Category Archives: Running

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Boston Marathon 2018: Squishy-Shoe Running

A week before the 2018 Boston Marathon, I started checking the weather forecast for Boston: 100% chance of rain the morning of the race. “Come on,” I said to my lovely wife Jen, “how can weatherpeople be 100% certain of rain a whole week out? They can’t even predict the next day’s temperature correctly, amirite?” Jen said, “Still, you might want to pack your rain jacket for the day of the race.” (Editor’s note: Stop with the blatant foreshadowing!)

Leading into Boston, I had an amazing streak of my first 14 marathons without having bad weather. “Bad weather” being a relative term: I’d run in extreme heat, wind, cold, and slight drizzle, but never rain. Every marathon, I’d prepare for rain but hope for sun. Actually, clouds; for me, the perfect race conditions are about 40 degrees with a cloud cover.

This would be my third Boston Marathon. My first, in 2013, was all kinds of bad, namely because of the horrific bombings. My second, in 2016, was relatively uneventful as big-city marathons go. Jen’s brother had moved to Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston, so we stayed near him and had a good visit.

A little background on Boston: It’s the oldest continuously run marathon in the world, dating back to 1897, and also the hardest to get into. You have to run a qualifying time, based on your age and gender, that works out to about the top 10 percent of marathoners in your age group. Then, you have to get an entry: over the last few years (especially since 2013), the entry standard is actually stricter than the qualifying times because so many people are trying to get those entries. This year, for example, you had to run 4:52 or faster than your qualifying time. That’s ridiculous. It’s getting harder and harder, so they just moved the bar and tightened the standards for 2020 by 5 minutes.

Some other unique things about Boston: It’s run on a Monday, specifically, Patriots Day, celebrating the beginning of the American Revolution and a Massachusetts state holiday. It’s a good thing schools are closed that day, because all those yellow school buses are needed to transport the runners on race morning: the Boston course is basically a west-to-east line, starting in the suburb of Hopkinton and going through several other towns (Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, and Brookline) before getting to Boston. The Boston Marathon only spends 2 miles in the city of Boston. Consequently, runners board school buses in Boston Common to be bussed out to Hopkinton, where they camp out on the high school football fields at the “Athletes’ Village” and have free snacks and drinks.

Because of the logistical challenges of getting everyone out there, the buses start leaving at 6 a.m. Another strange thing about Boston: the race starts at 10 a.m. and the runners get sent in waves every 20 minutes or so. Potentially, you could arrive at the athletes’ village 4 hours before your start time. (Also, the athletes’ village is a 0.7-mile walk to the starting line, so have fun with that extra distance!)

Are you following so far? Monday 10 a.m. start, 26-mile bus ride several hours before you race, athletes’ village quite a distance from the starting line. Oh, and it’s a really hilly course.

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My Boston Marathon “celebration jacket,” from the 2013 edition. Note that I had the other two years I ran embroidered onto the jacket. Fancy!

Jen and I flew in on the Saturday before the race and were taking the free public bus to the marathon expo (the place where runners have to pick up their race packets; they make you wade through literally hundreds of sponsor/vendor booths to get to the packet pickup, so I always end up buying extra commemorative gear). Boston is famous for its celebration jackets, issued every year in different colors. It’s common for someone to buy one in their first year and then embroider subsequent years onto the breast and back of the jacket, so people can see how many times they have run it at a glance.

I was wearing my 2013 jacket (in its garish blue-and-yellow color scheme) when a guy on the bus gave me a head nod. It was a safe bet that most of the people on this bus were going to the expo, so he introduced himself as Allan and struck up a conversation with us. The typical “how many have you run,” “where you you coming from” questions. He mentioned that he was returning from a work conference but lived in Cambridge. We said, “Oh, really? We are staying in Cambridge, at a bed and breakfast.” Allan said, “Which one?” We told him, and he said, “I live half a block from it!” It turned out he was a professor at Harvard, in a field that we were familiar with, and Jen and I had all kinds of questions for him. (I also dropped my little “my 10-times-great-grandfather Thomas Dudley was a founder of Harvard College” tidbit on him; that went over better with him than it does with most people.)

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Here we are at the marathon expo! Let’s go spend some money! (Question: Does this photo make my nose look big?)

We went to the expo together and waited in line to go through security. Just before we entered, Allan wished us luck and whipped out his business card. He said, “My wife and I usually host a few other runners at my house on Monday morning, and then we catch a cab to the starting line. We’d love to have you. If you are interested, give me a call.” Then we parted ways.

“Wow!” I said to Jen, “that was generous of him!” She said, “Or creepy. Let’s check this guy out to see if he’s legit before you commit to going to his house.”

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The dreaded Porter Square escalator. The trip to the top takes approximately 17 hours.

We took the Boston subway system (the “T”) Red Line up to Cambridge to check into our bed and breakfast. We exited at the Porter station, which at 105 feet below ground is the deepest in the T system; there’s a frighteningly long escalator ride to the top, wherein when you get on at the bottom, you can’t see the top of it. It’s scary; it’s common to see whimpering little toddlers clinging to an adult’s hand with their eyes closed the whole escalator ride up. (And by “whimpering little toddlers,” I mean “me.”)

We walked to our B&B. It had your typical B&B features: whimsical yellow exterior, creaky floors, antique doorknobs, excessively large and heavy keychains, cramped rooms. One exception to the rules of B&Bs at this one, though, was the unusual number of children running the halls. And at breakfast the next morning, we found out that most of the guests were European. Ooh-la-lah! (Actually, they were from Belgium and Germany. Ich lieben!)

We crashed in our rooms for most of the rest of Saturday, venturing out only for food (it was cold). Checking on the forecast, they were now calling for 100% chance of rain the morning and afternoon of the race. Aw, come on!

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This must be a sign!

On Sunday, it started raining. Jen said, “So, let’s see that raincoat you are going to wear for the race.” I said, “Um, I didn’t bring it.” “What?!?” I explained that I was so focused on packing the celebration jacket and the gear that I had used for the previous 14 marathons, which I would like to remind everyone included no heavy rain, that I didn’t think it would be necessary. I also had my trusty black baseball cap that would keep my head dry. Jen about went through the roof. (Which wasn’t hard; the B&B’s ceilings were low.) So we turned on the TV to check the local Boston weather folks. Now they were calling for 100% chance of heavy, driving rain from midnight Sunday to midnight Monday (remember, the race is run on Monday morning), sustained 30-mph headwinds with gusts of 40 mph (remember, we run in one direction the whole time, which in this case would be “into the wind”), temps in the upper 30s, and generally dangerous running conditions. I believe the words “squall,” “monsoon,” and “historic in a bad way” were bandied about.

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Our room at the B&B had the coveted blowhole. Hang on, my editor tells me the word I am looking for is “porthole.”

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I believe the correct architectural term for the interior floor plan of the B&B is “hodgepodge.”

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I roam from city to city, running races and drinking smoothies. They call me Nomad. (Incredibly, this store called “Nomad” had a sign in the window that said, “We’ve moved 2 blocks north.”)

We had noticed a Goodwill store a few blocks away, so we went to look for throwaway clothes that I could wear to the starting line. It’s traditional at big-city races to wear extra clothes/jackets to keep warm before the race, and it’s especially important at Boston if you are sitting on the football field for 4 hours. When we got there, it was packed with like-minded runners. We picked through the men’s, women’s, and children’s sections (I have no shame) and cobbled together an outfit that included an outer layer ski jacket that would keep me dry and warm, a vest for extra warmth, another light jacket, and a pair of relatively water-repellent pants to cover my legs before the race.

The only thing we couldn’t find was a pair of tights; even though I’d never run in them, Jen thought they would be useful in the cold and that they would shed moisture in the moments when the rain would let up. We headed over to Jen’s brother’s place, and he happened to have a pair of UnderArmour tights that he was looking to jettison. “You’re kidding,” I said. “No, why?” he asked. “Well, for starters, you are 1 foot taller than me.” Jen said, “Just try them on.” So I did, and amazingly, they weren’t completely ridiculous.

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Getting ready at 5 a.m. on race morning! This would be the first of what I assumed would be many pictures Jen would take of me throughout the day, as she traveled the course getting action shots of me.

Jen added one last item to my gear: her lime-green women’s lightweight rain jacket. I really didn’t want to wear it, but she insisted. One reason I had always hesitated to bring a running jacket to a race is that you have to wear the race bib on the outermost layer, which would mean zipping up a jacket and then pinning the bib over the front, which would mean I wouldn’t be able to easily remove the jacket in case of rain. We solved the problem on the morning of the race: I also had a lime-green tank top, so we put the bib on the tank top and then pulled it over the outside of the raincoat. I looked strange, but it would (hopefully) keep me dry.

That afternoon, I decided to call my new friend Allan. I told him that I was in and that Jen would come with me to his house for the prerace visit. (We had Googled him and saw that he was quite well-known in his field and in the running community, so Jen wanted to chat with him some more.) Allan said that we were welcome but that now it turned out that perhaps only one other runner would show. Also, his wife wouldn’t be there. Neither, it seemed, would his college-age daughter. In addition, I’d be welcome to look through his closet for any clothes that I needed. We set a time and commiserated about the weather; he assured me that we’d be fine. “I’ve run it for the last 8 years; the 2015 race had rain, so it will be manageable.”

I got off the phone and filled Jen and her brother in on the next morning’s plans. Jen said something like, “Aww, look who’s got a new best friend. Do I need to walk you to your playdate?” Also, she did not want me to raid his closet.

That night, we chilled and had my usual prerace pasta dinner. Jen’s morning plans were to walk me to Allan’s by 6 and then go back and have breakfast (the “&B” part of our B&B that I would unfortunately miss out on). Then her brother and she would watch for me at Heartbreak Hill (about 20 or 21 miles into the race; there’s a convenient T stop near it) and at the finish line. When we went to bed, it was pouring hard.

When we woke up at 5 a.m. on Marathon Monday, it was pouring hard. Things did not look good. I got dressed and decided at the last minute to wear a throwaway pair of running shoes that I had brought instead of my nicer, newer ones. The race organizers had announced that everyone could bring a pair of shoes to the starting line to change into, but I figured whatever shoes I had would be soaked within 5 minutes of stepping outside, so having dry shoes at the start really wouldn’t matter. (As it happened, I was off by about 4 minutes and 45 seconds; it took 15 seconds outside for my shoes and socks to get drenched.)

As we walked down the block to Allan’s, I told Jen that I was really nervous. I don’t like surprises on race weekends. I have a system that seems to work: same clothes, same meals and snacks, same waking and arriving times, etc. This was all new: unusual clothes, unusual weather, and now I was about to go to a stranger’s house and meet other strangers instead of just relaxing and thinking about the race. (Boston is already a routine disrupter with the bus rides, but at least I had done those twice before.)

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Actual photo of how Jen spent the rainy, windy, freezing marathon day. Remember, at this exact moment I was braving 30-mph winds, torrential downpours, and bitter cold. I understand tea and snacks were consumed while I was gone, too.

When we got to Allan’s, it was just him. I turned out that all his other friends decided not to do the early-morning meet-up routine at his place. So he offered us food and drinks and we chatted while he got ready. He showed me his triple-tying method for his shoelaces; guaranteed not to untie, he said. He told me that a student of his would be meeting us at the bus, and that he had a friend in Hopkinton whose house we could hang at before the race. This is one of those mythical things about the Boston Marathon: you gather in the sleepy New England town of Hopkinton, which comes alive one weekend a year for this race, and if you are lucky enough to know someone in town, you can go to their house for prerace festivities. I couldn’t believe my luck!

Allan had called us a taxi ahead of time (yes, some people still haven’t transitioned to rideshare apps), and we said goodbye to Jen. We got into the cab from Allan’s home; he reiterated, “In 2015, we ran in the rain. This is doable.” He told me not to worry about the cab fare; it was his treat. (Which was convenient because I didn’t have any money or credit cards on me.)

It was a quick ride from Cambridge to Boston Common; when we got there, however, traffic was a mess. We kept trying to get the cabbie to just let us out anywhere, but he had a particular stop in mind in front of a hotel. Finally, when we got there, the fare was only $5 or something. Allan handed the cabbie a twenty. “Oh,” the cabbie said, “I don’t have any change.” What?!? He said he could leave us in the cab and step inside to make change. After discussing with me (the guy with no money), Allan just decided to give him a big tip and leave. The cabbie was overly thankful and promised to name his firstborn after Allan.

As we walked over to the buses, Allan said, “Eh, not bad; in 2015…” We met up with his student, Gus, at the bus. Gus was 20 and had run only one previous marathon; his time, 2:59, was about 25 minutes faster than Allan’s and mine. Gus said that he would stick with us for most of the race, but Allan made him promise not to drag himself down by hanging back with us two middle-aged guys. Gus was nice enough (or concerned about his grade in Allan’s class enough, one or the other) to say he didn’t plan to drop us too soon. Allan admonished Gus and me to triple-tie our shoes; he was worried that our shoes would come undone and slow us all down.

The bus ride was uneventful. The most common topic on that 45-minute ride to Hopkinton is how many marathons people have run. Even at 14, I was on the low end of the scale. (My first Boston was only my third marathon ever, and the people around me on that bus had run 50, 100, and even 150+ marathons; there’s definitely a little OCD in marathoners.) The driving rain continued all the way down the highway to Hopkinton.

When we got to Hopkinton, the buses let all of us runners out behind a fenced-off area around the high school. When we stepped off the bus, the rain was so hard that I could barely keep my eyes open, and it was so loud that I could hardly hear what anyone was saying. I had been living and dying on Allan’s assurances to me that everything would be fine because of how everyone handled it in 2015. After standing in the rain for 15 seconds, he turned to Gus and me and said, “Oh, this is much worse than 2015!” Crap.

We entered the Athletes’ Village because they wouldn’t let us walk back out the bus entrance to get to Allan’s friend’s house in town. There are two football fields that each have massive tents that cover half the field, so runners can gather (on sunny years) in shade or in the grass if they want, while they wait for their starting waves to be called. This year, everyone was crammed under the tents. The fields were complete mud; just to traverse the 10 yards from the paved path to the tents would have meant instantly caking our shoes in mud. People were packed like sardines against each other; the unlucky ones on the edges of the tents were still being drenched by the rain. It looked like Woodstock without the music. Or drugs.

There was no way we were going to wait in the tents with the masses. We went all “Hogan’s Heroes” and looked along the fence line for places we could slip through to get to Allan’s friend’s house, without luck. “Come on,” Allan yelled, “let’s go to the exit.” The way it works is, you can’t leave the village to walk the 0.7 mile to the starting line until your wave is called. Allan and I were in the second wave; Gus was in the first, but he was going to start with us. As we walked toward the exit, there were all kinds of volunteers telling people to show them their bibs; if your bib wasn’t the color of the wave being allowed to exit, you had to stay back.”How are we going to get through?” I yelled to Allan. “Don’t worry!” he said. When we got to the exit, he gave me a grin and covered his bib, and I realized that his plan was to just hope that the driving rain would allow us to sneak past the hundred volunteers trying to prevent this very thing. Bizarrely, it worked. We just bent over as if the rain was so heavy that we could hardly stand up (which it was) and plowed through.

Of course, there was a fence the whole walk to the starting line, but we just found an amenable volunteer to let us out along the way. We walked another half mile to Allan’s friend’s house. As we approached the house, Allan said, “I hope they are here.” “What do you mean?” Gus and I asked. “You see, I don’t actually know the people who live here, but some friends of mine told me to come here and they’d be here.” Hmm…

When we knocked, an elderly man answered. “Is Bob here?” Allan asked. “You just missed him,” the man said. Dejected, we turned to leave, but then the man said, “Come on in and get out of your wet clothes and warm up a while, guys.”

The man and his wife were well prepared for the conditions and had towels laid out on all their furniture. We stripped off our shoes and socks and outer layers and relaxed for a half hour while they plied us with hot drinks and snacks. It was the strangest prelude to a marathon that I had ever experienced. Then, too soon, we put on our soaked gear (Allan triple-tying his shoes) and headed out for the start.

When we got to the start, Gus, who was wearing short-shorts, said, “Can I ask you a weird favor?” I said, “It depends. How weird is it?” He explained that his hands were frozen already and that he couldn’t get his phone to fit back into his (really tiny) fanny pack over his shorts, and would I mind pushing it in for him? So I struggled mightily pushing his phone into his groin to get it into the pack. After a few minutes, he said, “Another favor. My fingers aren’t working and I can’t press play on the phone. Can you press against my fanny pack?” So I got intimate with Gus’s groin area again to get his playlist started.

Then the race began. It was as bad out there as the forecasters predicted. If you have seen “The Perfect Storm,” you know what I’m talking about. Have you ever been driving and it starts raining so hard that you have the windshield wipers on full blast and you still can’t see, so you have to lean forward to look out the windshield, and you think “it can’t possibly rain harder than this”? Well, it would do that, and then rain harder. The whole race. Every step of the 26.2 miles. Amazingly, Jenny was right about the tights; they would get soaked, somehow feel as if they were wicking moisture away, and then get soaked again. And her lime-green jacket worked like a charm.

About 2 miles into the race, Allan said, “My shoes are untied! I have to stop and re-tie them.” Oh, the triple-tied irony! Gus and I couldn’t believe it. Also, I had rocks in my shoes, so we went to some random person’s driveway and fixed our shoe situations. Gus said, “Are we seriously stopping this early in the race?” I told him, “If you’re going to take a trip with two middle-aged men, be prepared for frequent stops!”

I was surprised at how many spectators there were along the course. Boston is famous for its vibe: people put their grills in their front yards and have parties while the runners pass. It’s not uncommon to be offered food, drinks (alcoholic and otherwise), and other random things along the course. And there they were, a little wet but still cheering us on.

About 5 or 6 miles in, I noticed that Gus was having a problem with his short-shorts. It seems that he couldn’t tie the drawstring tight enough to keep them from falling down. Periodically, he would have to use both hands to pull them up (like, literally pull them up because they were sliding down his waist and legs). By mile 10, he was in full-blown crisis mode and ran the last 16 miles of the race, I kid you not, with his right hand clinging to the waistband of his short-shorts. I do not recommend this one-armed running stride.

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Racing up Boylston Street to the finish line in Jen’s jacket, soon-to-be-discarded shoes, my brother-in-law’s tights, and a ridiculous grin on my face.

Finally, we arrived in Newton, the suburb that is home to the “hills of Newton,” a series of gradually larger hills from mile 16 to mile 21, leading up to the infamous Heartbreak Hill, the longest and steepest. At the top of each hill, Allan and I would regroup, look back, find Gus, and forge on. When we got to the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, I said, “I can’t see Gus!” Allan said, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave him and his falling-down pants behind.” So regretfully, we moved on. I looked on the sidelines for Jen and her brother, but I never saw them, which is common in these big races.

The last 5 miles were a soggy slog. We didn’t talk but continued side by side. That last stretch is always half a physical battle and half a mental battle. Physically, you are destroyed, so the only thing that is going to get you to the end is your mind. You just have to keep positive thoughts, which in this case for me was, “When I am done, I can get out of these clothes!” repeated over and over in my head. Allan and I crossed the finish line near each other, at about 3:42, not bad considering the conditions. Then we got to meet up with the medical director of the whole race, who was a friend of Allan’s. We were not surprised to hear that they were seeing a higher-than-usual rate of hypothermic runners. About 2,500 runners, including 25 elite athletes, had to seek medical treatment.

Allan and I waded to the gear check area, where he had a change of clothes. There was an insane crush of runners at the gear check; I was pinned against a security fence waiting for Allan for a long time. At one point, Gus stumbled past me in a daze; he had finished about 15 minutes after us. Allan and I said goodbye, with the promise to meet up if I ever run Boston again, and I went to find Jen and her brother.

They were standing under umbrellas at Boston Common. “Where were you at Heartbreak Hill?” I asked. They both looked at each other sheepishly. Jen said, “We decided to stay in and watch it on TV.” Oh well. I couldn’t blame them; I would have done the same.

I Frankenstein-walked back to the nearest T stop and we headed back to our B&B. After a quick shower, Jen’s brother picked us up and took us out for pizza. Getting into his car, it was raining so hard that we got soaked. Of course.

A month later, I ran another marathon, the Chicagoland Spring Marathon, and the start was delayed by 30 minutes as we huddled in a parking garage to avoid the heavy rains. It rained on and off during the race. Later that year, I ran on a flooded course at the Des Plaines River Trail Marathon. What I’m saying is, I’m prepared for the rain now. But I still don’t bring my raincoat.

 

The First 10 Marathons: How “Never Again” Turned Into “Well, Maybe Nine More”

Before I ran my most recent marathon, I was reviewing my last several marathons’ training plans and their outcomes to see what I could learn from them. (Lesson 1: When grabbing a Gatorade and a water at the same aid station, dump the water on your head and drink the Gatorade, not the other way around. I made that mistake around mile 20 of a hot race when my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders, and I spent the rest of the race wiping the Gatorade from my eyes and feeling sticky in the head area.)

My original goal with marathons was a general notion that I would attempt to run a marathon before I was 40 years old. I worked with a guy who had done one for his 40th birthday, and I thought that if he could find the time to train for it, I could too. Then my lovely wife Jen and I started to have children, and I figured I should try it before the family was too big. I ran my first when I was 32. It was such a difficult experience that immediately after the race, I told Jen, “I am never going to run a marathon again.”

However, I was running a 5K several years later, and this guy showed up wearing a Boston Marathon jacket. I was only somewhat aware that Boston was unique because of its qualifying times, but I didn’t really know what that meant. So I looked it up and saw how fast I’d need to go, and I thought, I might be able to do that. (Boston’s qualifying times are age- and gender-graded; broadly speaking, if you are in the top 10% of runners in your age group, you will qualify. The times are listed at the Boston Athletic Association website.)

Because the Boston Marathon has a 10 a.m. start time and starts 26 miles west of the finish line, the participants have to be bussed out to the starting line, starting at 6 a.m. On the 45-minute bus ride during my first time running it, I was talking to a group of runners who were asking everyone how many marathons they had run. One runner: “This is my 25th.” Other runner: “I’ve done over 70.” Third runner: “I have completed 152 marathons.” Me: “I’ve done 2.”

So I started to think about long-term goals and the whole “Why do I run?” question. The short answer about why I run marathons is twofold: 1. Because I can. I don’t mean that glibly; I know people who can’t or won’t run, and I am truly grateful that I’m able to get out there and do something that I enjoy. I don’t take it for granted. 2. It’s gotten me through some pretty low points in my life. Recently I was talking with someone who had a bad marathon experience, and we were  marveling at how you learn more about yourself and your character from your worst races than you do from the easy ones. And I’ve had to lean on “this isn’t as bad as the time I had to walk-jog the last 12 miles of that one marathon” several times in my life.

I told myself I’d finish 10 marathons by the time I was 50 years old. That seemed reasonable enough that I could justify the time and expense to Jen: “I’ll only be crabby about 16 to 20 weeks per year if I spread it out over a decade!” Then I started accelerating the timetable (and controlling the crabbiness).  Now I’m working on new goals; nothing super-crazy like Dean Karnazes‘ 50 marathons, 50 states, 50 days plan, but a teeny bit of crazy sounds about right.

Here’s a quick look back at my first 10 marathons:

1. 2003 Chicago Marathon, 3:28:00. I always have about three levels of goals for a marathon. For this initial one, I had two: first, to finish, and second, to break 3 hours 30 minutes. It was a relatively warm October day, I had no idea what to expect, and at the end, I was seriously dehydrated. Jen found me after the race with blue lips and lethargy (“Blue Lips and Lethargy” sounds like the name of an early Cure album) and nursed me back to health with chocolate and gummy candy.

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Yes! I’m in 1,940th place!

2. 2012 Chicago Marathon, 3:14:14. Note the 9-year gap between marathons. We went from one child to three, and it was getting harder to find the time to train. This was a cool October day, and I was attempting to reach my Boston qualifying time of 3 hours 15 minutes. I “banked time,” wherein you run a little faster at the beginning to build up a cushion (no one seriously recommends this method). I had a cushion of about 2 minutes with 6 miles to go. Then I ran 10 seconds slower than I should have. Then 30 seconds slower. Then another 30 slower.  It was panic time; for a fleeting moment, I had the thought that it would be okay if I didn’t reach my goal, but I refocused and pulled myself together for the last few miles. Incidentally, this is still my personal best.

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I was told that it would be cold. Turns out it was sunny and 50 at the starting line; I was hot the whole race.

3. 2013 Boston Marathon, 4:02:17. In the weeks leading up to the race, I had a nagging injury in my right hip that I couldn’t pinpoint. The whole Boston experience was great, and I was enjoying the first half of the race. Somewhere around the Wellesley scream tunnel (Google that), it felt as if someone stabbed me on the outside of my knee. The immediate, severe pain caused me to stop. It turns out I was dealing with iliotibial (IT) band syndrome; the IT band runs from the top of your hip to the outside of your knee, and it’s a very common running injury. I’ve since dealt with it on multiple occasions, but that first time is the worst. I ended up walking and jogging for the last 12 miles with a guy who owned a shoe store in California. If I had known how close I was going to be to 4 hours, I would have pushed it harder at some point.

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They were handing out toasted ravioli, cracker-crust pizza, and frozen custard at the finish line. That’s St. Louis style.

4. 2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon, 3:28:30. St. Louis was our home for 7 or 8 years, and the marathon ran right past our old hangouts. After running in two of the largest marathons in the world, I was surprised by how  mentally challenging it was to run a smaller marathon: there were 11,000 runners in the combined half and full marathons, and around mile 10, the 8,000 half marathoners split off and headed for the finish line; there was an immediate vacuum of energy and crowd support after that. It really felt as if I was running alone for the next 16 miles. I would periodically latch onto people, but I didn’t really know how to run a marathon without a large group around me. Plus, there are tons of small hills throughout St. Louis, and I faded in the last few miles.

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Look at the grit and determination on that face! (I had to go to the bathroom.)

5. 2014 Chicago Marathon, 3:20:10. This was the first time I attempted two marathons in one year. I was going for another Boston qualifying time; I had moved up to the next age group, so I was shooting for 3 hours 25 minutes. In the days leading up to it, I told Jen, “I feel good, as if I could go for 3:10.” She said, “Why not go for 3 hours?” So, casting aside all of my training and mental preparation, I decided on a whim to latch onto the 3-hour pacing group. (Many large marathons have pacers for certain time goals.) So I fell into a 6:52-per-mile pace for the first 13 or 14 miles and felt great. At mile 14, I slowed for a second to take in some GU gel and water; when I tried to catch up with the pacer, I had nothing left in me. The rest of the race was a slog; I ran the second half a full 20 minutes slower than the first half. Amateur hour. But I still qualified for Boston.

6. 2015 Naperville Marathon, 3:27:18. This small race had very few hills, but they came at inopportune moments. The last one was a steady rise coming out of an underpass, and it kicked my butt. I was starting to accept that I was a mid-3:20s marathoner, and that the one sub-3:15 was an outlier.

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Jen made me wear the shirt so that she could pick me out of the crowd. The whole race, I heard, “Go Captain America!” from the spectators.

7. 2016 Boston Marathon, 3:28:53. An acquaintance who had done Boston several times told me, “Just take it easy and enjoy the sights and sounds until after Heartbreak Hill (mile 21), and then see what you have left.” So I decided to try that, and it felt much better than running at breakneck pace. Perhaps my most enjoyable marathon to date.

8. 2016 Starved Rock Country Marathon, 3:27:53. This was 26 days after Boston, and I signed up because a friend told me the race organizer was considering not holding it anymore (which turned out to be untrue; he was looking for bigger sponsors and found them for the next year). Strangely, this course was hillier and harder than the famously difficult Boston course. I handled it well, though, because the hills are over by mile 15, and the last 10 miles are truer to Illinois’ flatlander reputation. By far the smallest race I’ve run: I came in 10th place out of 100 runners total. Talk about running alone out there.

9. 2016 Fox Valley Marathon, 3:24:38. Definitely the hottest marathon I’ve completed. A few thousand runners take part in this mid-September stroll along the paved path that lines both sides of the Fox River. The one part of the course that threw me off was from about mile 7 to mile 15, when runners are going in both directions of the out-and-back part of the race. Passing becomes a near impossibility. I had hoped to get under 3:25, and I barely held on during the last few very hot, very sunny miles. I did not order any of the official race photos because some dad invited his kids to run with him for the last 50 yards to the finish line, and my photos show me appearing to struggle keeping up with a 5-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy.

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Probably the most relaxed I’ve felt at the finish of a marathon. And yes, that’s the same hat in each of the pictures; it’s pretty disgusting by now and should be burned.

10. 2016 Naperville Marathon, 3:17:11. Note that this was the fourth marathon I did in a 6-month span, and the fastest of the four (my 2nd-fastest overall). Sadly, this was the last running of this fan-friendly course. Serendipity helped me at this one: at the starting line, I bumped into my childhood best friend who grew up across the street from my parents’ house, and he asked me to pace him to a 1:40 half marathon. We ran together until he turned toward the finish (he broke 1:39), and I continued on. Frustratingly, some young runner wouldn’t let me catch up to him around mile 16; every time I tried to run next to him, he sped up. I settled in behind him until he started fading at mile 23, so I picked up the pace and ran my first successful negative-splits marathon (in which I ran the second half faster than the first). I thought I’d be around 3:19, and I was surprised to be nearing 3:17 at the end.

 

My Indoor Track Career: Thank God No One Documented It With Cell Phones

I’ve been watching a lot of indoor track and field on TV and the Internet lately (it’s a cry for help, really), and it’s making me nostalgic for my indoor track days. And when I say “nostalgic,” I mean that I never want to relive the embarrassment of being a 14-year-old in 1980s short shorts again.

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Who’s that  handsome fella in the middle? The “L” on my singlet does not stand for “loser.” By the way, I am thrilled to be a freshman.

First of all, I didn’t even want to do indoor track, and definitely not distance events. My older brother was a distance runner, so I wanted to carve my own mark. (I ended up switching to distance my junior year because it was clearly where I belonged.) Plus, indoor tracks are notoriously small, and I didn’t want to run in so many circles. A standard outdoor track is 400 meters per lap, or about 4 laps to a  mile. However, indoor tracks are always much tinier. I’ve never seen a 400-m indoor track; good ones are 200 meters, or 8 laps to a mile. My high school looped a track around the main gymnasium, and it came out to something ridiculous like 11 laps to a mile. I’ve seen worse.

(Note that I use “mile” when I refer to 1600 meters; in the 1970s, most states switched to metric distances in high school events, and nowadays most high schools are running 1600-m races instead of the mile, which is 1609.3 meters. Just to clarify for you statistics nerds.)

So I decided I was going to be a sprinter. My best friend on the team, Keith, also wanted to run sprints; we went to the first practice as freshmen together, all wide-eyed and hope-filled in February. All the sprinters gathered along the wall as the sprinting coach, Coach Turnbull, stomped in to deliver his opening remarks. (His last name was actually Turnbull, and he was terrifying. I probably don’t need to mention that he had a crewcut and coached football in the fall.) Unbeknownst to us, the best sprinter on our team, who was a senior, had just informed Coach Turnbull that he was skipping track to focus on his studies because he was going to be a quarterback on an Ivy League football team after graduation. Coach T was not happy about it and took it out on the rest of us. The welcome speech went something along the lines of, “Brian doesn’t want to hurt his precious little fairy arm and is going to sit at home on his computer doing homework instead of being a real man!” and got worse from there. We ran extra laps, apparently to punish Brian for his selfishness.

Boys and girls shared the track, and on cruddy-weather days, even the distance runners were stuck inside running endless loops around it. It got crowded. Generally, the faster runners are given the inside lanes and the slower runners stick to the outer lanes. One day after a grueling workout, Coach T told us to get off the track and hit the showers. I was chatting with Keith, walking from the infield (the inner part of the track) to the exit doors, when I heard some girls yelling, “Track! Track!” I thought, That’s strange, we all know we’re at a track; I wonder what that means. After more screams, I turned around to find about 15 girls barreling down on Keith and me, hair flowing, determined looks on their faces. One of them lowered her shoulder into my chest and sent me sprawling across the track. She kept running and yelled at me over her shoulder, “When we yell ‘track,’ it means you get off the track, freshmen!” Duly noted. On the bright side, at least I got the ladies to notice me.

Here was something unique about our indoor track: It was made of this rubbery material that I guess helped make the basketball court in the middle of it be bouncy, but it was really slick. Since we couldn’t wear spikes on it, we had to have shoes with good traction to keep ourselves from slipping around turns. We had to practice block starts for the sprints. The starting blocks are these metal thingies that have one long piece of metal in the middle and adjustable foot pedals on which to push off your feet at the sound of the starter’s pistol. There’s a whole science of blasting off from starting blocks; see Usain Bolt for details. (Not to toot my own horn, but I was a  pretty good block starter; I was the fastest out of the blocks and for the first 10-15 meters compared to everyone on my team. If only the sprint races were 10 meters long instead of 50 or 100.)

The starting blocks came with spikes that kept them in place on outdoor track surfaces; but because we weren’t allowed to use spikes in the gym, the starting blocks had to be supported by another person. Keith and I paired up and grabbed some blocks. I went first. Keith braced the block by standing on top and putting all his weight on it. I took off from the blocks and got used to them.

Then we switched. Here’s where we ran into trouble: Keith was about 6 feet tall and 180 pounds, and the freshman version of me was 5’3″ and 110 pounds. (Don’t worry, I’ve filled out over the last few decades and added an inch and a half and 10 pounds to my frame. I’m huge now.) Even a basic knowledge of physics would have come in handy: large Keith could nonchalantly stand on the blocks and my small force in driving off of them with my legs didn’t make them budge. What I should have done was sit behind the blocks for large Keith and put my feet and all my small weight against the back sides of the blocks. But I didn’t; there I stood on top of the blocks like the grinning idiot that I was, waiting for Keith to push off. I can only assume that it was a coincidence that the whole girls track team was looking over when Keith started. Or tried to start: When he pushed his legs back on the blocks, there was very little resistance from my weight holding them in place. Consequently, his feet slid straight back and he ended up on his stomach. Meanwhile, his force whiplashed me sideways, and I hung in the air for a split second like Wile E. Coyote hovering over a cliff, my body in a perfect line parallel to the ground, before I came crashing down on Keith’s backside.

I looked over at the girls track team and gave them the most relaxed “Well, hello, ladies” look I could muster before my teammates started in with a slow clap and someone said, “Nice job, freshmen!” I clambered off Keith, who said to me, “We must never speak of this.” (Sorry, Keith; readers of my blog deserve the unvarnished truth.)

We also practiced relay handoffs. A relay team consists of four runners, and each one has to carry a metal baton. The baton has to be handed off in an exchange zone marked on the track. Any sooner or later than the zone, and the team is disqualified from the race. In sprint relays, this exchange has to be carefully choreographed, and the person about to receive the baton usually times his takeoff so that he runs and reaches back with one hand without looking at his teammate. The onus is upon his teammate to say something aloud to indicate when he should reach his hand back. (Our team yelled “blue!” and hoped that no other team used that word.) I was practicing with another big guy (look, I know they were all bigger than me), a football player named John who loved to be cool for the ladies. Since I was going to be the leadoff runner on our relay and John was second, we were getting the timing right.

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Izod polo? Check. Feathered hair? Check. Jeff Spicoli facial expression? Check. Must be the 1980s! My freshman yearbook picture, 1986. Oh, what the ladies were missing out on.

After a few halfway-decent tries, Coach T told us to really turn up the heat and do it as close to full speed as we could. The thing about indoor tracks is that they are so small that you feel as if you are constantly turning left. So every time I came flying around, I was coming out of a turn, calling out “blue!,” and giving John the baton. So I got a running start, kicked into high gear, and ran as fast as I could toward John, who took off and waited for me to say “blue.” What I failed to do was to wipe the dust off the bottoms of my shoes, so that when I came off of the turn, my legs slipped out from under me on the rubber-surfaced track and I slammed down onto my side. Because the track was slippery, I kept sliding along the track, looking ahead of me at poor John. In his confusion about why I didn’t call out the signal and give him the baton, John came to a complete stop and looked back behind him. I can still see the look of shock on his face when he first saw nobody running toward him and then looked down to see me just as I swept under him and took his legs out, sending him crashing down on top of me. We slid together for another 10 meters or so. Another round of slow claps from our teammates, another special show for the ladies.

(Strangely, the only two girls that I dated in high school were runners; one of them witnessed all three of these events and still agreed to go to two dances with me. The other one transferred to our school a few years later, and I can only assume she wouldn’t have eventually married me if she had been on the track back then.)

Several years ago, our high school built a fancy, gleaming fieldhouse with an indoor track that puts their old one to shame. I only know this because some former teammates of mine told me about it. I’m surmising that the school purposely didn’t invite me back for the dedication.

Winter Long Runs: Are We Having Fun Yet?

Now that we are moving on to spring here in the Great Midwest and winter’s worst sting is over (am I jinxing myself on that one?), I can stop worrying so much about my long winter training runs. See, the problem with running a spring marathon is that I do all of my running outdoors. I prefer to run on this canal towpath near our home, but snow tends to linger on it, and snowmobile tracks that freeze over can be ankle breakers. Plus, do I have to mention the dog poop hidden under the snow cover? (Four sentences in and already I am using the word “poop.” My college writing professors would be proud.)

I run outside in winter for two main reasons: 1. I am a tough guy (have you seen me? I thought this one was obvious), and 2. I have a horrible treadmill. It is about 40 years old and is “manual,” meaning that it only moves if you slide your feet on it. This leads to an unnatural running stride. (And please don’t tell me to join a gym or buy a new treadmill; you obviously haven’t read my “I Am a Notorious Cheapskate” blog post yet.)

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That’s my breath and not drool that froze on the ski mask, I swear. Note the knit cap on top of the ski mask; that’s so my brain doesn’t freeze.

If there is a lot of snow on the ground, I am better off running on city streets, although that means I have to deal with traffic. I try to run against traffic, make myself visible by wearing clown clothes, and make eye contact and wave to every driver. (If you’ve seen me, I’m not so much waving “hi” as waving “thank you in advance for not putting me through your windshield.”) Because of the ice and snow, I have to run by “feel” rather than by time. I tried training at specific time paces one winter, and it was a disaster: knee problems and IT band injuries led me to fall far short of my marathon goal time.

The hardest part about winter running, though, is developing that “whatever it takes” attitude and not allowing the weather to play too big of a role in my training. Whether it’s 0 degrees or snow is falling or the plows have already come and it’s icy, the running has to be automatic. If I waver and think, Maybe it will be nicer outside tomorrow, I’ve lost the mental battle.

The number one way to deal with outdoor conditions is to dress properly. I’ve gotten to the point at which I am usually overdressed. Not suit-and-tie overdressed; that would be weird. Rather, I wear extra layers and can strip some off if I need to. I have a rainproof windbreaker that I can wear in all kinds of weather; it’s the most important item in my closet. I also like to keep my neck warm, so I wear an ear warmer headband around my neck. If it is 20 degrees or nicer, I go with one thin pair of gloves. Anything colder, and I have two warmer sets of gloves that do the trick.

During a typical marathon training cycle (about 20 weeks or so), I try to get in four runs of 18 miles or longer. Many training programs will have you run just once at 20 miles, on the theory that if you can make it 20, you can make it 26.2. But I have struggled with those final 6.2 miles, so I try to do a step-up plan where I add 2 miles to my longest run every third week: 16, then 18, then 20, 22, and 24. (Coincidentally, I am supposed to be doing my 24 today, but it is raining with potential lightning outside, so here I sit, typing.)

A few winters ago was historically cold for this area. I remember forcing myself to run, pretty much so I could humblebrag about it on Facebook (e.g., “Went running while it was 8 below! Time to use a hair dryer to unfreeze my contact lenses from my eyeballs!”). On my longest training run that winter, I planned on doing 20 miles, but the snow was falling, it was 10 degrees out, and there was deep packed snow on the towpath already, so I did a circuitous route around our town’s streets. I was wearing my hydration belt, which has two water bottles and a pocket for gels. (I use Gu Gel; my favorite flavors are vanilla and root beer.) I also carried a Gatorade bottle.

About 10 miles into the run, a few things came to a head: First, the snow was accumulating around the bottom of my running pants and then freezing, weighing down my pants and forcing me to stop to retie the pants so they wouldn’t fall off. (That would have been a sight.) Then, my water bottles started to ice up. Initially, I could shake the bottles to break up any slushy parts, but it got worse until they completely froze on me. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the chance to run with two freezing-cold bottles of ice bouncing up and down on either side of your groin, but I wouldn’t recommend it. (Unless you’re into that kind of thing; I don’t judge.)

My cold groin and all the bouncing made me have to go to the bathroom really, really badly. Anyone who has taken a road trip with me knows that I have the world’s tiniest bladder anyway. Usually, I can sneak off into the woods next to the towpath; the whole forest is my bathroom. (Hey National Forest Foundation, here’s your new slogan: “The whole forest: it’s your bathroom.”) But on this particular day, I was running on city streets. I quickly calculated two options for public restrooms open on a Saturday morning: the library and the hospital. I settled on the hospital, mostly for logistical reasons: it was about a half mile closer to where I was than the library. I practically sprinted to the hospital and went through the front entrance. A volunteer at the information desk asked me if I needed anything (besides the obvious shower after a long run) and quickly pointed me toward the men’s room. I waited around for the water bottles to thaw, but it was taking too long.

By that point, my run had completely fallen off the rails, so I walk-jogged home. It would probably not surprise you to find out that I did not meet my goal pace in the marathon that I ran in the spring. My point is, I have been much more consistent with my training this winter, and Mother Nature has cooperated. Any failure to meet my goal this year is on me. At least, until I can think up something else to blame it on.

My XXXL Marathon Adventure

My lovely wife Jen and I were out on a walk, talking about the marathon I was going to run that weekend. I was going over my clothing options for race morning. Dressing appropriately for a race that will take (for me) 3½ hours is tricky; typically, the marathons I run are in the spring and fall, and the temperatures can rise 20 or more degrees during the course of the race.

“I am definitely going with the shorts,” I said. “Maybe a short-sleeve. Weather Underground’s website says it will be 39 degrees at the start and rise to 51 by the finish; maybe I should go with a long-sleeve shirt and a T-shirt over it. Then the gloves, a baseball cap, and maybe my neck warmer. But then again, I might not need the long-sleeve. What do you think?”

Jen said, “I think you’ve crossed the line and gone over to Crazy Town. Just do what you always do and stop obsessing about it!”

She had a point. But in my defense, I haven’t gotten this far in life without a few side trips to Crazy Town.

I was running in the Naperville Marathon, a relatively small race. My previous ones were all big-city marathons, and consequently, they had big marathon expos at convention centers. A marathon expo is where you have to go to pick up your packet with race bib, free shirt, gear-check bag, etc. If you’ve been to an industry expo or a college fair, you know what these things are like: vendor booths, free samples of frozen yogurt or another trendy food item, people generally harassing you into visiting their booths. This one was similar but with one big difference: it was teeny-tiny. The first clue was that it was being held not in a convention center but in the back room of a health club.

The health club was about an hour from my house, so I drove there 2 days before the race.  I wanted to do a quick get-in, get-stuff, get-out trip, but first I needed to ask some questions at the Information desk. The nice lady at the desk said I could ask her anything I wanted.

“Great,” I said. “I notice that there are parking garages a few blocks from the starting line. How soon before the race do they fill up? I’m trying to avoid having to use the remote parking.”

“Good question,” she said. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?!?”

“This is my first time volunteering at this marathon. I’d guess 6 a.m., maybe? Any other questions?”

“Um, no, I’m good.” I did have other questions, but seeing as my guesses would be as good as hers, I saved them.

Flustered, I went to the packet pickup table and got my goody bag. The guy at the table looked at my packet, yelled, “Men’s small!” to the volunteers behind him, and grabbed the shirt they handed him. Into my bag it went. I had already seen a photo of it online and decided it wasn’t really my style, so I hadn’t planned on keeping it; but hey, it was a free shirt. (Editor note: obvious foreshadowing ahead.) Usually, I would spend some time looking through my packet and verifying that everything is there and that the shirt is the correct gender/size, but I was in a hurry.

When I got home, Jen was back for lunch. Like a little kid showing off Halloween candy, I said, “Look at what I got!” I took out the marathon shirt and held it up for her to see.

“Oh my,” she said. “It’s kind of big.”

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I am pretty sure this is not my size. Please note: I am actually wearing shorts. As far as you know.

“What the?” I looked at the tag: Men’s XXX-Large. “Are you freaking kidding me?!?” This thing was a dress on me, and my arms flapped in the too-long sleeves, like when Tom Hanks’ character turned back into a 12-year-old boy at the end of “Big” and he was still wearing a man’s suit. (Sorry to ruin the ending of that one for you.)

Jen said, “Don’t get upset. You had already said you weren’t going to keep it. And don’t drive back to the expo for a replacement shirt.”

She was right, but it was the principle of the thing that ate at me. I mean, seriously. How did they get this one wrong? Plus, is there really that much of a demand for XXXL shirts at a marathon? I didn’t see any 6-foot-5-inch, 400-pound runners out there on Sunday morning. And did they accidentally give my small shirt to that guy? (“Hey, why did they give me a handkerchief instead of a shirt?”)

On race morning, we got there around 6. (Guess what? There was plenty of parking in the parking garages.) It was freezing; Jen didn’t want to hang around the starting line, so I wore some throwaway clothes. We have a “donate” box in our bedroom, and anyone who is retiring clothes in our family knows to throw them in the box; then I run it to goodwill when it’s full.  Anything that remotely fits me ends up in my “marathon throwaways” pile. At the starting line of most major marathons, spectators aren’t allowed near the runners, so it’s best to have clothes that you throw out just before the gun sounds. The marathon organizers then collect them and donate them.

There was plenty of space for spectators at this race, but Jen went to stake out a spot a few miles into the course. Unfortunately, the only long bottoms in the donate box were pink flamingo-covered pajama pants. (I’m pretty sure Jen retired them just to see me wear them to a marathon. And no, I didn’t allow her to take a picture of me wearing them.)

This was how ugly they were: 5 minutes before the race started, I took off my ripped-up old sweatshirt and put it on the fence around the starting corral. I then took off the pink flamingo pants; when I went to put them on the fence, the sweatshirt was already gone. I placed the pants down and moved further into the crowd. For the next few minutes, every time I glanced back, the pants were still there on the fence, crying out, “Take me! I am in need of a loving home!” As far as I know, they are still sitting forlornly on a sidewalk in downtown Naperville, waiting for a brave (or color-blind) citizen to claim them.

I won’t bore you with the details of my race. I wanted to run somewhere around 3:20 to 3:25; I went out at 3:20 pace for the first 20 miles, then faded in the last 6 and ended up at 3:27:12. (Sorry, I actually did bore you with the details.) The course itself was great, and the people of Naperville (Napervillains?) deserve a lot of the credit for supporting something that disrupted their Sunday morning for 6 hours. For a small race, there was great fan turnout, a beautiful course, and ample water stations throughout. If you are insane enough to run a marathon, you could do worse than this one. Bonus: Because there were so few people in the race, I came in 85th place. That’s the top 10 percent, about where I usually finish in a marathon, but much more impressive than telling someone that I finished 3,500th in the Chicago Marathon: “Not to brag or anything, but I was in the top 100. And what have you accomplished with your life?”

Weather Underground

The Naperville Marathon. Correction, the “Healthy Driven” Naperville Marathon. I don’t know if the phrase “healthy driven” follows any rules of grammar. But it sounds cool.

My First Varsity Cross-Country Race: The First Time I Ask, “Why Am I Doing This?”

Now that my son is on the high school cross-country team, I’d like to take this opportunity to write about my favorite topic: me. Oh, wait, you thought I was going to say my children, or teamwork, or school, or something like that. This must be your first time reading my blog. (Subtitle: “The All-About-Me Blog. Starring Me.”)

I was built to be a long-distance runner.  That’s not just my opinion; it’s science. The November 2014 issue of Runner’s World had a discussion of the nine factors that would allow a human to break 2 hours in a marathon, and their description of the perfect physical specimen for this sounds a lot like me: “He’ll be 5’6″ and a buck-twenty soaking wet.” (Perhaps the first time “me” and “the perfect physical specimen” were used in the same sentence.) Which makes it all the more surprising that I played football my freshman year.

My football career didn’t last long. It turns out it’s not easy tackling or running past someone who outweighs you by 100 pounds. I played halfback and safety, scored one touchdown, made one game-saving goal-line tackle, and traded my football cleats for running spikes at the end of the season. It took a while, though, before I ran my first varsity cross-country race.

I was in 11th grade, happily plodding away on the junior varsity squad, running with a pack of teammates and holding conversations during the JV races. (Handy tip for aspiring XC runners: If you can hold a conversation while running, you are going too slowly. Other handy tip: The cool kids call cross country “XC.”) I recall one Saturday-morning meet discussing a teammate’s previous night: a Pink Floyd concert that kept him out past midnight. He was nearly incoherent; he kept talking about a giant pig flying above the crowd. (Pink Floyd aficionados: This was the A Momentary Lapse of Reason tour, 9/25/1987 at the Rosemont Horizon.)

The next week, my coach pulled me aside and said, “Dudley, I have good news and great news: The good news is I’m moving you up to the varsity. You’ll be our seventh man at the Pow-Wow. Be prepared.” “Wow,” I said. “What’s the great news?” “I’ll tell you later,” he said.

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I still have this 28-year-old shirt from my first varsity race. Still fits me. Strangely, it is a size large.

The Crete-Monee Pow-Wow was a fun cross-country meet (not an oxymoron!) that was unusual in its format. The typical meet has the top seven runners from each team running in one race. At large invitationals, things can get crowded. The first year I ran the Pow-Wow, there were 65 teams, so that’s over 450 runners. The meet organizers came up with a unique way to get around the crowding problem: seven different races, or flights, one for each individual runner on a team. All of the seventh runners would run against each other, then 5 minutes later, all of the sixth runners would run. After those flights were done, the fifth and then fourth runners would go, and so forth until the final flight would pit the best runners from each team against each other. This would mean that we didn’t actually run with our teammates, but the payoff was that, for those of us who were not the best runners on our team, we could still earn a medal or even win a race, since theoretically we were running against people at our level only.

The scoring was different from a typical meet, too. In a typical meet, you add up the places of your top five runners, and whichever team has the lowest score wins. The perfect score is 1+2+3+4+5=15. It is embarrassing to lose a meet when the other team scores 15 points. (I speak from experience.)

The sixth and seventh runners aren’t scored, but they can help by pushing the scores of the other teams higher. In case of a tie score through five runners, you would check the positions of the sixth runners to determine who wins. In the rare case of a tie finish between two sixth runners (if, for example, they came across the finish line together, holding hands and skipping), then the places of the seventh runners would be scored. And hopefully there would be no ties with them. (“Guys, quit holding hands and skipping across the finish line with our opponents! It’s the first rule of cross country!”)

In the Pow-Wow, the perfect score was 7 points; conceivably, a great team can have a runner win every race. The flip side is that, if you are on a bad team and every runner comes near the end in their race, you could score 400 points, and no one wants that. The race organizers also gave out a nifty trophy for most improved team, the team that lowered their score the most from one year to the next.

My XC team that year was not good. There’s no sugar-coating it. We were mediocre. They needed a boost, someone to come forward and light a fire under them, thereby uniting the team and propelling them to greater glory. That’s the reason I always tell people that my coach decided to promote me. Honestly, his thinking was more along the lines of, “Well, this guy’s brother was a halfway-decent runner; as long as he doesn’t trip over his shoelaces, he’ll be serviceable.”

On the bus ride to Crete, our coach gave his usual pep talk and then talked strategy with us. “Guys,” he said, “everyone knows we are not going to compete in this thing, so I have a way to make it more competitive for all of us and allow us to have some individual success. Our first man is going to run a race down, against every other team’s second man. Our Number 2 will run against the Number 3s. And so on.” The first through sixth guys on our team loved this idea and started talking up their chances in their races right away.

I sat there for a while mulling this over. Finally, I raised my hand. “Coach?” I said. “I’m the seventh guy on the team. What do I do?”

My coach’s eyes lit up. “This is that great thing I was going to tell you about. You have the opportunity to run in the top flight against all of the best runners in the state. In your first varsity meet ever.”

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This is actually from my senior year, wearing the gold and blue (note the 3-38 on my shirt, meaning I was the third runner on my team that year). It was raining that day. The guy in front of me looks like a stud.

Wow, I thought. That sucks. But I kept this to myself. I spent the morning watching all of my teammates run their races and have success matching up against slower runners than them, and I got more and more freaked out by having to run the top race as the day went on. What made it even worse was that we had to run through a wooded area that had turned muddy in the previous night’s rain, and a teammate lost a shoe during his run. Like, literally lost it in the mud, never to be found again. What was I getting myself into?

When I toed the line, I looked over at my teammates. One of them gave me a thumbs-up. I felt like raising a different finger to him. When the gun sounded, I sprinted out to position myself with the lead pack. That lasted for about half a mile. Then I faded badly. It’s good to have a mantra when running, and my mantra for this race was, “Please don’t let me be 65th place. Please don’t let me be 65th place.” Etc.

I think it would serve us all if I just skipped over the details of the race. Here are the positive takeaways from my first varsity run: 1. I finished. 2. I did not lose my shoe in the mud.

Oh, and I did not come in 65th place. I came in 58th. Meaning I was better than the top runners on 7 other teams. Unless (and I just thought of this 28 years later) those 7 teams also had their worst runner go in the top race. Well, now I feel bad.

P.S. The Crete-Monee Pow Wow, once billed as the largest cross-country race in the United States, was discontinued after 42 years in 2009. According to an article in the February 26, 2010 Chicago Sun-Times, ”The Pow-Wow field peaked at 71 teams in 1978, but has dropped into the 20s in recent years.”

P.P.S. The next year, my team won the Most Improved trophy. I’m assuming my 58th place finish the year before had something to do with that. Maybe that was my coach’s plan all along.

How To Dress Like A Runner (Hint: Louder Is Better)

Dressing like today’s hip, fashion-forward runner is easy. First, a few questions: Are you a circus clown? Are you a school crossing guard or a highway construction worker? Do you dress in the dark? Basically, you know that you are properly dressed for a run when you step outside your door and your neighbors glance your way and start screaming, “It’s too bright! I’m blind! Blind, I say!” Good job, you!

When I first got into running, practically everybody wore plain cotton clothes. Cotton tees, cotton shorts, cotton sweats. If you were really hip, you layered cotton shorts over your cotton sweats; don’t ask me why it was hip because it was like wearing underpants over your jeans. This was about a decade after the so-called “running boom.” (We were so unhip that we still called running “jogging.”) On my high school track and cross-country teams, other than the school-issue blue and gold sweats, you were considered flashy if you wore red. We mostly stuck to shades of gray and navy.

And running shoes were not yet the technicolor wonders you see today: my first pair was dark gray. My second pair was dark gray with white piping. My last few pairs of running shoes are so bright and multicolored that it looks like one of my kids vomited up a confetti cake on our laundry room floor. (Sure, blame it on the kids.)

I can almost pinpoint the moment that really bright clothes started becoming the norm for runners: I have a cotton T-shirt from a hometown 5K in 1988 that is light gray with block letters that are black. Classic and classy. Three years later, same race, different design, this time the shirt is polyester and the letters are cursive and in neon green. Welcome to the future, runners!

Nowadays, I have trouble getting dressed for a run because it’s difficult to match neon yellow shirts with electric blue shorts with purple and green shoes and pink hats. Send out the clowns.

shirt photo for blog

On the bright side (see the clever pun I did there?), my kids won’t want to borrow my clothes. Unless there’s a “Look Ridiculous Day” at school next year.

When I was in college, I ran cross-country for one (injury-riddled) season. I used to show up to practice wearing my favorite Air Jordan shorts, baggy, knee-length, and double layered. I’m not saying the other runners were faster than me solely because of my baggy pants (there may have been a talent gap), but I spent a lot of time on 90-degree August days lost in cornfields with the other freshman runner about 3 miles behind the rest of the team, ruing my fashion choices.

I get it, though. There are good and valuable reasons for loud running clothes. First and foremost, for those of us who run on city streets, it’s all about visibility. Taking a page from bicyclists, we runners want to be seen by drivers. Bright clothing could literally save our lives.

From a race director’s standpoint, I can see why a bright shirt would be beneficial. No one wants to open the goody bag just before a race and say, “This shirt is ugly!” (I have been known to do that. I’m pretty sure I even posted a derogatory comment about the gunmetal-gray shirt I received from the 2014 Chicago Marathon in one of my blog posts. The joke’s on me: my lovely wife Jen likes the way I look in it. Thank you, Nike!)

If you’ve ever been to a marathon, you know that the starting area looks like the crowd on Day 1 of the Electric Daisy Carnival. (And the finish area looks like the crowd on Day 3, after having ingested whatever was being offered by random strangers in the parking lot.) There’s a reason for that: I don’t know how many times (one, actually) that I’ve showed up to a big race and told my wife, kids, or whoever came out to cheer for me, “I’ll be the guy wearing the blue shirt.” Good luck with that. Now I try to differentiate myself: “I’ll be the guy wearing the neon blue shirt with the pink sleeves, the shiny white capri-length tights, and the purple hat. You can’t miss me.” And I’m right: they won’t be able to miss me as I run by and wave, although they might want to deny that they are related to me in any way.

I am learning to accept that, as a middle-aged runner who is okay with change, I might have to look like George Michael (or, more likely, Andrew Ridgeley) in the video for the Wham! song “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Specifically at the 1:10 and 2:35 marks.

Fullscreen capture 5222014 94024 PM

Q: Is this a music video from 1984, or the start of a local 5K in 2015?
A: Yes and yes.

Besides, fashion comes and goes. My middle child’s school recently had an ’80s Day, where kids were encouraged to dress like—get this—people who lived through the 1980s. Conveniently, I still have a closet full of polos and button-down shirts similar to what I had back then (old habits die hard), so she raided my closet and wore a polo with a popped collar layered under a button-down; she was going for the “rich guy who is always the villain in John Hughes movies” look. Anyway, my point is that the pendulum sometimes swings back my way. The last race T-shirt I got was a gray polyester shirt made to look and feel like a soft cotton shirt with letters so light blue and faded that one can only assume this is a throwback look. I loved it, but alas, it was too tight on me. It’s been a perfect addition to Jen’s stable of running shirts, though. I’ll stick to dressing like a clown.

The website of the Electric Daisy Carnival.

Are You Winning?

A few years ago, I placed in the top 5 in a few local 5Ks. It got me thinking that, with the right training and focus (and the hope that the best runners oversleep and miss the starting gun), I could win one of these suckers.

Then I heard about a new race for a local charity. Excited, I told my lovely wife Jen, “This could be the one!” (I had been running sub-19:00, or under 6:05 per mile, not a stellar time, but maybe good enough.) The morning of the race, I went early to the starting area to pick up my race packet. As I was leaving the tent, I looked through the packet and said to one of the volunteers, “I’m sorry, but my race bib is missing.” The volunteer said, “That’s not a mistake. This is a fun run, a noncompetitive race. We won’t be timing it.” “Oh. Thanks,” I said.

I went home and told Jen, “It’s noncompetitive. What the heck am I supposed to do with that? I don’t think I even want to do this anymore. Plus, the shirt’s not even that great.” (This makes me sound like a whiner, but in my defense, the shirt wasn’t that great.) Jenny talked me off the ledge: “Just use it as a training run. Besides, you already spent the 25 bucks to register.”

So I went to the starting line a few minutes before the race was to begin. It was very foggy. Looking around at the crowd, I saw none of the usual group of guys and ladies who win the local races. (That was the plan; sometimes, newer races are less likely to draw interest from experienced runners.) As a matter of fact, I saw no one who even looked remotely interested in running hard, save for three 10-year-old boys. Then it dawned on me: All these people were here early on a chilly, fog-shrouded Saturday morning out of the goodness of their hearts to donate money and support a good cause. I was the only jerk who wanted to crush everyone else’s spirits. I felt really small. (Which is saying something for someone who is 5 foot 4.)

The gun went off, and the three 10-year-olds shot from the starting line as if they were running a 50-yard dash. Conveniently, after about 50 yards, I caught them. They stayed with me for the first quarter mile of the race, when two of them slowed down. The other boy ran with me until a half mile into the race when, suddenly, he came to a complete stop and started wheezing at the side of the road. Poor guy. I ran on.

Now it was just me out front, and for the first time I noticed that it was incredibly foggy. I mean the type of foggy where I couldn’t see more than two houses ahead of or behind me. Before the 1-mile mark, some guy was walking his dog when I appeared out of the mist. He yelled, “Is there a race, buddy?” I said, “Yeah.” He said with shock in his voice, “Are you winning it?” “Yes,” I said.

Just past the 1-mile mark, Jenny was there to cheer me on. Two women walking down the sidewalk saw her, then me, and yelled to me, “Is there a race or something?” “Yes,” I said. “Are you winning?” “Yes.” About a half mile later, a husband and wife were setting lawn chairs up in their driveway to watch the runners when I came upon them quickly from the fog. “Hey, where’s your race bib?” the guy yelled. “It’s noncompetitive; they’re not timing,” I said. He turned to his wife as she sat down and said, “It’s noncompetitive.” She groaned. “Hey,” the guy said to me, “Are you winning?” I said, “Can I just run the race without having these long conversations?!?” but he didn’t hear me as I had disappeared into the fog.

Here’s the thing about leading a race: It’s not easy. It can be nerve-wracking. Even in a race where I was near certain that no one could catch me, I ran scared. It had always been so easy to start off relatively slowly and reel people in as a race progressed. Now, here I was, exactly where I thought I wanted to be, and I didn’t like it. I couldn’t handle the pressure.

At about 2.5 miles, I came quickly upon Jenny in my small window of visibility. “Is there anyone even close to me?” I yelled. “There wasn’t anyone even within 2 minutes of you at the first mile. Frankly, this is boring.” So with that little pep talk, I surged ahead and ran to the cheers of the volunteers near the finish line. I crossed in 19:50, not even close to my best time that year. The race director looked over my shoulder at my watch and asked, “How’d you do?”

“Well, I won,” I said.

This is how I felt when I finally won a race. Bottom left: my lovely wife Jen's thumb.

This is how I felt when I finally won a race. Bottom left: my lovely wife Jen’s thumb.

Since then, I’ve won two more races, one a 5K in my brother’s town, and another a 10K on country roads in blistering heat. Those are stories for another blog post. The thing about these races, though, is that they weren’t my best efforts and were not my most enjoyable experiences. (Other than allowing me to humblebrag on Facebook.)

I had a point, and I’m trying to remember it. Something about winning not being all it’s cracked up to be. Actually, it was pretty cool to cross the line first. But I could have done without the disbelief in everyones’ voices when they yelled out, “Are you winning?”