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Running Through the Center of the World: The 2014 Boston Marathon Race Report

Boston marathon 2014For 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.

– – –

Boston skyline

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.

Boston Marathon finish lineFinish line tributeThe expo, full of the typical marathon expo fare, is a bit too crowded for my liking, so I quickly grab my bib and enjoy the walk back to my hotel.

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.

Mike, Rita and I at the City Hall Plaza pasta dinner. (Image courtesy of Rita Thiel)

Mike, Rita and I at the City Hall Plaza pasta dinner. (Image courtesy of Rita Thiel)

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

5:00 a.m.

**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.

6:00 a.m.

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.”

9:10 a.m.

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.

– – –

9:50 a.m.

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…

WE’RE OFF!!!

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.”

Dean chuckles.

“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.

boston marathon 2014 jeff lung

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.

WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!

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.

boston marathon 2014 finish photo on Boylston jeffery lung

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.

Post-Race

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.

boston marathon 2014 post finish photo jeffery lung

 

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Rev That Racing Engine and Hope for the Best

2013 peapod half marathon jeff lungThe last time I raced to my maximum potential, I set a personal best in the half marathon. In the aftermath of that hard effort though, I also found myself crippled by the apex of bilateral Achilles tendonosis, an injury that would bury the rest of my lofty 2013 race plans and humble me to reevaluate my training.

That was six months ago.

Now I’m ready to give it another go when I toe the line this weekend at the Armadillo Dash Half Marathon in College Station, TX. I have been Boston Marathon training for ten and a half weeks now, slowly building back up to quality speed work and long, slow distance runs. I still don’t feel like I am in optimum speed running shape, but I do feel good. I feel strong. I feel focused.

And I feel like it’s time to see what I can do right now. But I also know that this feeling comes with a conscious finger hovering just above the abort button.

After my experience the last six months, my ultimate conclusion is that I would rather run slow than not run at all. To me, running is a gift. It’s a privilege. I am not guaranteed the ability to run, to have full use of my legs, to live this spry wonderlife each and every day. So each day that I get deserves my respect. If something goes wrong, I need to address it, immediately, and not just keep running anyway, just because. Like Stan Lee reminds us: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

I don’t expect to be swinging from building to building this weekend, using wrist-projected webbing and spidey sense, but I do expect to give my best race effort, using every bit of what is in the tank on that day.

Here’s to hoping I don’t run into any Green Goblins.

Or achy Achilles.

spider-man-reboot-running


Humble Pie on the Fly: The 2013 Chicago Marathon Race Report

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.

Ali Tremaine

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Running through Chinatown during the 2013 Chicago Marathon.

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
4:30 a.m.

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.

6:00 a.m.

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.

7:00 a.m.

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?”

“Well…”

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…

WE’RE OFF!

Miles 1-7.5

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.

Miles 7.5-13

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.

Miles 13-17

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.

Until…

Mile 17-23

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!?!?

Miles 23-26.2

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.

I am.

And eat some humble pie, dude. 

I will.

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.

WHAT THE–

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.

742398-1002-0039s

Post-Race

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.

It’s running.

Running brings me to the state of now.

And that’s where I always want to be.


Reality (or Why I’m Not Too Upset About My Wonky Heels)

chicago marathon 2012 epic sign

Ah, reality, how humble and distraught thou can render me.

Current reality will reveal the following: My race pace 20 miler three weeks out from the Chicago Marathon was an absolute disaster.

I could not hold 6:50 pace. I got about three miles in before both of my heels (especially the left one) became extremely stiff, limiting mobility, sending sharp pains through both Achilles, and ultimately, slowing me down. A lot.

Running with a partner, I felt quite embarrassed that I wasn’t going to be able to accomplish what I set out to do. I worried that I was letting her down, that she might be better off running ahead rather than slowing pace to accommodate my wonky state and subsequent moodiness.

I told her she should carry on, to leave me behind. I didn’t want to hold her back. But she stuck with me, slower pace and all. She even helped me find some peace of mind despite the compounding frustration setting in. For that I am grateful.

It is no secret: the sub-3 hour marathon is my white whale. And facing yet another injury setback while training for this lofty goal just feels like a low blow.

Despite the diminished demeanor, I finished the 20 miles. But in the immediate aftermath, my calves didn’t seem to work very well. I hobbled around like a newborn calf for three days and am just now back to walking normal.

This monstrous hybrid failing of my body — some sort of calcaneal bursitis mixed with Achilles tendonitis and tight, cramping calves — has been hindering my training off and on since July. But it really struck me down after my PR half marathon on August 25. That was one of my best run races to date, but by the time I got home, my entire left heel had swollen to the size of a tennis ball and I could hardly walk. Recovery became laborious. In fact, worried I would lose my fitness, I didn’t allow it to fully recover before picking up with more speed work.

Unfortunately, this heel nuisance seems to be exacerbated by speed work. The more I run up on my toes (inevitable at faster pace), the more load is placed on the Achilles, the more inflamed the bursa becomes, leading to slow, stiff, swollen bouts of BLAH. I have been giving myself extra rest days and dialing back the mileage, but, as proved to me by failing the most important workout prior to race day, it ain’t gonna happen — not right now anyway.

When I hobbled home from my 20 miler Saturday, in between foam rolling my calves and getting on with my day, I budgeted a good hour to feeling sorry for myself.

Boo hoo. Woe is me. Life sucks.

Except, life doesn’t suck. Life kicks ass. Sure, it’s a roller coaster — one that induces vomiting from time to time — but being down is where we have an opportunity to get back up.

There will be other marathons. I still have plenty of time to run my best races. Right now, I need to focus on lining up at the Chicago Marathon 100% healthy, so that’s what I’m going to try to do. I might aim for a 3:05 finish, or a 3:10. I don’t know yet. My calves and heels will tell me what I am capable of on that day; but to expect a sub-3 finish with such little dedicated race pace training the last 6 weeks is a bit unrealistic at this time.

Of course, all of the above truth and rationale is made more palatable by the fact that I GOT INTO THE 2014 BOSTON MARATHON, baby! Whew! Just barely! But I’m in, and that’s what counts.

Having run the race this year (and negative split), I already know it’s a PR waiting to happen. If sub-3 is in my near future, it’s more than likely going to come on April 21, 2014. That gives me plenty of time to heal up, take some time off from heavy training, and to start over new (and healthy) next year.

Whatever happens on October 13th will just be a bonus.

boston marathon finish line 2013


Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Pacers: The 2013 Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon Race Report

Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon Batavia 2013

The Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon in Batavia, IL keeps bringing me back. I PR’d there in 2011. I did it again in 2012. And since the quaint little town is so welcoming with its serene course and opulent post-race party, I couldn’t help but toe the line for a third year in a row. Besides, the race fits quite well with my Chicago Marathon training and, for the last two years, has accurately projected where I can expect to finish in an all-things-being equal mid-October 26.2 mile contest.

Pre-Race, 4:15 a.m.

I am up and stuffing my face with bananas, toast and coffee. Despite the early morning butterflies, I actually slept pretty well last night. But now, just a few hours from the start, I begin to go through my regular cycle of self-doubt and reassuring affirmation. With this year’s Chicago Marathon goal being the loftiest I’ve ever imagined, the plan for today is to run all 13.1 at marathon pace, somewhere between 6:50-6:52 minute miles, finishing in 1 hour 30 minutes, which would be a new personal record by more than two minutes.

The weather doesn’t look too bad. It will be in the low 70s for most of my race with the type of humidity one can expect for the Midwest in August. If I can pull off a 1:30 finish in today’s summery conditions, I will spend the next 6 weeks feeling pretty confident about what I can do on October 13. Luckily, there will be a 1:30 pace group for today’s half, and having run this race twice before, I know the last two miles are essentially all downhill. As long as I can get to the 11-mile marker without dying, I should be able to accomplish my goal.

6:30 a.m.

But 90 minutes at sub-7 minute pace… Jeff, you’ve NEVER done that before. You hear me? NEVER.

I’m only warming up and already my subconscious Debbie Downer is picking a fight.

And you don’t have the miles this year. Your heels are still wonky. Your speed work has sucked. Remember last week when you couldn’t hold 6:50 for two miles in a row!? And the week before where your legs just felt heavy and non-responsive? Yeah, good luck with that.

My subconscious Debbie Downer can be a real drag sometimes. I vow to shut it up. I’m coming in today off a mini-taper, feeling strong, feeling determined. I’m going to stick with the pace group as long as my body allows — and that means grinding through the pain.

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

I read that off someone’s Facebook feed this morning. I’m going to use that mantra when the going gets tough.

And it will get tough.

“Hi, my name is Jeff,” I say as I enter the chute and position myself next to two fluorescent yellow clad men holding the 1:30 pace sign.

“Hi, I’m Eric,” says the side burned leader, “and this is Kyle” he says motioning to his younger counterpart. I shake both of their hands and size them up. Both appear confident and svelte — two characteristics I usually look for in pace leaders.

“Do you plan on running even splits today?” I ask.

“Yes, 6:52 pace the whole way. Even splits,” says Eric. “I will be keeping track of the average per mile pace and Kyle will keep track of the actual mile splits each mile. If it makes you feel any better, we came in last year at 1:30:01.”

Awesome, I think to myself. Not only do these guys seem confident about their plan of attack, but they have also done this before, with success. I’m game.

“Okay, well I’m going to stick with you as long as I can,” I reply. “I just hope the heat and humidity don’t get to me.”

As soon as I say this I realize I’ve just given myself an excuse to abort if the going gets tough — an excuse my more determined self can’t accept right now.

Stick with them, Jeff. The whole way. The only thing that is going to stop you from achieving this goal today is a broken body part or a trip in an ambulance.

3… 2… 1… GO!

Miles 1-5

This is my third running of the race and the third variation to the start line I’ve experienced. In 2011 we began by going up a big hill. In 2012, that hill was gone. Today, there is another hill at the start but it’s in a different location. I think. Hell, I don’t know. I just know that we’re starting up an incline and it’s time to wedge myself into the group and get comfortable.

Eric and Kyle are in front. I tuck in directly behind. All around me are about 15-20 individuals who seem determined to hold pace.

This is your team, Jeff. Look around. Get used to these people. Stick with this group. Do NOT lose this group.

My subconscious voice is obnoxiously loud, but equally determined. Who am I to argue with what it wants?

The first couple of miles are a blur. We’re moving along right on pace and the folks in this peloton are focused. No ones seems to be huffing and puffing yet. Our footfalls create a natural, appealing rhythm. No one smells particularly awful.

This is work in motion — a thing of beauty.

Other than Eric and Kyle’s casual conversation, there isn’t much chit-chat. I can’t hold a conversation going this fast. I definitely admire those who can and the fact that our pacers seem to do so without losing a breath or a step is extremely comforting.

As we weave through the quiet neighborhoods of Batavia that remind me of the small town where I grew up, I notice everyone seems to know our pace leader, Eric. Course marshals, aid station volunteers and excited race observers alike are quick to shout out his name and wave a friendly hand.

This, combined with his detailed course preview assures me that Eric knows what he’s doing and that I should just stick on his heels. Right now, with the temperature still hovering right around the low 70s, I feel okay, but I am sweating a lot.

So when the first two aid stations only offer water and no sports drink, I begin to panic just a bit.

DOH! I need carbohydrate!

I recall this being an issue last year, that not all the aid stations offered sports drink and I had to just deal with it. I don’t know why I assumed that would change this year, but it didn’t. Am I being too snobbish by expecting that in a half marathon? I don’t know. I just know that the best fueling strategy for me is to take in carbohydrate and electrolytes from the very first aid station on through.

But a key element in distance running is adjusting to problems on the fly. I try to relax and know that I’ll get my electrolytes soon enough.

We get through the first 5k under 21 minutes and as I look around I see that our numbers are already dropping off. And so it goes with pace groups. Some days ya just don’t have it. I hone in on my constant mind-body feedback loop, keen to check my breathing, legs, feet, ankles. My wonky heels are aching a bit but that’s just going to be how it goes today. It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before. For now, I feel about as comfortable as I can expect to feel considering what I’m doing.

Somewhere around the 5-mile mark, we hit the steep downhill into downtown Batavia where the crowds are big, loud and supportive. The easiness of running decline combined with the cheering support and a MUCH needed Gatorade-rich aid station make the left turn on to the bike path a great relief to my tiring body.

Miles 5-8

We tuck in a little closer now as our path narrows, running alongside the picturesque Fox River. This well-shaded portion of the race is a welcome relief from the rising sun, and now that we find ourselves closer together, I marvel at the fact that no one has tripped yet. We are so close together that one slight misstep from anyone could cause a colossal crash and burn.

This is so cool, I think to myself.

But what is it specifically about running fast within a group that gives me goosebumps? Is it the sense of togetherness, the creation of community that is born of it? Maybe it’s the notion that I wouldn’t be able to sustain this type of movement just on my own. Or, perhaps it’s simply benefiting from less drag and focusing on the heels of the guy in front of me.

No matter what, I’m in the zone now. My only concern is right now. Right. This. Minute. Staying with the group. Sticking to Eric and Kyle.

“Eric and Kyle,” I say. “All we need now is Stan and Kenny to be complete.”

No one gets my bad Southpark joke/reference, but that’s okay, because we got work to do. A quick look around and I see we’re still about 8 strong. There are several fluorescent green and yellow shirts. There are also a few women among us and everyone is FOCUSED.

We pass the halfway mark and Eric briefs us on what is to come in the last half, which includes a couple of climbs.

Only 6.5 miles to go now, I tell myself. Just hang on. You’re doing great.

Oh yeah, you’re doing great, says my mischievous Debbie Downer self, if you consider feeling like shit doing great. You really think you can hold on to this pace? Ha!

I take a much needed gel, feel a bit more energized, and remind myself to pump my arms when the legs seem unresponsive.

Miles 8-10.5

The love and support our group gets from the people who came out to cheer us on along the course does wonders for my mind and body, but somewhere around mile 9, both start to suffer.

I don’t want to do this anymore.

No one cares if you run a 1:30 or a 1:35 or a 1:anything. No one cares. You can stop now.

It’s too warm. Too humid. You can chill out now, man. It’s okay. Seriously.

My Debbie Downer side bombards me just as my body starts to slow down. As we charge up an incline, I begin to fall off the pace. Actually, our whole group starts to fall apart. And while I entertain negative thoughts and consider just taking it easy from here to the end, Eric heads to the rear of the group, motivating those of us struggling to survive to stick to it, to pump our arms. His words and actions encourage me to dig a little deeper.

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

And it’s only 4 more milesthe last two are downhill so just stick with it. STICK WITH IT, JEFF! NOW IS NO TIME TO GIVE UP!

The old adage of holding on through the rough spots because they’ll go away soon comes to mind as I find a little something inside to chase down Kyle up in front of me. My 30 meter surge is matched by a few others in the group and slowly, we come together again. By the time we crest the last of the inclines and hit the bike path for the last section, including the pacers we are a strong group of six. Eric and Kyle resume their leader spots, giving us much needed encouragement and support.

Holy cow, I can’t believe I just got through that, I think to myself.

Miles 10.5-13.1

“Isn’t this great?” Eric asks aloud. “A nice, steady decline here.”

Great? I think to myself. This is effing brilliant!

Properly shaded again and moving along the gradual downhill path, I look at my watch to see we’re less than two miles from the finish line and for the first time today it hits me: I am going to make that 1:30 mark. I’m going to PR and I’m going to finish this day satisfied that my marathon training is right where it needs to be to do exactly what I want to do.

The hairs on my arm stand up and I feel a cool breeze of satisfaction wash over me.

“You guys, this is going to be a huge, 4 minute PR for me today,” says the woman to my right, arms pumping, legs turning over at the high cadence which has locked in to all four of us surviving runners.

This is awesome, I think. This is simply awesome.

“If anyone is feeling good and wants to get by, just let us know,” says Eric. I definitely consider it, but when I try to accelerate, I got nothin’.

Nah, just stay right on their heels, Jeff. Just ride this out to the end and save that jolt for the finish line.

It takes all the concentration I have to just stick with the pacers. They look back every now and then to see how we survivors are doing and I can’t help but think the face I’m making must be a scary mess. I feel terrible.

But I’m almost done.

We exit the bike path and are close to the finish line because I can hear the crowd and a PA system. We turn left and run under a bridge of some sorts where we are forced to run single file.

Eric drops back and gives me one last “go get em!” as I slide by, steadily chasing the speedy Kyle in front of me. 300 meters from the finish, I feel euphoric — all the pain in my legs and lungs ceases. I feel myself well up as I thank Kyle for his help.

“Dude, thank you so much. I never would have been able to do this on my own,” I tell him.

“You’re welcome, man, awesome job,” he says as he motions me past him for my final sprint.

As I come down the finishing stretch I pass one of the guys who was in our pace group and suddenly I don’t feel my legs at all.

Am I flying? Gliding? Where am I?

I’m at the end. I cross the finish line, arms raised in proud triumph.

Holy shit I just ran a 1:30:10 half marathon.

Boo yah.

Immediate Post-Race

I take a few seconds to catch my breath from the last sprint before I turn around and look for the rest of the group members. Kyle comes across and I immediately give him a hug, whether he wants it or not.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your help. Thank you. Thank you so much,” I gush.

The last woman standing from our group comes across too and I give her a radiant high five for her huge PR. The smile on her face is one that I won’t forget. Those types of highlight smiles don’t wane easily.

Two other guys come through and I greet them with high fives.

Finally, Eric arrives at the back of the group and I make a beeline towards him, celebratory hug included.

“Dude! Eric! Thank you! That was awesome. I really appreciate your help. Two minute PR for me today. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

This enthusiasm, this cheer, this ecstasy… it always seems to find its way into my running adventures.

So I just keep coming back.

Post Race

The good folks in Batavia host one hell of a post-race party. After my emotions calmed down, I had my share of all you can eat pizza and all you can drink beer. I was quick to thank all of the volunteers who made the event a special one.

Watching this race grow over the last few years has been a real treat. In talking with some of my friends at the post-race party, I learned that the race organizers and volunteers had to fight hard to keep the course winding through the neighborhoods like it does. Apparently there was some opposition. Some entity wanted to restrict the entire race to just the bike patch, which, in my opinion would totally kill the charming vibe of this race.

I love going through the actual town, seeing folks on their front lawns with signs and cowbells and high fives. If I wanted to run on a bike path the whole time I’d just stay in Chicago.

Hopefully, this race will continue its awesome streak and I won’t ever have to worry about that.

In thinking about my performance post-race, I realize it would have been nice to break that 1:30 barrier; however, my goal for the day was to run a 1:30 and considering the conditions, where the race fell within my training plan and the fact that I really gave it all I had, I have no regrets.

All I have is a sore face from smiling so much.


With the Eye of the Tiger, Sub-3 or Bust

2.59Long have I been a sucker for classic training montages, the cheesier the better. Whether it’s Rocky Balboa racing a boat, Daniel-san whipping crane kicks to get the girl or Frank Dux redefining ninjitsu, I just can’t help but get pumped up watching that all-or-nothing training mentality in superlative action.

And, of course, a nice score doesn’t hurt.

It could be said that race day is just the exclamation point on the process, whether one reaches his goal or not. Hours and hours of training are logged so that race day simply comes down to execution. We reach our goals with compounded hard work, not by a one-day luck of the draw.

The process of training — the long, drawn out montage in real time — is what the whole experience is about for me. It’s about getting up before light to log a lactate threshold run. It’s about strict attention to clean diet while my friends pack away the pints. It’s about daily massage, supplemental strength training and lots of sleep.

It’s about doing everything in my power to make myself as good as I can be, to (as Survivor would suggest) rise up to the challenge of my rival.

My rival is me — the old me, the me who couldn’t run a block, let alone speed through 26.2 miles all in one shot.

And while that old rival self may not exist in the flesh anymore, the doubt and negativity inherent to his being still lingers. The challenge of rising up against it is still very real. I want to put it to rest forever.

My target is the Chicago Marathon; the goal is to break three hours. It’s my hometown course. It’s built for speed. And I know every tangent, every turn, every double-sided aid station.

On August 4th, backed by a summer of long, slow base mileage, I began marathon training in earnest. Right now I have eight and a half weeks to get tuned into high turnover and to make October 13 one of the most memorable days of my life.

Of course, with high expectation comes the risk of major heartbreak. If it’s 80 degrees on race day then I will have to ditch the effort and just survive. If I go out only to blow up halfway through, I’ll have to suck up defeat and look forward to the next opportunity. Or I could get injured, I could get ill, I could spontaneously combust. Any number of detrimental things lurks, ready to stop me from achieving my ultimate running goal.

But one thing is for certain: even if I do get knocked down, I’m gettin’ my ass right back up.

I’m not going to quit. I’m going to achieve this goal.

It’s going to happen.

And by putting this declaration out into the universe for all to see I feel even more driven to get the job done, one 6 minute and 50 second paced step at a time.

blueeyetigercopy
It’s the eye of the tiger
It’s the thrill of the fight
Rising up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor
Stalks his prey in the night
And he’s watching us all with the eye of the tiger


“Hi, Jeff, It’s Me, Your Central Governor”: The 2012 Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon Race Report

Dan, Me and Otter, post-race. 12 beers consumed among us (though one of us was responsible for 8 of those on his own).

As my summer of ultras comes to a close (but not definitely… yet), I begin to turn my attention back to what made me such a running fanatic in the first place: RUNNING FAST.

There is just something immensely rewarding about moving my body as fast as it will go, powered on its own, that hypnotizes me, calls me, begs for me to do it.  Even though it hurts.

My ultimate “things-I-must-do-before-I-die” goal is to run a sub-3 hour marathon.  My current personal best is 3:15 and my first valid attempt at cracking three will be this coming January, again in Houston.  While I know the chances of me pulling off such a feat in such a short amount of time are almost as insane as they seem impossible, I figure the bar is better set high than not high enough.

Challenge is good.  Besides, I keep surprising myself with what I’m able to do, on any given day, so I might as well keep crawling deeper into the caverns of my mind to slay every last dragon of doubt.

DIE, BITCHES!!!

Enter the Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon in Batavia, IL.  I ran this race last year and had a blast, so I made sure to sign up again.  This time I would be joined by two new friends: Dan Solera, who is just past the halfway point in running 50 half marathons in 50 states; and Dan “Otter” Otto, who impressed the hell out of me by downing six Old Style heavies WHILE RUNNING a sub-2 hour race at Batavia (more on this a bit later).

Pre-Race 4 a.m.

I’m up before the alarm.  I went to bed at 9:30 last night, so I wake up feeling fully charged.  Ready to rock.  I sip a half a cup of coffee, eat a banana and some toast with jelly before checking the weather report.  It’ s already 72 degrees, so I slap on my 1:30 pace bracelet knowing it’s pretty much a given that I won’t be hitting these splits today.  But I’m wearing it anyway because I think a PR is definitely possible.  I haven’t run too many half marathons; and I’ve never trained to peak for one, so I enter Batavia with a 1:34 best, confident that, as Ice Cube reminds me via my laptop, today always has the potential to be a good day.

5 a.m. and I swing by to pick up Dan and Otter.  We are leaving Chicago, on the highway by 5:20 a.m.  All is well.  There’s something comforting about company just prior to a race.  It lessens the nerves, distracts the mind from busying itself with senseless worry.  I enjoy the conversation, especially as I learn Otter’s race plan to carry a pack with six Old Styles stowed, with the goal of downing them all prior to the finish.

Holla!

6:30 a.m. and I’m jogging my warm-up.  Holy Nikes!  I bump into a friend of mine from high school whom I haven’t seen since the late 90s!  It’s so cool to see her!  We make plans to meet up at the finish and I go on my merry way, feeling out the legs, wondering Do I have it today?

Early signs point to… probably not.

6:55 a.m. I enter the chute and stand next to Dan towards the front.  We fist bump, the horn blows and I… am… ruuuuuuunnnnnnnniiiiiiinnnnnng!!!

Miles 1-6

This is just four 5Ks and a jog, Jeff, I tell myself. Run four decent 22ish 5Ks and you’re good.

Thanks, me!  I appreciate that!

I also appreciate the course.  Though the beginning has changed a bit from last year (they got rid of the big hill at the start), I am still impressed with how quiet and quaint this little town of Batavia is.  Its river-centric, historic downtown and sprawling neighborhoods with lots of green reminds me of my hometown of Quincy; and the people who are standing out on their lawns at 7 a.m., though not in great numbers, are especially awesome in my book.

Thanks for coming out, everybody! I yell with a smile. I like your town! It reminds me of home!

And boom!  Just like that I look down to see I’ve come through the first 5K mark in 20:44.  Not too shabby.  The 1:30 pace group is about 3o yards ahead of me, running ahead of schedule, but already I can tell that today will not be a 1:30 day for me.  I’m totally cool with it though because I feel fine right now and know that holding on to 7-minute pace will be more than enough for me to consider this a solid performance.  It’s warm.  The sun is blaring down on me at certain points along the course.  But I feel fine.  My legs are moving in a rhythm that seems sustainable.

I hit the big downhill section just before the 6-mile mark, build speed then bang a hard left onto the bike path that runs alongside the Fox River.  Ah yes, this is where I built momentum last year, I recall. Time to push it a little bit.

Vroom!!!

Miles 6-10

Covered by the abundant shade, this sudden injection of conscious speed should be sustainable… except that, well, it isn’t.  Around the 7-mile mark, the voice of fatigue makes a home between my ears.  I take a GU and down some liquids, hoping to shut its ugly face, but alas, here it is, still talking shit.

Okay, dude, you can chill out now, you’re not going to PR so… yeah. It’s too hot. You haven’t been speed training. You can’t even see the 1:30 pace group anymore.

I run harder to shut him up.

Oh, so you think you can shut me up, Jeff? You know who I am, right? I’m your central governor and I make the decisions around here. Just try to get anything past me.

I push.  I push again.  Yikes!  Pull back.

Haha! See. Told ya. I, am, the master.

I look at my Garmin, which tells me I just ran mile 9 in 7:29, a number I don’t like right now.  Who’s the boss of who?  I decide it’s time to stand up to Mr. Central Governor.

I am the boss of me, Central Governor. Not you. Not anyone. Just me! And look! I’m almost done!

Miles 10-13.1

Ha!  Yes, this is the beauty of the half.  Ten miles into the race and I’m almost done!  After the summer of ultras, where training runs regularly lasted 4-6 hours and races 8-10 hours, oh what a glorious feeling it is to know I am an hour and eleven minutes into a race and I’m almost done!  With so few miles to go, of course I can go faster!

So I do.  The central governor tries to stop me but I pick out a guy ahead, the guy in the green singlet, and reel him in.  Concentrate, I tell myself.  Catch that green man! 

I catch him, he speeds up to race, I go a bit faster and then I’m by him.

I pick out another.  Guy in red.  I look down at my watch and see I’m cruising at 6:40 pace — something that felt hard just 20 minutes ago seems so easy now, because I have focus.  I am here to do something.

Mile 11 and I realize it’s all downhill from here.  Literally.  The last two miles of this course are a continuous downhill.  Ideal for building speed and passing people.

I do both.

I can’t believe how good I feel right now.  Who does that central governor jerk think he is?  I’m gonna have to learn to shut him up quicker next time.  Maybe I’ll train to do just that.

Up ahead I see the big orange sign instructing runners to turn left.  I know that once I get there, I’m at mile 13, with just one tenth of a mile (the “jog”) to go.  A quick glance at my watch informs me that I AM GOING TO PR TODAY, marking yet another victory over my Debbie Downer subconscious.

Eat it, Central Governor!

I turn left onto the bridge, turn right then left onto the last bridge before making the hard right turn to the finishing chute.  I blaze in with the emcee announcing my name, across the line at 1:32:37.

Ice Cube was right.  Today was a good day.

Post Race

There’s something uniquely awesome about eating pizza and drinking Sam Adams before 9 in the morning, so I take full advantage of that as I meet up with Dan, whom I learn had me in his sights for the first half of the race before trailing off a bit.  He still finished with a solid 1:36 and was smiling at the end so all signs point to GREAT JOB!

We both look out for Otter, wondering if Dan might get the call from the county jail that he’s been picked up for public intoxication WHILE RUNNING A HALF MARATHON.  Luckily, Otter’s drinking on the run made him a race favorite, a point the emcee even brings up as Otter chugs his final beer, crossing the finish line in under two hours.

I am extremely impressed.

High fives are had.

– – –

The Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon proved again to be a great event.  It’s just small enough that it doesn’t feel crowded and big enough to feel like each runner’s needs are being met.  From the big downhill after mile 5 all the way to the finish I think the course is just fantastic.  The aid stations were a bit small for my liking, but the volunteers more than made up for that and everyone out there was extremely positive and energetic.  Also, just like last year, the hardware doubles as a bottle opener, which may be the running gods’ way of telling me that, indeed, beer and running do make a beautiful couple.