own name “GO LUNG GO!”
Miles 25.6 – 26.2
I turn right on Hereford, left on Boylston and there it is: the finish line. In all its glory, in all its majesty, there stands the finish line, drawing me near. It’s only 600 meters from here to the finish — one and a half times around the track.
This is where I usually sprint my heart out, pumping my arms and my legs to the beat of the fastest drummer I can summon.
But not today. Today I’m taking my sweet ass time. I’m soaking this in — this love, this peace. I’m right in the middle of it all and I’m not going to miss a second of it.
I let the wave of warmth and emotion flow over and through me. I know that this is one of the most special moments of my life.
I am in the now. I did it. I am right here, right here in Boston where I’m supposed to be.
I cross the finish line in 3 hours 38 minutes on the dot and can’t hold back the tears of joy any longer.
1968 Boston Marathon champion and longtime Runner’s World fixture Amby Burfoot described the 118th Boston Marathon as “the best day in running history”. I really can’t argue with that.
For me, it goes even further. The 2014 Boston Marathon was a celebration in motion, an honest tour of compassion and a testament to the love deep down inside us all. Whether we ran, we cheered or we watched via text messages at home, we were all together as one, running through the center of the world.
When I first qualified for the Boston Marathon in 2012, I saw running the race as a once-in-a-lifetime event. I would go, run my heart out, then move on to other races.
I did go. I did run my heart out. But tragedy made it impossible to move on.
I am not alone.
The running community is close, passionate and stubborn as hell. When we line up in Hopkinton on Monday, April 21, it will be as ONE, and the world will know it. We will be loud, proud and obnoxiously neon (because we can).
Compassion. Peace. Solidarity.
This will be my mantra for 26 miles 385 yards.
It won’t matter that my training for this race has sucked. It won’t matter that I won’t even come close to my lofty time goals. It won’t matter that I will likely feel like garbage at some point (or all of the points).
What matters is that I’ll be there, running among like-minded souls, with a gigantic smile on my face and high-fives for all.
“What is thaaaaaaat?” asked Edna with a slurred voice somewhere between transcendence and delirium. “Look at thaaaaaaat! Why are there so many houses?”
It was 6:30 in the morning. We were approaching an open field covered with frost, and save for three twenty minute cat naps spread throughout, she had been awake and on her feet running for over 43 hours.
There were no houses.
“You’re seeing things, babe. You’re tired. Stay on my arm and let’s keep moving.” I said.
She looked at me with big, wild eyes. The fatigue forced upon her by 30 degree temps, two sleepless nights and 99 miles on the Potawatomi Trail — a trail that leaves you feeling like you’re being eaten alive by piranhas, one little vicious bite at a time — left her speech and reaction time slow. Her behavior reminded me of Paul Krendler as Hannibal Lecter fed him his last meal.
I was overwhelmed with the desire to take away all her pain, to snap my fingers and have us be in a warm hotel, fresh and clean, discussing dinner plans or a book we just read. But before my mind could wander further off into those pleasant thoughts, she was digging deep. Again. Fighting with every bit of her being.
She pushed and pushed and pushed.
I was in complete awe of her ability to fight through myriad discomforts to prove she could do what she set out to do. She inspired me with her indomitable will, her mental toughness, her humility and her never ceasing smile.
Man, I love this girl.
Upon completing 100 miles, we (Team Edna) decided it was best to rest. With only 8 hours left, we knew there wasn’t enough time to complete another five 10-mile loops. In fact, of the 44 registered to run the 150 mile race, only 14 managed to finish it, many of them my friends. To them, I bow down with admiration. What a feat.
Edna’s 100 mile finish was an equally enlivening triumph. Life got in her way a lot the last six months, but just like in the race, she put her head down and soldiered forward despite the hardships. She never once complained. She never once considered giving up. She had zero regrets.
THAT is what living is all about.
That’s how the race as metaphor keeps forcing me to go bigger, to be better.
Edna did that. She does that. And I couldn’t be more proud.
– – –
Special thanks to Team Edna members Robin Platt, Siamak Mostoufi and Raul Cervantes, Jr., all of whom played big roles in a smooth operation. Your loyalty and dedication to helping Edna get through the tough times will not be forgotten.
And to all of the runners, pacers, crew members, volunteers and race staff at the Potawatomi Trail Runs, I wish to give you all a great big virtual hug. The ultra community is family to me and having a front row seat to some of the most selfless acts of kindness and daring athletic performances is a pleasure I will always cherish.
-Phil, Groundhog Day
– – –
Saturday, February 1, 2014
You’re running a half marathon… in Grand Rapids, Michigan… in FEBRUARY!? Um… why?!?
This is myself scolding myself during the treacherous drive along I-94 East from Chicago to my sister’s place in St. Joseph. Visibility is poor. The roads are slick. The driving is uber slow. By the end of the day, 8+ inches of snow will have dumped on western Michigan.
I want to go run in it.
Because I want a challenge, I reassure myself. Mountains of snow, polar vortexes… if you can’t beat the weather, might as well get out and live it. Right? Maybe? Hope so?
My girlfriend, Edna, is gaming for the adventure too, so I don’t feel too crazy. As someone with several hundred milers under her belt, her continued desire to explore herself through physical challenges cements the sanity of my own decision.
After a nerve wracking drive, a nice home cooked meal by my sister and an evening of playing with toddlers, Edna and I are psyched to get out in the snow and have fun ourselves. When I receive an email from a friend telling me the course conditions — that the trail is brutally tough with snow up to one’s knees in spots — we look at each other and know that we’re going to give it a go anyway. Last week we ran in circles for 6 hours in the face of 40 mph wind gusts and barbarously cold temperatures. If we could survive that (and have fun!) then running in knee deep snow shouldn’t be much worse.
Sunday, February 2, 2014
At 5 a.m. our alarm clocks go off in smart-technology unison and we are up. I sip some coffee, eat a banana and then Edna and I eat some pie (why not?) to finish off our breakfast.
It’s 5:45 a.m. and we are on the road — one that is in much better condition than it was yesterday.
The temperature is going to stay in the low 20s with plenty of clouds overhead and *GASP*, no real accumulative snowfall is predicted. Still, knowing what we already know about the trail, we both expect to take it easy today.
An hour and twenty minutes later and we are in the John Ball parking lot, huddled among other frigid crazies waiting to catch the shuttle to the start/finish line. It arrives, we squeeze ourselves in, and by the time we make it to our destination we only have ten minutes left.
The two of us push ourselves through the crowd gathered inside the warm hospitality tent until we finally get to the check-in table and grab our bib numbers. Hurriedly, we pin one another, and venture outside just in time to hear “And they’re off!”
Miles 1 – 4.4
Hurry up and wait. That’s what we do. This is, after all, a race run on a paved bike trail (though you wouldn’t know it from the snow cover) and the trail isn’t exactly wide.
We are way at the back of a decadently fluorescent conga line and by the time we get to the timing mat, two minutes have gone by. I think about darting up ahead, but from the endless stream of slow moving head bobs, I know there’s no point. Might as well just take it slow until the crowd thins out.
I stick by Edna and after a quarter mile of struggling through shin and knee high snow, I accept what I already know: today is going to hurt and today is going to be slow.
“I think the key here is to take smaller steps,” I say to Edna. “If I take too large a stride the potential for injury is too large. I’m going to try to keep my feet under me.”
Even heeding my own advice, the potential for disaster is still there. The snow is powdery. Slippery. But it won’t pack down, not even with hundreds of runners trampling over it. It’s a snowy, ill-footed mine field.
Every step is a surprise.
We hit the first mile mark in just over 17 minutes. Holy shit.
With a hat-tip to the Bill Murray film, the Groundhog Day Half Marathon is a 4.4 mile loop run three times. It features mostly flat landscape with some pleasant views of the Grand River and surrounding wilderness, all of which is covered in snow and ice. Every once in a while I remind myself to look up — to actually enjoy the scenery — but most of my focus is on staying upright, requiring me to look down.
A couple of miles in and already my hips are starting to scream while my heart rate soars. It’s not every day I “run” a 17 minute mile and maintain a 160 beats per minute heart rate. As we reach the first aid station, where I fuel up on Gatorade and those delectable peanut butter pretzel bites, I feel like a rebel soldier fleeing the Empire’s invasion of Hoth.
You could use a good kiss! I think to myself. Whew, I could also use a good recliner. This is hard work!
A little more slogging later, and the crowd opens up a little. I turn to Edna, get my kiss and kick on down the snowy trail.
Down to a 15 minute mile now (HUZZAH!), I find that the footing on the back half of the course is even worse than the first half. Slip… slide… WHOA LOOKOUT… save myself… slip… slide… WHOA LOOKOUT…
A lot of things are on repeat here.
After much struggle, I find myself back at the start/finish line, only 4.4 miles into the race, in a whopping one hour, nine minutes. Yikes! Before I give in to the idea of quitting — as many ahead of me appear to be doing — I immediately turn around and get myself back out there.
Miles 4.4 – 8.8
Back out on the trail now, I know what to expect the rest of the way: powder, pain and suffering. At least it’s not very cold, I remind myself. And there’s no wind.
It could be worse. It could always be worse.
I will myself to remember this bit of truth. Just think about all those crazies running the full marathon!
Indeed, it could always be worse.
Right now, despite my achy hips and slow pace, life is pretty darn good. The crowd has subsided. I’m running pretty much all by myself now, passing people who’ve been slowed to a walk on occasion.
Shortly after refueling at the aid station and kicking back down the trail, my watch gleefully beeps to inform me that I am in the 13 minute mile range now.
Oh boy we’re blazin’ now!
Relatively speaking, I am moving pretty fast. Though I may look like I’m moving in slow motion, I maintain
running jogging slogging pace. I only come to a walk at the aid stations.
And because I’m paying so much attention to the ground beneath me, the time seems to pass quickly. Another hour and seven minutes has passed and I find myself at the start/finish line again.
I dart out for my third and final loop with the kind of enthusiasm born from an impending completion of epic snow schlepping. And oh look, my face hurts… from smiling! Again!
Miles 8.8 – 13.1
Beer, beer, beer… chili, chili, chili…
I’m going to hang on to whatever it takes to get through this fluffy mess, and right now, I know that concentrating on the finish line fare (and warmth!) will get me where I need to be.
I should also note that this fluffy mess seems to get worse as the day goes on, not better. If the snow were just a little more damp, perhaps it would pack down and stay down. Instead, what we get is surprise after surprise after surprise.
Just before hitting the first aid station on this last loop I notice someone close on my heels.
“Keep setting the pace, man,” says the guy behind me. I find out his name is Steve. We will share much of this last loop together. After the mental struggle of the first loop and the isolation of the second, I welcome the company and conversation.
We share our race resumes and talk about annoying injuries past. We discuss the difficulty of running a half marathon in February. In Michigan. In knee deep snow. And we both come to the conclusion that we need a beer.
“Just keep pumping your arms,” I say. Someone gave me this advice for the last 10k of my first marathon and it has stuck with me. “If you move your arms your legs will follow.”
After the last aid station, I thank all the aid station volunteers. I’m sure this has been a tough day for them too. Keeping water from freezing in sub-freezing temps and listening to cranky runners whine about the conditions probably doesn’t make for the best way to spend a Sunday, but they’re all troopers and it’s nice to hear their cheers each time we come through.
“These peanut butter pretzel balls are amazing,” I tell Steve, as I take off down the last leg of the loop. “I’ve been eating them all day. I’m ravenous. I’m starving!”
Chili, chili, chili… beer, beer, beer…
I’m coming for you!
As we reach the last turn back towards the finish line I pick up the pace and notice Steve fall back a bit. I keep going. I want to be done. I want to be warm. I want to eat and drink and–
“Hola, mi cielo!”
It’s Edna! “Hola, mi amorsita!” I yell back. She is heading out for her last loop while I finish up mine. We stop for a short embrace and she assures me she’s feeling fine. Her smile lights up the trail like always and I can’t wait for her to get back so we can both be warm, rested and DONE. “I will drink some beer and eat some chili for you,” I tell her.
“Very good,” she says ironically (Edna doesn’t drink) before taking off through the snow.
Stuck in cheesy smile mode, I run the last 200 meters to the finish, coming across the line in a whopping 3 hours, 18 minutes, 51 seconds, a time more reflective of my recent 26.2 mile races. Exhilarated and gassed, I head straight for the hospitality tent.
I can’t see!
Seriously, I can’t. I’m snow blind. Some kind soul directs me through the crowd of exhausted runners to collect my finisher’s medal. Once my eyes adjust I am able to see just how bad ass this piece of hardware is. Heavy and profound, the medal features a dancing groundhog in relief and I put it around my neck, where it will stay until I get home.
For the next hour and a half I camp out next to the New Holland kegs and sip The Poet until my equilibrium requires me to eat some chili to rebound. I talk to a bunch of strangers. I share war stories with other finishers. I’m about as happy as can be.
Edna finally comes through and we hug each other, celebrating our mental toughness victories.
“Wow, that was hard!” she says.
“Yep. Yep it was. That was crazy hard.”
But we did it. We stuck it out.
We chose to be here and we knew what we were getting into. We knew we’d escape with a story worth telling — one that would leave us starving and snow blind and smiling.
You can’t get this sort of experience on the couch. You gotta take a leap and learn to adapt. That’s life right there. That’s what keeps it interesting.
And interesting never gets old.
Just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill…
No me dejes nunca, nunca, nunca… te lo PIIIIIIIIIIIDO por favor…
Soup, soup, soup… hot… soup, soup, soup…
No doubt the above is an odd collection of unrelated thoughts turned mantras. But these, along with some choice others, were the phrases that kept me moving throughout my 7 hour 9 minute journey through frosty McHenry County wonderland at the 2014 Frozen Gnome 50k. This is my story:
Saturday, January 11, 2014
*BEEP BEEP BEEP*
Boom. I’m awake. I can smell the coffee brewing.
I jump to my feet and shove a couple of bananas and a Clif Bar down my throat while I check the weather. A night of freezing rain descended on the Veterans Acres course and the high for today looks like it will crest above 40. This is good news, or this is bad news.
So far this winter, over 30 inches of snow have accumulated in the Chicagoland area and with the Polar Vortex treating us to negative high temperatures just a few days ago, I’m feeling quite joyous about not having to risk hypothermia and frostbite during this race. However, above freezing temps and lots of rain will likely make the already challenging, hilly course a roller coaster of slushy, slick and slow surprises.
I love surprises.
My girlfriend and I arrive at Veteran Acres in Crystal Lake, IL and we both take note of the pleasant, warm air. But as soon as we try to navigate the parking lot turned ice rink, we immediately connect on what kind of adventure is in store for us today.
“We’re going to have to take it easy,” I say, “we’ll be just one spill away from six weeks in a walking boot.”
We pick up our bib numbers and greet the swarms of friendly faces near the start line. This event, hosted by our dear friends from the McHenry County Ultrarunning Dudes and Dudettes (M.U.D.D.) group, has attracted runners from all over the Chicago area. And like other ultra races held around here, the sense of love, joy and community is in high definition surround sound.
I greet race director Michele Hartwig and course director, Geoff Moffat, both with a hearty hug followed by a questioning grin.
“I think we’re in for quite a test today,” I say.
Geoff’s sinister chuckle validates my thought.
The 10k’ers go off, hopefully packing down the snow-slush trail for us on the way.
15 minutes later and…
Loop 1, Miles 1 – 6.2
My game plan for today is to go out nice and easy, survey the course the first time around and adjust my effort accordingly. I’m in Boston training mode, so everything I do right now is in preparation for that. Today I expect to get some gnarly hill and mental toughness training; and I would like to keep my heart rate around 150 bpm, so I’ll be keeping a close watch.
The course is a 10k loop, repeated 5 times, so I should know it (possibly love it, or hate it) very well by the end.
The initial findings in my constant mind-body-mind feedback loop are: oh boy, this is a toughie, what have I gotten myself into?
The snow is packed down in spots, not so much in others. The ongoing thaw has created a perpetually messy slush-soup in some parts and when we hit the occasional paved paths it’s nothing short of an ice rink. Oh, and then there are the hills — steep climbs that force me to dig in hard with the fat lugs on my Salomon Speedcross 3s on the way up and cautiously pick away through an admittedly odd looking dance on the way down.
I prepare my mind for the impending hip flexor hurt and subsequent butt soreness.
Traffic on the trail is moving pretty well. I am in a group of steady movers who, like me, seem to be striving to go home in one piece. Everything is going swell until suddenly, at the crest of a long climb, we stop. Completely.
“What’s going on?” I ask to those up ahead.
“Butt Slide Hill,” I hear someone holler back.
I poke my head out from the congested conga line to see a group of runners stopped in their slushy tracks, unsure of how to navigate down the frighteningly steep descent. Their facial expressions say they aren’t sure, so I cut the line and head straight to the front.
“It’s not called ‘Butt Slide Hill’ for nothin’,” I say as I scoot to my backside and slide — WEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!! — all the way down.
Wow. That. Was. AWESOME.
I rise to my feet, and despite the snow filling my crack, I can’t stop from laughing.
“That was worth the price of registration alone,” I say to a runner close behind. “And to think, we get to do that four more times!!!”
A couple of miles later and my smile finally starts to wane as the thick slush soaking and freezing my feet reminds me that I have a lot of work to do, and a long way to go.
But I reach the start/finish line to a raucous cheer from a familiar cast of friends and volunteers. I fill my bottle, grab some grub and head back out for more punishment.
Loop 2, Miles 6.2 – 12.4
I walk fast while chomping down on some delicious cookies and notice my heart rate hovering around 140, even while walking. So far I have been successful in keeping my heart rate in the 150 range while running. I only wish it would drop a bit more when going slow. When I tackle any hill it seems to soar around 160-170.
I contemplate this, as well as the recipe to these scrumptious cookies, when suddenly I hear “What the–?” from behind. I turn back to see Jeff Moss, a friendly runner (with an awesome name) whom I met at the 2013 DPRT 50. He seems surprised to have caught me so early in the race.
“Oh no, it’s going to be slow-going for me today,” I assure him. “I want to go home in one piece.”
For the entirety of this loop, Jeff and I run together, sometimes talking, sometimes not, but always moving. We chat about races past and those to come. I am impressed with Jeff’s running resume, especially that he’s going to take on his first 100 miler this spring at the Potawatami 100.
“You definitely have the bug, don’t you? The racing bug.” I say.
“Oh yes, definitely.”
As we climb up towards the peak of Butt Slide Hill for the second time, I look back to see I’m first in a long line of runners. Eager to lead by good example, I excitedly drop down on my butt and — WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!! — zoom down the hill.
I stop at the bottom, but again, I can’t stop laughing. I feel like a goofy kid drunk off life.
A couple miles of more slogging and we’re back at the start/finish line. This time there are cinnamon rolls! YES!
Loop 3, Miles 12.4 – 18.6
I start back out on my own, but it doesn’t take long for Jeff to catch up to me again. I welcome the company, even when the trail forces us to concentrate hard on staying upright, leading to limited conversation. It’s just nice to know that if I fall and snap my femur, someone will be there to help me up.
The loop is getting to be familiar now. Up this hill, down that one. Around this snow bank, zig-zagging over that one. Ankle high sloppy slush through this multi-track, cross country skiing with trail shoes through that one.
Every once in a while we are greeted by smiling course marshals and a ringing cow bell. It’s all becoming as familiar to me now as the rising ache in my butt.
“I’m getting beat up,” Jeff says.
“Me too. Me. Too.”
We reach the start/finish line and I head right for my drop bag and a much needed Red Bull. Friend and volunteer Julie Bane offers me some hot soup and I take it as fast as I can.
Ahhhhh… yes. It warms my soul as much as my gut.
“Wow, this soup is delicious, Julie,” I say. “It doesn’t necessarily pair well with the Red Bull, but man, did I need that!”
As I stand around my drop bag slurping soup and Red Bull, I contemplate a sock and shoe change. After 18+ miles of stomping through snow and slush, my feet are frozen bricks, and the more I stand around, the colder they get. It might be nice to have dry feet, I think to myself, but as soon as I get back on the trail they will go right back to being cold and soaking wet.
I’m better off just dealing with it.
So I do.
Loop 4, Miles 18.6 – 24.8
Jeff passes me as we head out for this loop and his backside quickly disappears from my view. That’s the last time I will see him until the finish line.
“Go get ’em, Jeff!” I yell, mostly to myself, because he is too far away to hear.
I put my head down, pump my arms and force myself to just… keep… moving.
My heart rate is hovering around 155-160 now and it’s getting harder and harder to bring it down. Each hill I climb sends it to 170 and beyond, and even when I slow to a fast hike I find it difficult to get below 150. I guess this is because THIS RACE IS HARD.
Up the hills, down the hills, up the hills, down the hills.
It’s a hard course, but beautiful, no doubt. I am all alone on this loop and the surrounding forest keeps me entertained with its eery quiet and comforting, wintery surprises.
I hit Butt Slide Hill again, chuckling all the way down, and when I find myself back at the start/finish line, volunteer extraordinaire Karen Shearer greets me with a beaming smile and more hot soup.
I really don’t want to leave the comforts of the start/finish area. My feet are bricks. My hip flexors are screaming. My butt aches. Heck, it’s taken me five and a half hours to complete 40k, cementing the idea that this will be my slowest 50k finish ever, in the seven hour plus range. But race director Michele said she brought my favorite post-race grub, her famous taco soup, and I would feel guilty filling up on that treasure without having finished the race, so I put on my big-boy smile and get the hell back out there.
Loop 5, Miles 24.8 – 31
The biggest difference between this loop and the previous four is the fact that I’m doing a LOT of walking now, even on the flats. Also, I’m singing. To be specific, I’m singing “Te Lo Pido, Por Favor”, a song that has been stuck in my head for a couple of weeks now. Since I’m all alone and suffering, I’m even singing three different versions (Juan Gabriel, Banda El Recodo and my favorite, Marc Anthony) at the top of my lungs.
Tu me sabes bien guiar, tu me sabes bien cuidar…
Oh man, my butt hurts.
Good grief my feet are cold. I could use some taco soup right about now. Yes, soup… hot soup, soup, soup…
Whew. Wow. I’m gonna suggest to the course director THAT HE MAKE THIS RACE A LITTLE TOUGHER NEXT TIME.
Just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill…
I get to Butt Slide Hill and now I know, yes, it’s… all downhill from here. WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!
At the bottom of the hill, resting on my back, I just smile. And laugh. Sure I’m sore. Sure I ache. Sure my feet are frigidly cold.
But is there anything else you’d rather be doing today?
And with that, I’m up running again. I’m running slow, using an exaggerated arm pump to convince myself I’m running faster than I really am, but I am running.
Hot soup, soup, soup.
Te lo pido, por favor.
As I reach the finish line to cheering voices, my eyes grow large with with the type of joy only arduous adventure can provide. Somehow the sun, an entity that has laid dormant throughout the entire day, comes out to shine, as if to say:
“Welcome to the finish line, Jeff. Now get yer ass some taco soup.”
While I patiently wait for the Polar Vortex to subside so mother nature can give me a cleaner, safer surface on which to train, I continue to battle the elements the best I can. I’m approaching the end of my fourth week of Boston Marathon training and about half of my runs thus far have been on a treadmill.
Physically, I feel great. My body is working well. As I slowly build my endurance, I am getting regular sports massage, with lots of attention placed on those cranky calves. All systems are go for Boston right now, and while I continue to be conservative in my training, I still dream of running a sub-3 race come April 21, 2014.
That’s my “A” goal. That’s the dream of dreams, as it has been and will continue to be until I finally make that dream a reality.
But there is no denying that my conservative training approach (at least for now), may make running 6:50 pace for 26.2 miles on a challenging course more difficult than I’d hoped. Right now my speed workouts — hampered by sub-freezing temps and rusty legs — haven’t been ideal. The turnover is there, the leg and core strength is there, but the cardiovascular system has a long way to go to keep up with my demands. With 14 weeks of training left, I’m not sweatin’ it. I am going to give it my all on Patriot’s Day regardless, and that, ultimately, is all that counts.
But what about after Boston?
Yes, indeed, the time has come, my friends. In 2014 I aim to complete my first 100 mile race. The Pinhoti 100, on November 1, in Heflin, Alabama, will be the scene. Lots of New Leaf and M.U.D.D. friends will be there. I’m hoping to get my dad down there. Siamak the Beast has agreed to pace me. I’m ready to go further than I’ve ever gone before, mentally and physically.
Every race I run from now until April 21 will be training for Boston, and every race I run post-Boston will be in preparation for the hundo.
Here is my tentative race plan:
January 11 – The Frozen Gnome 50k
My good friends from the McHenry County Ultrarunning Dudes and Dudettes (M.U.D.D.) put on great events and this one looks to be no different. 30 inches of snow accumulation so far this winter? Freezing rain? Hills galore? Bring on the suffering!
February 2 – The Groundhog Day Half Marathon
4-ish mile loopty loops in bone-chilling, snow covered Grand Rapids, Michigan? Like Phil said: I’ll give you a winter prediction: It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.
March 2 – The Armadillo Dash Half Marathon
As one who seeks out opportunities where travel and racing can be combined, I found what looks to be a quaint half marathon in College Station, TX about a 40-minute drive from my dad’s place. And while Texas temps in March may not be tropical, they are almost certain to be warmer than anything I’ll find in the Chi.
April 21 – The Boston Marathon
No subtext necessary.
May 10 – Ice Age 50k
After the ass kickin’ I got last year, this is my 2014 revenge race. With some better planning and a good understanding of the course, I am hoping to go under 5 hours this time around.
July 18-19 – Christmas in July 24 Hour
What better way to prepare myself for my first hundred than running in circles for 24 hours? This race, put on by some friends of mine from the New Leaf club, is in my suburban backyard (Lisle, IL) and promises to be one heck of a fiesta. It’s on pavement. It’s on a short, one mile loop course. I’m looking forward to a post-race Frankenstein walk like I’ve never had before.
August 31 – The Mexico City Marathon
One of my best friends lives in Mexico City. I’m in love with a Mexican. The Mexico City Marathon, at 5000 feet of elevation, offers a scenic, challenging course. ¿Cómo no voy a correrlo? ¡Que onda, güey!
October 12 – The Chicago Marathon
Running my fourth straight Chicago Marathon proves to be the lone wild card in my 2014 schedule. Rumor (and history) suggests that this race is soon going to move to a lottery selection. I HOPE NOT! I remain hopeful that the registration process will be open like it has been. My steadfast ninja fingers are prepared to click forward the $170+ dollars as fast as they possibly can. For me, the biggest test with Chicago this year will be running it as a training run as opposed to balls-to-the-wall redlining.
November 1 – The Pinhoti 100
The holy grail. The heavy hitter. The big kahuna. For the greater part of 2014, my heart, and perhaps more literally my legs, will be focused on traversing 100 miles in one shot, for the very first time. And while I do feel a bit funny about throwing myself into a 100 miler that doesn’t even have a website (I’m told it is currently under construction), I have been assured by my friends — most importantly, Siamak, who ran it as his first hundred in 2012 — that this race is as challenging as it is breathtaking. I’m hoping it’s more breathtaking in the metaphorical sense, though in a 100 mile race it seems like there will certainly be some moments were even taking a breath seems impossible.
I don’t know.
But I’ll see.
Because THAT — the unknown, the adventure, the THRILL of it all — is what makes running long so worthwhile, fulfilling and fun!
After a 2012 that saw me break beaucoup barriers and dream of crossing the marathon finish line with a 2-hour-something time, it would be easy to assume that 2013 was a letdown year for me. I didn’t come close to my goal time for 26.2. I suffered through a long recovery from ITBS. I got a nasty case of Achilles tendonitis.
But just like in any other discourse, life is what you make it.
So, positively speaking:
I negative split the marathon for the first time while simultaneously experiencing triumph through tragedy.
Despite the heavy rain and relentless terrain, I answered the bell for all 50 miles of the Minnesota Voyageur and had a kickass time doing it.
I PR’d the half marathon in one of my favorite local races.
I played in the woods with my friends, again.
I was reminded to be grateful for what I have, to live in the moment, to enjoy every second of life as it comes.
I volunteered at the Earth Day 50k, the Des Plaines River Trail 50 Miler and the inaugural Naperville Marathon, perfecting the art of cowbell ringing in one hand while handing out aid with the other.
I had another race report published in Ultrarunning Magazine (October issue).
I spent hours and hours pounding pavement, traversing trails, meditating through movement.
And I fell in love.
Thank you, 2013. My graciously heartfelt smile remains from ear to ear.
Happy New Year!