I like to run. I've learned that it really isn't about where you're going, it's about the getting there - the how, the why, the who with. This blog is just a little repository for my thoughts along the way; the setbacks, the lessons learned, and the occasional triumph.

Friday, October 31, 2008

NYCM on National TV this Sunday

A programming note from your favorite blogging running geek: The New York City Marathon is this Sunday morning! For the first time, in a long time, the entire event will be aired on national television. Universal Sports will broadcast live coverage beginning at 8 a.m. CST. US is one of the new digital channels that NBC now airs on it’s split bandwidth. I get it on my antenna in Chicago at channel 5.3. They’ll be doing a live webcast on the Universal Sports website as well – with three different feeds: The main race feed, plus one each constant on the men’s and women’s leaders.

(Once upon a time, before the advent of cable, the New York Marathon got live national coverage every year. But that was before I had discovered the sport and I wasn’t old enough to notice otherwise.)

I find I’m more excited about the women’s field than about the men’s this year. Not only are marathon superstars Gete Wami, Catherine Ndereba and Paula Radcliffe completing again this year, there are also two American women running that I'm very curious about. Kara Goucher will be making her marathon debut, and Katie McGregor will be running just her 2nd marathon following her debut in NYC in 2006. Both women have had strong careers at the 5 and 10K distances, and both now, Goucher in particular, seem to be embracing the idea of moving up in distance professionally. Kim Smith, a New Zealander who has spent a great deal of time collegiately in the U.S. will also be making her marathon debut. Any or none of these women may actually win (though Radcliffe is being named, again, as a favorite by many).

The New York Marathon really is an extraordinary event. I - somehow - made it through the lottery process last year in my first attempt, and had the privilege of going to New York to run it. I haven’t run Boston (and may not be able to qualify for years to come). I’ve run Chicago three times now. I’ve also run a handful of other city-based marathons. NOTHING I’ve seen or run quite compares to the NYCM. Chicago has almost as many participants each year. It has nearly as many spectators out on the course. Its elite field is always impressive. But the NYCM is somehow, more majestic.

I think it has a lot to do with the point to point course. To date, it’s still the only point to point course I’ve run in my life. AND, at the very start of the race, you’re running across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge - one of the biggest, tallest, longest bridges in the country. As you reach the crest it in that first ¾ of a mile, you can look over to your left and see Manhattan, 20 miles away across the bay. You can see exactly how far away that is, and you actually have to run even father than that because you snake all the way up to the Bronx before you can come back down into Manhattan again and finish in Central Park. It’s just awesome.

Paula Radcliffe and Martin Lel won impressive battles to the finish line at last year’s NYCM. I got to watch the Men’s Olympic Trials loop four times around Central Park on the day before and was totally inspired by Ryan Hall and Bri
an Sell (then, later, saddened by the death of Ryan Shay). And then I ran a PR for myself on Sunday, even though it was my fourth marathon or Ultra in a six-week span. I even convinced a friend to join me, went to the official party that night – and danced. The '07 NYCM remains, along with my first marathon, and my first 50-mile finish, one of the defining moments in my running life.

The logistics and headaches of getting nearly 40,000 runners to and across a starting line are not something I’m eager to experience again anytime soon, but I’m extremely glad I did it once. And I will try to go back and do it again at some point. Maybe once every ten years I’ll go run the NYCM.

And I’m going to enjoy watching 40,000 other people do it for themselves on Sunday!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

McNaughton Champ Turns RW Cover Boy!

Just climbed down to the mailbox and a pleasant surprise awaited me: My fresh copy of this month's Runner's World. But this time there was an extra surprise - This month's cover boy is 2008 McNaughton Park 150-Mile champ (and 2007 runner-up) David Goggins! He's been selected as one of RW's 2008 "Heroes of Running" for his impressive Ultrarunning resume and for his equally impressive fund raising efforts on behalf of military widows and their families.

I don't know David personally. I've only had occasion to wish him well as I passed him each of the last two years out at McNaughton Park (easy to do when you're only running a third of the distance the other guy is attempting), but by all accounts, he's a great guy and it's pretty cool to see him get the recognition for his efforts. (Hopefully the publicity will also boost his fund-raising.)

It's no wonder, too, that RW decided to put him on the cover to help them sell magazines. At McNau
ghton, I've overheard women and men, alike, expressing admiration of his physique. "Check out the quads on that guy," was uttered by an old man near me at the 150-Milers start in '07 (Also - and there's no special reason for me to note this - but it seems like it isn't often that an African-American makes the RW cover.)

David has good company inside. Other '08 Heroes of Running are: Oscar Pistorius, Haile Gebrselassie, Joan Benoit Samuelson and Usian Bolt, among others.

I wouldn't normally stump for RW, but hey, I kinda know that guy! If you've spent any time out at McNaughton, it's at least worth a looksee.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bib Madness

Well, I had so much Race Reporting to do in the last few weeks that I had to hold onto a few random thoughts until I had time to get back around to them. Here's one of them...
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A couple of days after the Chicago Marathon, I was behind my apartment building to throw my trash in the dumpster. When I flipped up the lid, the first thing I saw was someone else's marathon race bib, crumpled up and discarded on top of the refuse pile. I actually froze in mid-toss. Really? Someone threw away their race bib?

I was slightly aghast. I always keep my bibs. And they're easy, unique mementos to keep. T-shirts? They clog your closet. Except for maybe 2 or 3, you rarely wear them. Eventually you have to box up the extraneous ones, store them, and then finally give them away. The crap in the goodie bags they give you? 99% of it is just that: Crap. It goes in the trash as soon as you get home. Finisher certificates? Fine, if the race even sends you one, but they don't mean much more to me than the attendance awards they used to hand out in primary school.

The medals and the belt buckles you get at the finish lines? I admit those are nice. Those you have to keep. But those aren't always part of the deal. Not every finish line includes the hardware.

Bibs, though, are special. Bibs are the little proof that you stepped up, went out, and publicly tested yourself. That you set a goal, trained for it, then went out to make it real. Bibs are what separate the "runners" from the people who just jog for general exercise. The Bib is what allows me to pretend that I really am an athlete, even if I'm never going to really win anything except the race against myself.

When Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson and Joan Benoit and Usain Bolt and Jackie Joyner-Kersey and Deena Kastor race, they are all given - and required to wear - bib numbers. Does anyone actually think that if one of these people won their races that the races officials would not be able to identify who they were without having an entry number on their uniform as identification? Of course not! So what's the bib for? It's a label that tells every possible onlooker that the wearer is an Athlete, and they are preparing to test their own limits, because that's what athletes do.

With the advent of chip timing in large races, bibs don't even serve any functional purpose for the "citizen runner" anymore. It used to be that each bib also had a small pull tab on it and when you crossed the line and walked through the finisher shoot, these tabs would be removed and recorded by race officials, or they would otherwise record your number. Now, the chips do all of that electronically. The only real reason to wear a bib in a race like that anymore is to help the event photographers identify your photo so they can offer you a chance to spend $35 on an 8x10 of yourself.

But we still wear them. Because they are still symbolic of something that's important. And I still keep every single one.

That poor bib in the dumpster hadn't just been thrown away. It had been crumpled up and discarded on it's own, as if the wearer had unpinned it in some kind of fit and ditched it as they'd shuffled by. I couldn't suppress my curiosity, so I memorized the number and used it to look up the owner's results online. It was a woman who had taken more than 6 hours to finish. So, who knows, maybe there was a level of disappointment involved. Or maybe this marathon really was a once in lifetime event for her and now that it was over, she was done with it. I know, too, that not everyone has the archival tendencies that I have.

But I still couldn't help feeling that someone had foolishly discarded a singular keepsake. Am I crazy?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Race Report: Farmdale Trail Ultra 2008

Whew! It's been a busy month - both for running and for race report writing! I haven't written this many essays in a short time span since school. Especially not of the what-I-did-on-summer-vacation variety. Now I'll get a little break from both. I'm going to be busy at work the next month anyway, so it's a good thing.

Now, without further delay....
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DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN
I scaled a short, rocky hill on the edge of an open field to reach a second field and the fire road around its edge. This would bring me around to the now familiar sight of the 2nd aid station. The Problem? It was too familiar. Because I’d just been here. Like, 10 minutes ago. What was going on? I knew that the course had been altered in the last week due to flooding damage. Knew that one loop section had been eliminated and another added to equal out the distance. What I didn’t know was how I’d managed to loop around to the aid station again.

I was near the end of the first of three 11-mile loops that made up the race route. The course was designed to bring the runners past this aid station twice on each loop. It was
positioned at the start/finish of a loop within the loop. But I’d already been by twice. Once, on the way into the loop, and again, about 24 minutes later, on my way out again. But now, here it was in front of me a third time, just minutes later. What happened? Was this another mini-loop, added to route to help make up for the section that had to be cut off? But the track away from the aid station was still the same. How would I know what turn to take to go to the start/finish instead of looping around again? I hadn’t seen a sign. Did I miss an announcement before the race?

The aid station volunteer who had greeted me 10 minutes before was still there, and I trotted in asking him if I’d done something wrong. “Oh no, you’re good,” he told me, “you come through this station more than once every time. You’ll be seeing us a lot today.”

“But how am I going to know which way to turn, down the path, to get to the finish line instead of coming back here again? I didn’t see any signs the first time.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” he smiled back, “the finish line is less than 2 miles. You’ll see it.”

For some reason, I never said, “but this is the third time I’ve been here already,” and I couldn’t tell if he remembered me from 10 minutes before or not. But I was already suspecting what must be obvious even to you by now: Somehow, I’d missed a turn and gone the wrong way. I did a class A job of it though, because I really hadn’t seen any signs suggesting I was going the wrong way, and worse, somehow I’d put myself right back onto an earlier part of the course where there were signs telling me I was going the right way. How had I done that?

I took off down the trail again, chasing after the backs of several runners who had been behind me just a few minutes ago. After seven or eight minutes, I caught up to two of them. “How you doing up there?” I asked a guy in a white long-sleeved shirt. “Good,” he answered (though he wasn’t entirely convincing). “I need to ask you a question,” I told him. “How many times have you been through that last aid station?” “Two,” he told me.

And that was just about the moment when we veered a little to the left on the trail and continued off into the woods – on a part of the trail I hadn’t been on before at all. Thirty feet to our right, on the edge of the tree line, was the fire road that we had been on after the long, Mountain Bike Trail section that made up the afore mentioned loop within the loop.

So, there it was. Just before that little veer to the left, the foot trail also ran straight ahead, through the tree line, and back to that fire road. That must have been my wrong turn. And once I was back on the fire road, I followed the white ribbons right back to that aid station for a third time. Ugh. How much time had I lost? Ten minutes? Had I added a full mile to my loop? That seemed about right, unfortunately.

And then I realized: It could have been a LOT worse. I could have run off in some completely random direction that was nowhere near the actual course, not noticed it for a mile or so, and then had to find my way back to the race. Who knows how much time that would have cost me? Heck, I could have done that and then gotten lost. That could have meant the end of my race completely. So, at least it wasn’t that bad.

And really, it was my own fault. Could the trail have been marked a little differently there to help me avoid my mistake? Sure. But I also could have recognized the fire road. I could have looked into the woods, too, and seen the directional plate on a tree thirty feet beyond the little division in the trail. You live, you learn, right?

MORE REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The good news of the morning, so far, was that I felt pretty good. My legs were responding well, even though it was only six days since the Chicago Marathon. I even felt a little springy.

I’d taken an extra day of rest after last Sunday. The plan was to take two days off from running, but a busy schedule turned that into three days off. The third day might have been good for me, though. When I got out to do a gentle 6-miler on Thursday, I was surprised at how much life I had in my legs. I didn’t have a pace goal, that day. I just wanted to shake the rust off, run really easy – and surprised myself by ticking off relatively effortless 8:30s from start to finish. Not speedy, mind you, but definitely faster than my usual, no-stress pace of, say, 9:15s.

As we gathered at the start line this morning before 7:30 a.m., I felt sharp and crisp; eager to run. I think the weather was helping, too. Start time temps were around 40 degrees, and the forecast was for mid-day highs in the low 60s. The sky was clear and the air was calm. The day would be ideal. A campfire was burning hot near the check-in tent, sending a nostalgic aroma around the staging area.

SHOULD AULD ACQUAINTENCE…
I arrived on site a little after 7. The early morning drive down from Chicago was uneventful. (It was nice to get away from Chicago gas prices.) I picked up my bib and race shirt a
nd then we all had time for the 20 Grand Slammers to gather and pose for a pre-race group photo. I think that Chris Migotsky, the Clinton Lake race director who was overseeing the Slam, was pleasantly surprised that so many of us were still around, trying to finish the fourth race. This being the first year for the Slam, no one had been sure what to expect. Barring a real bad luck day for anybody, we all expected to finish at some point this afternoon and claim our trophy t-shirts.

There were a couple of guys running Farmdale who I’d first met last year at this same event: Adam, who was running the Slam this year, and who I blogged about at the Hobo Run a few weeks ago, and Mike, a running buddy of Adam’s. I ran almost the entire second loop at Farmdale with the two of them last year, until I faded at the beginning of the third loop. Mike was really great at the finish line last year when I finally came in, making sure everyone there knew that I’d just run the marathon the weekend before (just like this year).

I wound up parked next to Mike in the lot, and we were able to reacquaint. He and Adam had been out, in the days before the race, helping Dave, the RD, mark the course. Mike told me that even though Dave had announced, on the website, that the course had to be cut due to flooding and would be a little shorter than 33-miles, that instead, they had added a new loop to route to bring the distance back up to the full 33.

OFF WE GO
Farmdale also hosts an 8-mile race division. The 8-milers and the Ultra runners all start together at 7:30. I’m not sure how many of us there were in each group, but the cap of 150 runners for the whole event had been met, so there must have been roughly that many us on the course together at the beginning. Each group runs a similar route, but the 8-milers get to skip several sections that the Ultras have to cover. The 8-milers don’t break off until right around the 4-mile mark on the loop. So, those early miles are a little crowded and everyone falls into line along a winding single track that snakes its way through the tree line around the base of some of the foot hills in the park. The restricted pace might be a little frustrating for some of the 8-milers who’d like to open it up, but I think it’s a great way to control my pace in those early miles. No need to go out too fast anyway.

It’s also kind of fun to run early with some of those 8-milers who are a bit less experienced with trail races. Case in point: The first water crossing on the course is about 2.5 miles into the loop. Once upon a time, I worried about water crossings and keeping my feet dry. (Didn’t wet feet cause blisters? My Boy Scout handbook had said so.) I’ve since learned that not only are they no big deal, but the cool water – even 40-degree-Fall-morning cool water – feels really nice. And, so long as you change your socks once or twice during the race, no blisters.

So, when I got to the water crossing, I slowed down and enjoyed it. By the time I’d crossed over and made my way up to the ridge above, several of the younger women trying the 8-miler had reached the water. I could hear them squealing to each other in shock when their feet sunk into the rushing stream. Maybe in a drier year, it’d be possible to cross carefully with dry feet, but this was not a dry year. I couldn’t help laughing at them. They weren’t terribly excited about it, but they were having fun. There were half a dozen more water crossings on the loop, some jumpable, some not, so I’m sure their fun continued.

Apparently the park and the trail get a lot of use from local mountain bikers. There are several long loops of the course that are covered in ramps, wood pilings, dips and rises, all of which are set up or utilized by the bikers. The extra sections on the course that the Ultra runners cover and the 8-milers don’t, includes these sections. The first comes after the course split at the 4-mile mark. Most of the runners took a right turn at this point, and the Ultras took a left. It got quiet quickly after that. There were still a couple of guys in shouting distance of me, one in front and one behind, but I spent most of this Hilltop Loop on my own.

I wasn’t exactly sure what my pace was – no mile markers on this trail race – but I felt speedy and knew I was making decent time. It took me about 15 minutes to make my way around this section, jumping trees and bike ramps, until finally returning to a steep, steep downhill that brings you right back to where the 8-milers had split off to the right. We then ran that piece ourselves, up another half mile or so to the first aid station on the loop.

I wasn’t even a little bit hungry (I’d stopped for a big McDonald’s breakfast on the drive down) and my bottle still had plenty of Gatorade, so I didn’t even pause as I ran through. I just greeted all the volunteers with a big smile and plenty of thanks. I did hit the split on my stopwatch, though. Rumor has it – this year and last – that the first aid station is very close to halfway around the loop, at the 5.5 mile mark. I’d gotten there in a little over 55 minutes. That would be about 10 minutes a mile. If that was true, I’d be very happy with that pace.

BACK HALF OF THE LOOP: NEW COHORTS
There were several runners at the aid station taking a quick break when I went through and they were all on the trail behind me right away. One fellow, who had taken off his shirt and was running bare-chested, passed me right away and powered on beyond me. A woman in a long sleeved blue shirt (who I later learned was up from St. Louis) and a man in a long-sleeved red shirt with a white cap were both behind me.

As we descended from the hilltop aid station, the woman started singing. I couldn’t quite place the lyrics at first, then they seemed familiar to me, but now, as I write this, I’ve forgotten what they were. (But for some reason, the sound of Stevie Nicks singing “Landslide” is serving as a fill-in memory. Go figure.) Then she stopped singing and apologized for not knowing more of the words. I thought she’d just been singing along to an I-pod, or something, but she’d just been singing to us! How funny! The man in the red shirt playfully complained that he’d have to get a better juke box for the next trip. Then she motored off ahead of me to catch up to the shirtless guy in front of us. I heard her expressing how brave he was to be running topless in the cold before they were out of earshot.

The red shirt guy stayed just behind me, though, as we finished our descent and emerged from the trees to loop around a large grassy field on a grassy access road. There was still some evidence of the recent floods on the track and after one bad patch, I heard him say behind me, “That was pretty sticky.” I couldn’t remember clearly, but it seemed like we must have been pretty close to the section of the route that had to be cut off because of the flooding damage. Now that we’d come down off the foothills, we were in a lower section of the park, so that made sense. We covered a long loop around that open, grassy field, following the access road for a mile or so until it took us back into the trees along another section of hills.

It wasn’t long after when we finally made it to our first climb up “Horse Hill.” It’s an eighth-mile climb up a rocky, dirt access road with a 4 or 5% grade. It’s just one of those hills that you walk. It’s rocky enough and steep enough that you aren’t going to get to the top much faster at a jog anyway, so you might as well save your energy. The top of the hill has a reward, though: You get to see the second aid station for the first time. I’d eaten one of my gels on the Open Field Loop and I still had plenty of fluid, so again, I just kept moving.

MOUNTAIN BIKE TRAIL LOOP
The 2 to 2.5 mile loop that follows is the most difficult on the course. It’s the second major section that the mountain bikers like to use. The trail is littered with naturally formed half-pipes, dips and cliffs. You’ll be running along and then, in front of you, the path will drop down sharply to six feet below you, and then scoop right back up again six feet on the other side. On a bike, they’d be great. Gravity would snatch you downward for one second and then the curved bottom of the “pipe” would direct you right back up the other side again with just enough inertia to send you up over the far side with, maybe, a rotation of the pedals.

On your feet, however, the constant punishment of trying to control your “fall” down one side and then having to muscle your way back up the other side is exhausting. The force exerted on your legs takes a toll. On the first loop, it’s kind of fun (you can still imagine that you’re really on a bike), but the 2nd loop is tough, and I found myself really dreading the 3rd time around as I approached on the final lap. (The 8-milers don’t have to cover this part. They do run the loop, but they stay the whole time around the tree line, running the flat, easy fire road around the edge of the field. They never dip back into the forest to experience the rollercoaster.)

Mr. Red Shirt stayed with me through almost all of this loop, and by the last bit of it, we had caught up again to the signing woman in blue. Once we’d finished the last bit of the bike trail, I had to ease off a bit to let my legs bounce back and Red Shirt left me behind to run ahead with the Woman in Blue. By the time we had returned for the second stop at the second aid station and departed again, they had both run off far enough that I couldn’t see them anymore and I was alone again.

This is when I made my wrong turn and wound up back at the aid station a third time.

FINDING THE BRIGHT SIDE
I guess it was good that it happened to me on the first loop, when I still felt fresh and my spirits were up. If I’d somehow blown it late in the race, the frustration might have overpowered me too much. I can be prone to that. I think I’ve learned to overcome those lapses as I’ve aged, but they still have an affect and it would have left me feeling much differently about the day if it had happened later in the race.

But it was early, I did feel fresh still, and I was able to laugh at myself a bit. Not only that, but after I’d made it down the course a second time and actually turned the right way, I found I had a little burst of adrenaline. I was making even better time than before. And I was passing runners. Those people who I’d been in front of and now was behind? I was moving in front of them again. A few of them anyway. And anytime in a race when you feel yourself moving up, it does wonders for your energy.

I motored on down the trail and after another few minutes came out of the woods entirely and ran to the edge of the dam across the reservoir. By the looks of it, Farmdale isn’t a natural reservoir, it’s man-made. But the dam, or most of it, is not an industrial construct. It’s and landfill dam. Across the top, as with many dams, is a drivable road, this one made of dirt and gravel. It’s more than a quarter mile, less than a half, and it’s a sweet, sweet sight, because once you’ve crossed it, you’re just a few minutes from the start/finish line.

Once I’d covered the short switchback trail on the other side of the dam and popped out of the woods into the staging area, I trotted over to the aid table to refill my bottle, and grab a banana. I hit the split on my watch and it showed 2:04 for the first loop. Not bad, considering that I seemed to have missed a turn. I looked around for someone working the race who might be able to clear that up for me. Dave, the race director, was nearby. “I just need to double check,” I told him, “I shouldn’t have come by the second aid station three times, should I?” “No, just twice,” he answered and furrowed his brow with concern. “Ok, I was sure I missed a turn somewhere, but I needed to check.” I still thought it was just my fault, but if it turned out that other people were making the same mistake, it wasn’t too late for someone to try and ride out there to re-mark the trail to help the runners on later loops. (But I was sure it was just my own loopy mistake.)

MY MASSIVE PIT STOP
I ran over to my car to change my shirts. I’d started the race wearing my thermal, long-sleeve, mock turtleneck Under Armor shirt. I’d pulled a short-sleeve tech shirt over that. Now, I removed both shirts, put the short-sleeve back on and then, from my bag, I pulled on another long-sleeved running shirt. It’s a regular shirt with a long-zipper at the neck, so it offers a variety of climate control. I decided to keep my tights, but forgot (how?) to change into fresh socks.

I still couldn’t leave the staging area yet to start my second loop, though. I had one more problem to deal with. I warn you, I’m going to be blunt, so if you don’t want to know, skip a paragraph. (Yeah, I didn’t think you would.) I didn’t get to the race site early enough to be able to take a turn in the port-a-johns before race time. This has never really been a problem before, but apparently, my big McDonald’s breakfast and the cup of coffee, which I rarely drink, were having an effect on me. (Coffee is a diuretic.) I’d been feeling it for most of the back half of the first loop, but it’s not like ducking into the woods for a quick pee; I needed to wipe. The only facilities on the course were at the staging area, so I had to wait. Now, finally, I was there. But my first constitutional of the day never goes quickly. It just doesn’t. So, it took me a few minutes in the booth, but it was worth the wait. It was relief I needed badly.

By the time I was ready to hit the trail again, I’d spent a little over eight minutes in the staging area. An eternity. Eight minutes was nearly a mile down the trail that I’d lost. I’m used to 3 or 4 minutes in the staging area, and that chance to change socks and clothes is well worth a few minutes, but to be, basically, stationary for eight minutes. Ugh. Oh, well. Another lesson reinforced today, I guess.

THE SECOND LOOP: A TAG-A-LONG
Once again, the good news was, I still felt really good, really strong – even though I’d lost at least 15 minutes to extraneous delays. As I started out on the second loop there was a large group, maybe six or seven people, men and women, also prepping to head out again. They were all weari
ng matching red singlets, so I assumed they were members of a running club. I could tell by their conversation that at least a few of them were new to ultras. I scooted off ahead of them because I didn’t want to get stuck behind them all on the single track that was just ahead.

I got stuck anyway, behind three guys who were moving gingerly as a group through the woods. When I came up behind them, the guy in the middle was talking on his cell phone; to his wife I guessed. When they realized I was behind them, they all picked it up, and I was actually able to push them along at close to my preferred pace. After a little more than a mile of this, we emerged from the woods onto a short fire road and all three of the guys peeled off to the side to let me by so they could walk. “I need a little break. I think that was a little faster than usual,” one of them explained. I chuckled politely and wished them luck. I didn’t expect I’d see them again the rest of the day.

Before we’d come to that clearing, one of the men from the running group had come up behind me. He must have sprinted ahead of his group to join us. As I ran off ahead of the three guys, and assumed a brisk pace that felt good, Mr. Red Singlet tagged along with me. He was friendly, though not overly talkative, but I didn’t really feel all that talkative myself at that point, so it was fine with me.

At the start of the Hilltop Loop, (it seems like that were it was), the two of us passed someone else, and as we forked left, he said behind me, “you’re doing awesome, up there.” So, he liked my pace and even though it was a tad fast for him, he wanted to stay with me. I was all for it, and was happy to have the responsibility of pacesetter. It helps me take my mind off myself, knowing that someone else is depending on me for that little bit of leadership. Were it just myself, I might be tempted to take it easy, but I can’t do that to someone else.

The two of us did chat a little now and then, but only about the race and the course. We were both focused on the task. When we got to the first aid station, we both stopped to refill bottles and grab a little food. The volunteers there were complimentary and my new friend redirected to me: “I’m just doing well to be able to keep up with him,” he said with a smile. I grinned back, patted him on the shoulder and told him how great he was doing. It was the first time I’d gotten a look at him. He was, at least, ten years older than me, and wearing a white cap, along with the singlet over his warmer clothes. I waited for him to get his bottle back and we left the station together to start the descent to the open field loop. “I hope you don’t mind me staying with you,” he said, “I don’t want to go past you, I’m happy back here. It really helps me to tuck in behind somebody and tag along.” “I don’t mind in the least,” I answered, and I didn’t. I was gonna pull, and he was gonna push, and we were gonna blaze together.

We did that for the entire second loop. He stayed with me step for step. I stayed on top of the pace for both of us. I decided which hills we should walk. I decided how long we’d stay at the aid stations. He stayed on my heels and kept me honest the whole way. And honest we were. When we’d made it to the first aid station, it had been 55 minutes since I’d started running the second loop. I covered the distance in the same time it took me on the first loop. We got to the second aid station in less time that it had taken me on loop one. Then, on the mountain bike trail loop, we again covered it in slightly less time than it took me the first time – though this second time, I could feel more of the abuse on my legs from all those sharp dips and rises. (That’s when I started dreading the third time through this piece.)

As we completed the MBT loop and charged the second aid station for the second time, we found two other runners there both catching their breath and trying to refuel. They looked to be in their 20s. Both had mostly shaved headed and what I would describe as a runner’s build. My friend and I were both, still, in really good shape and running pretty hard into the station. It must have looked pretty impressive to these two other guys, because they both turned to see us coming in with their eyes a little wide. “Where did you two come from,” they asked us with some amazement. “Did you guys just turn on the jets, or are you both on your third loop and about to finish the race?” They were serious! They took one look at us and how we were running and genuinely wondered if we were about to finish our third loop while they were on their second. They thought they were getting lapped!

No, we told them, just on loop two, like them, but feeling good. I did offer to pay them both $20 if they could convince the RD that we were finishing 33 miles when we got back to the staging area. They both laughed and one of them said he knew the RD and might could arrange it, but they the other guy gave a mock scoff, and said he knew the RD, too, and said he would pay the $20 to make sure everyone knew we weren’t. I thought my friend and I would see these two guys again, but we never did. In fact, we left them behind pretty easily before we even got back to the dam crossing.

We passed the spot where I’d missed my turn and I could see it very clearly this time. I wouldn’t say it was an easy mistake to avoid, but there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have realized I was going the wrong way. It really was just my own dang fault. Of course, now that I knew, the proper trail was completely obvious.

Near the end of the loop, I let my co-pilot know that I was going to have to take a break at the staging area to head over to my car to change my socks. (I couldn’t forget to do that a second time. My feet were pretty damp.) I let him know that if he didn’t want to wait for me, he was welcome to head on out, I wouldn’t be offended. But he told me that he wasn’t going to be able to. He said that he’d really enjoyed taking the loop with me, but he’d been running a little over his head and he was going to need a little time at the staging area to catch his breath and recover. So, we when came in, I made a point to turn around and shake his hand. “Tony,” he answered when I asked his name. Then I gave him mine and said that if I didn’t see him again, to have a great last loop. He made it sound like he was going to maybe wait for his running group to come back around to run the final lap with them.

When I hit the split on my watch it said 2:03, and that included the 8 minutes I spent in the staging area before I started out on loop two. Not bad! Subtracting my station break and adding in the extra mile I’d run, I had covered the first 23 miles at a constant 10-minute-per-mile pace! And I was pretty sure I still had some good fuel left in the tank.

ELEVEN MILES TO GO
My sock change only took me 3 minutes and I was out again for the start of the third loop. Tony and I had passed a good handful of people on our loop, and I wanted to keep finding people to move past. I felt that locking in on a person, concentrating on catching them and then moving on to the next would help me stay motivated through the finish.

It wasn’t too far before I caught up to a guy who I became acquainted with when I ran Clinton Lake last year, my very first ultra. His name is Dan, and if I remember correctly, he was just running a couple of loops at Clinton that year as a training run, but he ran and finished the 50-miler at McNaughton Park two weeks later. He’s the one guy, other than Chris Migotsky, who I’ve seen and talked to at every ultra I’ve run. He was even at a training run I drove down to run at Lake Mingo in early March this year. He’s on the quiet side, but a really nice guy. This morning, before the race, he’d also introduced me to another Greg, a friend of his from Decatur who was also trying to finish the Slam. I’d run the first loop ahead of Dan, but somewhere, either during my missed turn or my prolonged pit stop, he’d gotten in front of me. Now, after another full loop, I’d caught back up again.

I didn’t recognize him until I was almost on top of him. He’d taken his shirt off to run and as I approached I thought it was going to be the shirtless guy who I’d run near back on my first loop around. Even as I was moving to pass him, I still thought it was the other guy. “How you doing up there – Oh! Hey, Dan! How’re you feelin’?” I could tell he was starting to fade a bit. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to catch up to him. I eased up a hair to stay with him for a minute.

“I’ve got good news for you, Dan,” I told him. “Tana – isn’t that her name? – is, as far as I know, still a good ways behind you.”

“Oh I already figured that,” he told me. Tana is one of the women who was trying to finish the Slam. Dan had admitted earlier in the year, and said it again before the race that morning, that he always picked out Tana and tried to beat her. He regarded her as a very strong runner and felt like if he beat her or at least stayed close, that he’d probably had a good day. Sometimes he did it, and sometimes she dropped him like he was nothing. I have no idea if she was aware that she was being used as a watermark. He did, of course, intend it as a compliment. (As it turned out, Tana must have had a rare off day, because she wound up finishing an hour after Dan at Farmdale this year.)

He asked me how much I thought I had left, and I told him honestly that I felt like I might could go either way. I was slowing down a little bit, and though I still felt awfully good, it also wouldn’t have been surprised me if I hit a real wall at some point in the next 4 or 5 miles. At that point, though, I was moving better than Dan was, so I wished him well and moved up on my own again.
On the Hilltop Loop, I caught the woman in the long-sleeved blue shirt. I hadn’t seen her since our first time around. “I see you recovered!” she told me. “Yeah, I’m still trying to make up time,” I told her, “but I’m feeling pretty good.” I moved past her, too, and made my way towards the first aid station.

As I approached, I could see a guy in a long-sleeved red shirt heading out of the station. It was the same kind of red shirt the guy from my first loop was wearing. But this confused me, because I had caught up to that guy and passed him near the end of my second loop. How did get in front of me again. Then I realized: This other guy was wearing his white cap backwards. The first guy had worn his frontwards. So, it must be someone different, but wearing the same shirt. He took off before I pulled in.

I treated myself to a brief sit-down while the wonderful volunteers filled up my bottle for me. Before I left, I got a surprise. The original long-sleeved red shirt guy and Tony, my second loop co-pilot, cruised into the aid station behind me. “Hey, Tony! Look at you! I guess that second loop pace wasn’t too much too fast for you after all. You’re doing great!” He was using the same strategy that he’d used with me on the second loop, but he’d found a new friend to hook onto: Mr. Red Shirt. I looked up Mr. RS’s name after the race and found that it was Carey. I left the station before Tony and Carey did, but I figured there was a good chance I’d be seeing them again before we were done.

FIVE MILES TO GO AND HANGING ON
As I descended down the hills to the open field loop, I caught sight of the guy who had left the aid station just before I’d arrived. He was down below me, starting his way around the field. It was Chris Migotsky. I could tell that he was flagging. He’d started the race in front of me and I hadn’t seen him since. I felt like I might be able to catch up to him before we’d finished the field loop, and I did.

Chris is the RD for Clinton Lake and he also initiated and oversaw the Grand Slam concept this year. He’s also kind of the reason why I started running ultras in Illinois. I was looking for a trail race to run as a follow up to the Georgia Marathon in the Spring of ’07, found his Clinton Lake race in an online race calendar, cruised his website and signed up. Then I got hooked into the other three events in the Slam, because Chris was already talking about it on his race site even before he’d staged the first Clinton Lake event. This year, Chris started a blog centered around his race and Illinois trail running in general. I’d be lying if I said that his blog didn’t have a certain influence on my own.

Naturally, I look up to him.

He knows me, too, by now, and once I caught up to him I eased off so we could talk and say “Hi.”

“Hey-hey, didn’t you run the marathon last weekend?” he greeted me. He told me he was a little frustrated with his race because his legs were really feeling kind of dead. In ’07, he’d had a really good race here, clocking a tidy, speedy 5:45 (if memory serves). This year, he found he was struggling on the last lap.

He also told me that the course was actually a little long this year, not short. The open field loop we’d just completed was the one that Mike told me about before the race, the one that was added to bring the race back up to 33 miles. Well, Chris told me that the Dave, the RD had told him that the field loop was actually a little long, maybe as much as .2 miles. So the full course might actually be 33.5 miles, or something like that.

We talked about the race, about the Grand Slam (He joked about not finishing, and I told him he HAD to finish because all the Grand Slam t-shirts were locked up in his car!), about our running schedules for the winter. By the time we’d climbed Horse Hill for the last time and pulled in for our next-to-last stop at the second aid station, Tony and Carey had nearly caught up to us. They reached the aid station before we left it. Chris had a good time pointing out that he and Carey were wearing the same shirt.

The entire way around the Mountain Bike Trail loop, was a slow game of catch that they played with us. Chris and I could see and hear them the whole time. They inched closer and closer to us. Finally, about 2/3rds of the way around they reached us. We teased them mightily for being rude enough to catch up to us slow-pokes in front. But we were still on the single track and still on that awful, looping bike trail, so they hung out in a row behind us, with me in the front until we came out of the trees and onto the fire road for the last time.

On the way into the aid station, that next-to-last time, Chris and I debated how far around the 11-mile loop its position was. He said every time he’d asked the volunteers there today, he’d gotten a different answer. We never did figure it out, but I told him, however long the Mountain Bike Trail loop was, when we got back to that aid station for the last time, I knew for sure we’d have less than 2 miles to go. So, when we did finish the MBT loop and refueled one last time under the little tent, Chris seemed to set off for home with renewed vigor. We already knew we weren’t going to break 6 hours. Chris was a little disappointed about this, but I was still going to be really happy if I could just finish under 6:22, my ’07 finish time. I was pretty sure I could do it.

As hard a time as Chris claimed to have keeping up with me for the previous 4 miles, now I was having trouble keeping up with him. I have no idea if he sped up, or I slowed down, so I’ll blame him for getting a second wind. It was good to be pulled, though. I’d done a lot of pulling myself during the day. I think I’d earned a return of the favor.

We were across the dam (“Ha! This is me sprinting,” he joked. “You’re looking pretty fast from back here!” I called back), and into the last little switchback section when I finally let him off the hook and allowed him to run off ahead of me. “Come on!” he yelled back as encouragement. “I can smell the barn!” I hollered back up to him. I could see that I was easily going to beat 6:22 and I was content to let him run it in, on his own, but when I popped out of the tree line that last time, I saw that he’d stopped and turned to wait for me. “Come on, slowpoke!” He beckoned to me with both arms, pretending to be exasperated. Then he grinned and turned to cover the last 80 yards just in front of me.

My official time was 6:19:07 (four seconds behind Chris). So, I did it! I beat my last year’s time. That, in spite of the fact that I’d inadvertently taken a mile-long detour on the course and had taken the longest pit stop in history after my first loop. I still improved my official time by almost three minutes. If you count in the extra distance that I covered (and I do, of course) I also cut my overall average pace by more than thirty seconds a mile! I was really, really satisfied with my performance. I’ve never felt that good in the last miles of an ultra before. I still wasn’t as good as I’d been the first two laps, but I also didn’t fade nearly as badly as I often do – and this only six days after my hard effort at Chicago.

ARRGH! YE BOOTY!
Mike was one of the first people I saw at the finish line and he gave me a big handshake. I asked how he’d done and he told me that he’d finished in just over six hours. I could tell he’d wanted to come in under six, as he did last year.

I knew there
was a box of rocks somewhere engraved as finisher awards, but I couldn’t see it and finally had to ask where it was. Of course I was practically standing right next to it. I picked out a small, flat one. I wandered into the little food tent to see if I might have won a raffle prize, but nothing was there with my name on it. When I came back out, though, Chris had returned from his car with the large box of Grand Slam Finisher shirts! They’re construction yellow with a big graphic on the front, a silhouette of a runner leaping a ditch on the trail. It says Grand Slam Finisher and lists the four races that were involved. Kinda cool!

I was ready to get out of my racing clothes, but I couldn’t quite yet. There hadn’t been any photographers out on the trail at all today, so I wanted to stage a couple of pictures of me running in toward the finish line for my scrapbook. Nothing fancy, just a couple of “action” shots to go with my post-race self-portraits. I asked Mike if he minded clicking the camera and we had fun setting up a couple of scenes. A lot of the people sitting around the finish area munching on food joined in, too, calling out suggestions for my performance. “No smiling!” “Show a little more effort on your face!” “Ok, do this one with a look of confusion!” We all had a good laugh and I got a couple of good pictures. (Thanks, Mike.)

I changed, came back over for some food and wound up at a picnic table chatting with Dan and Greg (who had come in behind me), Chris, and Larry Swanson, who RDs all the Rock Cut races and had come down to run the 8-mile race and to be on hand for the distribution of the Grand Slam awards.

Time passed quickly and soon I needed to start making my way back up to Chicago. Then Adam walked over to see how I was doing and he invited me over to his truck to indulge in a celebratory can of beer. I hung out a little longer so I could sip on a can and shoot the breeze with Adam, something I hadn’t been able to do after the Hobo Run a few weeks back. His friend Jason, who’d placed 5th in the 8-mile race that morning and waited around to run the last 11-mile lap with Adam and Mike, joined us, along with one of the ladies who’d run the ultra.

As I drove home later, I started thinking about something Chris wrote in his blog this month, that one of the coolest thing about the Grand Slam this year, was all the great new runners and people he’d been able to get to know during the year. I hadn’t really thought about it before the race, but you know, it had happened to me, too. So, Dan and Chris and Mike and Richard and Adam and Greg and Tony and Kate and Betty and Lawrence and anybody else that I ran with for 1 mile or for 10: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. I enjoyed every single minute. I hope you all have a great winter, and I’ll see you out there in 2009!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Farmdale Ultra Tomorrow!

I just went out for my second little running jaunt since the marathon last sunday, and everything seems to be in working order. I went for 6 miles yesterday, and a super easy 4-miler tonight. All of the lingering muscle soreness is gone and I even surprised myself with how easy 8:30 miles felt.

Race time in the morning is 7:30 a.m. I'll be crawling out of bed in the wee hours and making the 3 hour drive down to East Peoria before the race. (That worked out well last year.)

I can honestly say I have no idea how it will go tomorrow. Last year, I felt pretty good the first 22 miles, then on the 3rd loopI struggled mightily. I finished with a 6:22. This year, due to flooding damage in the park, they've had to amend the loop course. Instead of 33 miles, it will, apparently, be just shy of 32. But if I can duplicate last year's time tomorrow (pace adjusted, of course), I'll be very happy. If I better it, I'll consider the day a complete success. If I somehow manage to break 6 hours, I will be ecstatic.

Most of all, whenever I finish I'll have completed the 1st Annual (we hope) Illinois Trail Ultra Grand Slam! I am actually - based on my own rudimetary research methods - one of just two people to be the first ever to run all four particiating races in the same year - last year. But it was not an official foursome in 2007. This time, I'll get an extra award (a T-shirt, I think) for finishing the quartet. There are 18 other runners signed up to run Farmdale who are trying to complete the Slam. Good Luck, Everybody!!

Ok. The alarm's going off way early, so off to bed am I......

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Race Report: Chicago Marathon 2008

What is Heaven? A red bandana rolled up and filled with ice cubes!

That was the slice of heaven waiting for me in the hands of my girlfriend more than three hours into the race when the temperatures had already climbed over 80 degrees, with a bright sun beaming down on the largely unshaded second-half of the course. She handed it over with a mischievous grin because she knew she’d done good. We’d put the bandana and some safety pins into her little backpack along with a couple of other just-in-case things I might need during the race. We’d talked about the possibility of loading it with ice, but I told her not to worry about it too much because fresh ice might not be available anywhere. But there she was on the side of the course at mile 21 with a grin and bandana full of icy heaven.

THE CRACK OF DAWN
At least this year we got to start the race in modest weather conditions. In 2007 the temperature at start time was already 75 degrees and the humidity was 90%. I was sweating just standing still in the start corral. This year I woke at 5 a.m. to 60 degrees, a slight southern breeze, and virtually zero humidity.

Laura and I walked through the crisp air to the nearest CTA red line stop with her bike to ride downtown to Grant Park. We’d worked out a plan that seemed to make sense so that she could use the bike to jaunt around to as many as 5 different points on the course to see me come by. It’s one of the nice things about the Chicago Marathon – if your friends are industrious, they can take advantage of the loop course to see you frequently. This is especially true because the loop is really shaped more like a hand with a number of sections that are sort mini-out-and-backs, running a few miles up one street and then back down again on the next one over. Yet the route still manages to run thru 29 different neighborhoods in the city. (I know because that was a big slogan of the race this year. It was ground deeply into my brain.)

The train wasn’t too crowded when we got on, but by the time we got to the north loop area, our car was packed with runners. We had to hold the bike close against our knees in the aisle to try and make as much room for the standers as we could. At the Chicago subway stop (that’s Chicago Avenue for all you out of towners) a half dozen well-tanned, dark-haired folks got on together, all wearing blue shirts with their home country’s abbreviation on the fronts in small white letters. I couldn’t place it, but they were very jovial and boisterous, breaking up what had been an almost somber tone in the car for the last 10 minutes. They were talking loudly and laughing, and finally yelled out in clear, but accented English, “Good Luck, Everybody!” They were fun. Laura said she thought she recognized “Brazil” on one of their shirts.

It reminded me of the subway ride through Manhattan last November down to the Staten Island Ferry on my way to the start of the New York City Marathon. There were so many international runners on the train that morning, I sometimes wondered if I was the lone American in the middle of them. The New York field was nearly half and half, U.S. and international runners, last year. Chicago doesn’t usually approach those demographics. In fact, I think something like 65% of the Chicago field this year were runners just from the state of Illinois.

GRANT PARK
I couldn’t remember for sure which subway stop was the best one to get off at downtown, so we settled for Monroe. About half the train got off with us. The other half waited for the next stop. When we got up to the street level, the first two people I saw were my every-now-and-then running partner, Megan and her sister, Tara. (Actually, I knew Tara long before I met her sister.) It’s funny how in a sea of 40 (50? 60?) thousand people, you can still run into people you know, and know well. But that’s Chicago for you. Biggest small town in America, we like to say.

The four of us made our way over toward Grant Park, following the throngs of other runners, chatting as we went. Megan and I were starting in different corrals – not because I was any faster, but only because I had submitted a time that graduated me out of the Open Corral. So, once we were on the west side the park, we all split up again so we could get to our respective gear check stations. Laura locked up the bike to a nearby tree and I sat down in the grass to pin on my bib, load my shorts pockets with fuel, and get otherwise situated.

SLIGHTLY CONTROLED CHAOS
The mile-long Start/Finish area of the race is staged on Columbus Drive, the six lane north/south road that cuts thru the middle of Grant Park. For reasons unknown to me, the entrance to the seeded corrals is ONLY accessible from the east side of Columbus. In fact, because Buckingham Fountain is completely fenced off this year for some rehab, you basically had to walk up to it on Jackson from Lake Shore Drive. Gear Check was also on the east side of the staging area and a quarter mile farther south.

This is all fine, but it is extremely difficult to cross from the west side of Columbus to the east at any point of the day when runners are actually present. Laura and I had to work our way south, through thousands of people, to Congress Parkway (the single designated entrance area to the Open Corral and the Open Runners Gear Check). Then we cut across to the other side of the street, jumped a barricade and dodged our way down the sidewalk to Balbo and the entrance to the Seeded Gear Check area. I got my bag checked in, found a slightly secluded tree to pee on, and then we walked further east, down the block, to Lake Shore Drive where we could finally make our way around the closed-off Fountain and up the sidewalk a full block to Jackson. Just doing all that took almost half an hour.

I was a litt
le concerned because the race advertises that the seeded corrals will be officially closed a full 15 minutes before the race begins, and late-coming runners will be redirected to the Open Corral instead. I was so worried about it, in fact, that Laura and I were all the way to Jackson before I realized that she was going to have to find a way back across Columbus so she could return to the little tree on the west side where the bike was locked up. I should have sent her back as soon we got to my bag check. Instead I’d led her far down what was, for her, a dead-end route. I gave her a big hug, we snapped a couple of quick self-portraits, and then she headed off to try and renegotiate the crowds.

As I was walking up Jackson to the Corral entrance, I had a little stroke of luck. The “Top 100” runners were coming out of their hospitality tent as a group and were being led up the street by a sign bearer announcing their presence. These weren’t the “Elite” runners. But this was the group of runners who would start right behind the elites. And they were getting a special, crowd-parting escort to the very front of the race. So, I tucked in right behind the group and rode in the little wake they created through the sea of runners. (Sly, I know.)

The Corral C entrance turned out to be pretty close by anyway, and I soon dropped off their coattails to wait in line to have my bib check at the gateway. The corral wasn’t overly crowded. I had space to move around and do my stretching, which was nice. The slowest pace group set up in my corral was for a 3:45 finish time. Too fast for me today, for sure. What I really wanted was the 3:55 group, but they were only in Corral D behind me. Well, I’d just go out at what felt like an easy pace, and if the 3:50s or the 3:55s caught up to me, then I’d latch on.

A COSTLY ALTERATION
The race tried something a little different for the start this year. The Elite runners started five minutes before everyone else in the field. I’m not really sure what advantage this gave anyone. The elites are obviously the fastest, and separate themselves from everyone else after the 1st mile anyway. Maybe it was to give the Elite women a little more breathing room from the faster second-tier men? Maybe it helped the TV people with race coverage by spacing out the leaders more at the start?

Whatever the reason, I heard after the race that it cost one man a lot of prize money. Wesley Korir, a Kenyan who came to the U.S. for college, recorded the fourth fastest chip time in the race. But he did not start with the Elites, he was in the “Top 100” field (my ocean parters), and started five minutes behind the Elites with the rest of the field. As a result, he was not eligible for any prize money. It is a USATF rule (and a logical one) that all runners competing for money must start the race at exactly the same time. The idea is that they are racing each other. Korir, on the other hand, was simply racing the clock (just like I was), and he was not the fourth man to actually cross the finish line. That difference cost him $15,000. In any other year, with everyone leaving at the sound of the same gun, he would have gotten it.

READY, SET, GO!
We sang the National Anthem. The Elites took off at 7:55. Some announcements were made that I did not listen too. At just a shade before 8:00 am, the last air horn trigger was squeezed and the field was off. As my corral started to walk forward, I was finally able to clearly see the Start Line banner and Columbus drive ahead of us, already filled side to side with heads bobbing up and down.

I tried to relax, take easy, short, quick steps. Breathe. Breathe. No big deal here. Keep the hands and the shoulders loose. Don’t think too far ahead. Keep doing all these things for the next 26 miles.

All that mental work to slow down, take it easy, and STILL my first mile in 8:33. How does that happen? I just wanted to do 8:55s for the whole race. I felt like the good news was that an 8:33 felt really easy. Now the job: don’t get seduced by how easy the first mile was. There were still 25 more to go. Duh!

It turned out, there was an unexpected detour on the route. Normally the course runs north on Columbus to Illinois Avenue, turns left there, stays on Illinois for a few minutes to State Street, then turns south for a mile and a half across the river and all the way to Jackson. However, they’ve been doing a lot of street work on State Street up around Grand Avenue since the early summer. (I don’t know why.) Race officials must have been worried, either about the condition of the road or the width of the available lanes, because we were routed south on Rush street instead, one street before State. We stayed on it down to Hubbard and then we cut west back over to State and south again.

The variation was actually kind of fun. It made me think: this was my third year running the marathon. There’s only one other racecourse that I’ve run that many times or more, that being four years on the same course at the Ravenswood Run 5K. There are a few races that I’ve run three or four times, but the others have all had significant alterations to the course from year to year. Even the Ravenswood Run kept the course, but reversed the direction this year (my fifth time running it). I think the repetition and the familiarity is both good and bad. You learn a course, know what to expect, know it’s ins and outs, know the high points and low points (literally) – BUT it also gets, well, repetitive, sometimes boring. I finally had to find a new place to do my long runs this year, because I was bored with running up and down the same long miles on the lakefront. The very familiarity of it was starting to feel arduous. So, this little detour after mile one, brief though it was, made the marathon new again for a few minutes. “Hmm. I wonder where they’re taking us now?” my brain pondered pleasantly.

Past the 2nd Mile marker we make the turn from State Street west onto Jackson. I’ve run through this intersection in 9 different road races now. It’s always packed with people, the runners turn tight to the inside corner, and it’s easy to take in the spectators crowding the outside. It also happens that, by the time I’m running through, the folks have already been looking at runners for, maybe, twenty minutes and they’ve started to quiet down a little. I’ve been making a habit to run through on the outside of the turn, take in all the onlookers and, in my full Mr. Authority voice, holler, “LET’S HEAR IT!” They always respond with a healthy, unanimous, “HOORAH!” It’s always very satisfying. You’d think they’d know I was coming by now.

Laura was supposed to be waiting for me up at mile 3 as we headed north on LaSalle, just beyond the Chicago River. By the time I got there, it would have been maybe 40, 45 minutes since I kissed her goodbye in Grant Park. It should have been plenty of time, but now I’d find out if she’d been able to make it back through the crush on Columbus Drive. Sure enough, I saw her grinning face atop her long-sleeved white shirt beaming at me from the sidewalk, almost exactly where I expected her. I slowed down long enough for a quick kiss and then kept moving. The plan was for her to hang out right on this block for the next 90 minutes and then come out to see me run by at mile 12 just one street to the west on Wells.

SETTLING IN
I grooved into a steady, even pace for the five mile trek north to Addison, the northern most point on the course. I tried to focus enough on what I was doing to keep my leg turnover quick and steady, but also zone out enough to let the miles slip by without too much effort. You know how when sometimes you’re driving somewhere and your mind’s on something else and suddenly you realize that you can’t remember the last few miles? (Come on, you’ve done it.) That’s EXACTLY what I was hoping for. I did okay with it, and I clocked steady mile splits of 8:48, 8:44, 8:52 & 8:41. (I’m sure Lincoln Park was lovely.)

I slowed down a hair on the hook turn around Addison to head south again through Wrigleyville and Boystown – I had someone to look for. Saturday night while I was packing for the race, I got a surprise phone call from my friend Abby. She and I had trained together over the summer of 2006 to run our first marathon at Chicago that October. We’d both been wanting to do it, figured we had a similar pace, and so met up for all our long runs that summer, and then ran the whole marathon together. She then headed off to grad school in the 'burbs and hadn’t been able to run another marathon since. Her mom, however, caught the bug after watching us do it in ’06 and this year, ran Chicago for the second year in a row. Abby said while she was signing up for text alerts on her mom, she thought she’d check for my name too, found it, and gave me a call to wish me luck. She and a friend were planning to stand near Addison and Broadway to watch and we were hoping to catch sight of each other as I ran by. I slowed down a little to scan the crowd in the sunlight as I made the turn first onto Addison, then onto Broadway, but to no avail. I couldn’t pick her out. It’s always really crowded up there. I set my nose back to the grind stone.

I found I was losing just a smidge of pace. Miles 9, 10, 11 and 12 clocked at 8:51, 9:00, 9:00 & 8:53 respectively. This, despite the strange optical illusion that we had been running slightly downhill since Addison. It was odd. I bike on these streets all the time and never feel like that. Only here, in the marathon, with the runners and the crowds did I have that sensation. The illusion was further befuddling because I had the same kind of sensation earlier when we were headed north just a few streets to the east. Weird.

I was trying out a new fueling plan. For the last 18 months, I would eat a gel every 5 or 6 miles in conjunction with sipping from my bottle of energy drink every half mile or so. This time out, I wanted to eat a gel every 30 minutes instead, no matter how much ground I’d covered at that point. This meant carrying more gels with me, a small problem. I recently bought a pair of Race Ready brand running shorts. They have a series of mesh pockets along the back waistline, 7 pockets in all including 2 with Velcro closures on the sides. These offer a lot more payload space, and as long as the drawstring is snuggly tied, they wear very comfortably. But I was still wary of stuffing in too many gel packs. So, I left some with Laura along with instructions to have a few out, ready to hand over when I saw her at Mile 12. She was there, looking fresh after her long reprieve, with one hand full of gels and the other holding her hand-penned sign. I took all three, yelled my thanks over my shoulder and charged onward.

I wanted to clock a good split for mile 13 just before the half-way point. I did: an 8:59, even though I was fumbling to reload my pockets with gels. I hit the mid point a minute later. My official split was 1:56:03. I’ve run faster first halves and slower ones, but this one was just about the same as my first half in Madison back in May when I finally logged my first sub-4. 1:56 is also exactly what I said I’d be aiming for six days before the race. I was going to evaluate from there to see how I was feeling and adjust as necessary. The bad news was, I already was feeling the heat. I learned after the race that by the two-hour mark the official reading downtown was 78 degrees. There was barely a cloud in the sky. I knew there’d be no negative splits today, and I didn’t even think a 3:55 was really reasonable, but I was still optimistic about coming in under 4 hours. With 4 minutes “in the bank” toward that mark, I just needed to run the second half with low 9s per mile to do it. I felt if I could stay under 9:10s until 20 or 21 miles, I’d be in good shape.

SECOND HALF: OUT OF THE FRYING PAN...
I did it for the next few miles. 14 through 16 went by with a 9:11, 9:02 and a 9:12. But this is also the beginning of the badly sun-exposed second half of the course. There are fewer trees on the south side of the course, shorter buildings and less crowd support. It runs through some cool ethnic neighborhoods, but they are separated by barren, industrial stretches that lack any character. By the time I made the south turn onto Halsted, nearing the 17th Mile Marker, the temperature was up to 80 and it was beginning to take it’s toll. I clocked a 9:29 for the 17th mile. I wouldn’t see the south side of 9:30 again for the rest of the race.

Around 16.5 there was a small group of people handing out orange slices. I made a quick decision and swerved over to take one. It can be a little risky taking food or drink from an unknown source during a race, even if the givers mean well. But I still like the idea of mixing the sources of my fuel during a run, and the oranges just looked tasty. I planned to take one slice, but the woman put all three she was holding in my hand at once. I didn’t really want to go back to return the extras, so I sucked down all three. I “juiced” the first two between my teeth and sucked them dry. Then I chewed the pulp out of its rind on the third and ate it. They were sweet and good. I was careful to toss the leftovers safely to the side, into the gutter.

Laura was waiting for me again just beyond 17. This time she was trying to hold up her sign and snap a picture at the same time. And wave. And grin. It might have been one too many things at once: the picture really didn’t come out too well. She’d pulled off the white sleeved shirt in favor of the spaghetti strapped olive tank underneath now that the heat was on, but I still had no trouble spotting her. The toothy grin is hard to miss!

It would be four miles before I would see her again, while I made my way around the southwest limbs of the course. I was starting to have a little trouble keeping my spirits up. The miles seemed to be getting longer and longer. The fresh feeling I had through most of the first half was long gone. Even though it still wasn’t as bad, I couldn’t help but think back to a year before and how overwhelming the weather had been. It wasn’t that bad today, but it was close enough that the sense memory was very strong. I started looking for the misting stations and the spectators with their hoses, spraying the runners who wanted it. I was careful not to get soaked, and the relief was brief each time, but I was quickly addicted to it.

In Pilsen, near 19.5 miles, there was a Mexican man with a Styrofoam cooler, giving away ice cubes. Just like with the oranges, I spied him, made a quick decision, and detoured over for a couple of handfuls. I unscrewed the cap on my bottle and added them to the Gatorade inside. Again, a little risky, but at that point, I felt the cool relief was worth the risk. I uttered a genuine “thank you” and was on my way again.

It really is a very cool thing that so many of the people in the city come out to the course not only to cheer on the runners, but to offer the tangible support that they do; oranges, ice cubes, water hoses, etc. It was the big, big silver lining in the chaos of last year’s race: Once the word spread that things were as bad as they were, people started bringing out their own supplies, going into convenience stores, buying bottles of water and giving them out to anyone who could take them.

As I neared mile 21, my pace was slipping toward 10 minutes a mile. I was having to add more fluids to my bottle at every aid station. We were just completing a two mile stretch with almost no relief from the direct sunlight.

And then there was Laura with her big, toothy grin and a bandana full of heaven.

Apparently she’d ducked into a Connie’s Pizza sometime after she’d seen me at mile 17 and asked for ice. She wanted to pay for it, but they said, “It’s for a runner? Nah. Just take it. Just promise you’ll eat at a Connie’s sometime soon. (So there’s the friendly plug: Connie’s Pizza!) I never really thought that Laura wouldn’t have that ice for me, but you know, things happen. It’s all beyond our control at some point. But she’s always amazing me with her general resourcefulness. So, I knew unless something really got in her way, she’d have it. I just didn’t want to start fixating on it ahead of time and then have her hit a roadblock and be disappointed. That’s the kind of thing that can break me down in a hurry.

I traded the ice-filled treasure for another kiss and trudged forward, trying to tie the thing around the back of my neck as I went.

CHINATOWN
The southern turn onto Wentworth Avenue brings the runners into Chinatown and under the huge pagoda that greets you there. This is where Megan finally caught up to me.

I thought I’d already seen her back around mile 19. A petite, lightly tanned woman with a white cap and well cut shoulders scooted past me and, at first, I thought it was Megan. But the woman was only wearing a black sports bra instead of a shirt and that didn’t seem like Megan. Then I remembered something and looked to see how this woman was holding her right hand in her running motion. Megan has, what she herself has referred to as, a “scooping” motion with her right hand when she starts to tire. Her palm faces down, the fingers together and slightly cupped, and she, kind of, paddles herself forward, “scooping” the air past her side as she goes. I think she’s just a little embarrassed by this, but it’s an easy “tell”, and I could easily see that the woman who passed me at mile 19 wasn’t doing it at all. Now, though, in Chinatown, I looked up and ten feet in front of me was another back like Megan’s and the right-hand scoop was in full effect.

At the time, I had no idea had far behind she’d been at the start of the race. Now, I know that she crossed the Start about two minutes after I did. We ran the first 18 miles in nearly identical times and all of our 5K splits to that point were more or less the same as well. By the 19th mile, though, I’d begun to wilt in the heat and she’d been making up time on me.

When I caught sight of her in Chinatown, she looked to me like she was still moving really well. She seemed strong and for a moment I considered not calling out to her because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with her and I didn’t want her to feel like she should wait for me at all. In reality, afterwards, she told me that going through Chinatown was the part of the race when she felt the absolute worst. She was physically hurting, her stomach felt weird and her spirits were flagging. So when I yelled out her name, she barely even had the extra energy to look over her shoulder at me. She gave me a weak wave and kept going. But as bad as she may have felt, she was clearly holding it together better than I was. I was impressed and proud of her.

The really weird thing was, just after I yelled up to Megan to tell her how great she was doing, I happened to glance to my left and saw Tara on the edge of the sidewalk in the crowd. “Tara! Hi!” I yelled and gave her a big wave. I could still see Megan 15 yards in front of me, but somehow, the two of them didn’t see each other, and Tara was a little thrown off because before that, Megan had always been a couple of minutes behind me.

FINAL MILES
Wentworth Avenue seemed to drag on forever, but it’s not even a mile and half. I only had 4 miles left to go, but the heat had begun to swallow me up. Even just a little cloud cover would have been a relief.

As we approached the eastward turn at 33rd to cross the bridge over the Dan Ryan Expressway, I began to scan the crowd again. It was here, last year, that I’d seen a woman holding a little gold and black handmade sign that said “Life is not a Destination, Life is a Journey”. Somehow that was never truer than it was last year in the record, sweltering heat. I cried freely when I read it. It inspired me very deeply to complete that journey, and I did.

I was just a little disappointed to see that this year, Nike had used the corner as one of their designated cheering zones and the woman with the sign was not back again. They did have a huge video screen set up and I got to watch myself run by on the big TV.

After the 23rd Mile Marker, I finally caved in to my exhaustion and allowed myself a 15 second walk break. It was the first time I’d broken my stride outside of an aid station. But I did it again after we made the turn for the long march north up Michigan Avenue.

Most of the last three miles on the course are on Michigan, and I have yet to make this trek when it didn’t feel like an absolute eternity. The sun is directly overhead, beating down on your neck. The street is wide and uncovered. The aid stations come more often and are closer together, which is a good thing, but when they’re coming more frequently it makes the mile markers seem farther apart.

I knew before I’d gotten to mile 24 that a sub-4 was already out of reach. To get it would require a strong burst that I just wasn’t going to have. So I reset my goals again. Maybe I could still come in under 4:05, which would, at least, be a course record for me. I felt like if I could just keep my feet moving, stay in a steady trot, that I could make that. But twice and three times a mile I still had to ease off and slip into a 20 second walk. It wasn’t that my legs were tired. My legs were okay. But I kept getting hit by a deep, consuming weariness in my stomach and chest. It was well over 80, I’d been running for three and a half hours, and despite my hydration efforts, I was overheating.

Laura was going to be at the 25-mile marker to give me one last cheer before the finish. I saw an event clock stationed up the street and began to work toward it until I realized it was the 40K clock and I still couldn’t see the 25 Mile marker ahead.

At last I reached 25, and began to look for Laura on the sidewalk. When I found her, I headed over for a quick kiss and told her I knew I had no shot at 4. I had 1.2 miles to go and my watch already said 3:54. “That doesn’t matter, honey, you’re doing great!” she called out to my back as I trudged onward.

THE FINISH LINE
Now, all I wanted was to catch sight of Roosevelt Avenue in front of me, the next to last turn on the course. Is it this street? No. Is it the next street? No. Is it the next street? NO. Finally, up ahead I saw a street sign that had a long word instead of a number on it and knew that it must be Roosevelt. At last.

Roosevelt is a bridge that cuts over a rail yard below and brings us, full circle back to Columbus Drive in Grant Park. It is the only real hill on the entire course, but is so near the finish that it has never given me any trouble. From its crest you can get the first glimpse of the finish line over the heads of the spectators and that pulls you strongly forward. The 26-mile marker is on the downside of the bridge, but you hardly notice because just a few steps later you come around the final turn and the Finish is laid out wide and welcoming in front of you. This year everything was bright and red, the new sponsor colors. Like a big, red stop sign.
Since I wasn’t really trying to squeak in under any time goal, I saw no need to try and kick my way in. In fact, I may have eased up a little in those final 350 yards, knowing that the job was finally done. I crossed the line and hit the stop on my watch: 4:06:44. Not my 3:55 and not my sub-4, but I quickly found a nice silver-lining: My time was nearly identical to the one I clocked here 2 years ago when the weather was 40 degrees cooler. I feel like being able to run the same time in more extreme conditions showed a marked improvement, even if the time isn’t as sexy as I’d have liked.

Later that afternoon I found another mark to be proud of. I finished in the top 25 percent of the field. In my two previous runs at Chicago, I’d been in only the top 36 and then 31st percentile. So, I was improving compared to everyone else on that particular day as well.

SWEET RELIEF
I made my way through the finish area, grabbing food and water. Cold, wet hand towels were being handed out and I took two. I received my finisher medal from a happy, older woman who I kissed on the cheek for her efforts. I stopped to have my picture taken three different times. Finally, I made my way back into the bag check area where I retrieved my bag and found Laura waiting for me.

I couldn’t help getting emotional as I walked over to where she stood. It was a hard run – the last 6 miles being harder than usual – and I could finally let go and relax.

Laura was going to be picked up by her carpool buddy on Lake Shore Drive to head to work in 20 minutes, so we strolled over to a grassy knoll in that direction to sit down and collect ourselves. This is when my runner’s high finally set in, once I’d been able to catch my breath. I was moving stiffly, but I was hyper. I must have been talking a mile a minute. I needed to get changed into my dry clothes, so I pulled them out and started peeling off my wet ones. I wrapped my foil blanket around my waist like a big towel and carefully traded my shorts. Laura was amused that I was naked under the foil and snapped a photo. I got everything reapportioned, repacked and started nibbling on my food while we walked over to Laura’s rendezvous point. Her ride came by a few minutes later and she was off.

I dug out my phone and called first, my parents, and then Tara and Megan. Megan had held on to break four hours and had a 3:59:17. I was really happy for her.

Then I rode Laura’s bike home up the lakefront. I was eager to get home and slip into a cold, cold ice bath. The next few hours and days were all about recovery, because I’m doing it all over again at the Farmdale Trail Ultra this Saturday!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Chicago Marathon Results Quickie

Just gonna dash this off in a hurry because I'm on my way out the door for a well earned carb and protein filled meal with some friends.

I didn't break 3:55, and I didn't break 4 hours, but I did manage to finish in 4:06:44. The weather conditions were not as extreme as last year, because the humidity was (thankfully) totally under control, but the sun was out in force and the temperature was at 78 by 10 a.m., and up to 85 by the time I finished a little after noon. The heat took a toll on me and it was rough the last 4 or 5 miles. The new weather alert system for the race started the day set at Yellow, but was raised to Red ("high," for extreme conditions) by 11 a.m. The next step up would have been Black and that would have meant another race cancellation.

BUT: my 4:06:44 is nearly identical to my finish time 2 years ago at Chicago (my "debut" marathon) when the temperatures were 35 and 40 degrees cooler! And that year, I didn't run a 50K trail ultra 2 weeks before the race! So, I'm pretty dang pleased with myself!

My stomach is growling, so I gotta bolt, but I should have a more detailed race report up by mid-week.

Woohoo!!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Chicago Marathon Eve

It’s marathon eve! I don’t think I’m even as nervous as I was last year. It’s nice to have a sub-4 in the bank already from my run in Madison back on Memorial Day. It was a big weight off my shoulders. Even though I’d still like to better that time by a few chunks, now if something goes awry at any one particular race, I can know that it’s more to do with the variables of that day, not my ability, and I have the PR to prove it. (I’m a sub-4 man!)

So the bad news is the forecast for tomorrow hasn’t really gotten any better. Starting temps will be in the low 60s and when I’m finishing, sometime around noon, it’ll be in the low 70s already. The good thing is the humidity will be very low, and will get lower as the morning goes on, and there is supposed to be a steady 8 to 10 mph breeze coming off the lake from the SE as well. There will be sun, but they’re still calling for a little cloud cover to break it up for us occasionally. So, all in all, not great, but not a disaster. If I can get through the first 18 miles without blowing it out, I think I can still finish strong. I’m letting go of my pie-in-the-sky goal of breaking 3:50, but a 3:55 could still come together nicely for me, and another sub-4 is totally in reach, I think.

I went to the expo yesterday and I stayed a lot longer than I’ve ever stayed at an expo before. Usually I breeze in, grab my packet, peruse the official merchandise, look for any good freebies at the shoe company booths and then head out after an hour or so.

This year, my girlfriend came down with me, and we kept stumbling across some of the famous athletes in town to run or attend the race. We were at the main stage for the introductions of some of the elite men and women who will be running, and afterwards I was able to get a quick photograph with the new Olympic Women’s Marathon Gold Medalist, Constantina Tomescu-Dita. She’s run Chicago a number of times, loves the race, won it in 2004 and has two other 2nd place finishes here. Even though it’s only been 7 weeks since she ran Beijing, she was eager to come back and run Chicago again. Her lifetime PR is the best in the women’s field. She was very gracious after her time on stage to come down to sign autographs and pose for pics.

Then we wandered over to the other side of the expo and realized that Deena Kastor was at the Asics booth (her apparel sponsor) greeting runners and signing autographs. So, we got in the modest line and waited the 15 minutes to get our turn. Deena was just as nice as Constantina was, and had polite conversation prepared for all of us. “So, is this your first time running Chicago?” she asked. And then I got to brag: “No, it’ll be my third.” ‘Cause I’m an old pro at this race now, see? And then she came back with, “You ran last year?” because the ’07 steam-bath is forever famous now. And I got to brag again: “Yes, I was able to finish before they shut it down.” And she acted appropriately impressed with my prowess and stamina. Of course, it’s a silly little routine that gets played, dabbling in a little small-talk, while I get to feel like I had a little moment with someone who, especially among this crowd, was really important. But it’s also true that she was extremely gracious and attentive. And even though I’m almost 100 minutes slower than she is on our best days, we still have this marathon thing in common, and that really does mean something.

I’m off to bed soon, hopefully to get a long night of restful sleep, but I doubt it. Tomorrow I’ll be running in circles again. But you know I’m looking forward to it.