Sunday, November 28, 2010

Running in the Footprints of Bobby’s Oxfords: The JFK 50 Miler, November 20, 2010

I remember fifth grade pretty well. It was school year 1962-63, the year we lived in Mill Valley, Calif. The Giants indeed were giants, bigger than life to all school kids in Marin County. Living legends Mays, Marichal, McCovey, and Cepeda dispatched the hated L.A. Dodgers and took it to the last game of the Series with the Yankees. We got through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and President Kennedy, certainly among my young crowd, was more popular than ever. He continued to emphasize physical fitness, with backyard touch football games, and with his challenge to the military (and his staff) to complete 50-mile hikes, which quickly became a national fad. Politicians, high school students, Boy Scouts and congressional staffers all started getting into the act. I even remember a joke from the time: (Lewis and Clark came back from their big expedition out west and met with President Jefferson. “Mr. President,” said Lewis, “I’m all for physical fitness, but this 5,000 mile hike business is getting ridiculous!”)

And so it struck a chord a few years ago when I started running marathons and came to learn of something called the JFK 50 Miler, in Washington County, Md. It obviously had something to do with the old 50-mile hikes, but I didn't know just what until I read the web site material. I studied the route and could see its ties to Civil War sites, including the transcendently amazing Battle of Antietam. The race claims its pedigree back to March 1963, a few weeks after Bobby Kennedy walked 50 miles of the C & O Canal in his oxfords. (It’s now run in November, and sometimes coincides with the anniversary of JFK’s assassination.) People kept telling me that “if you can run a marathon you can finish JFK.” Several practice runs and now three JFK finishes later, I’ve become very fond of this remarkable territory. But I continue to wonder: what is the point of going to the expense, tedium, and discomfort of signing up for the race and doing 50 miles of it in one day?

Many people run JFK year after year, and many run it once and never again. My reason for signing up this year was largely ego. My two prior finishes, with the support of co-runners and crew, each took a little longer than 12 hours. My goal was to train better and improve that time: it didn’t really matter how much, just so it was down in the 11’s. I signed up in the July lottery and got accepted. It was clear this would be largely a personal quest, as none of my friends were signing up this time. Our Montgomery County Road Runners Club was starting its own 50 Miler on the beautiful Seneca Creek Trail, and many of the Club’s best trail runners were signing up for that. That was ok. I would get this JFK under my belt, improve my time, and probably be done with it.

Well, I lost some prime training time with an injury – a rolled ankle in early September and residual foot pain that kept me out of serious training for over a month. JFK was looking like money down the drain. And then I recovered. I found that I could run just fine, albeit slowly. So if I could just get in a couple marathons in the month before JFK, not only could I qualify for the four-star level in Marathon Maniacs (if you don’t know, don’t ask), but I might be able to get my legs semi-JFK ready for a shot at a somewhat respectable finish. Why not try, since I’m already signed up. And so it went: Niagara International Marathon on Oct. 24, and Marshall University Marathon on Nov. 7. Time now to get on the Internet and reserve my room at the Super 8 in Hagerstown, near the Nov. 19 race check in site.

I am in the 5:00 a.m. start – a nice handicap for the slower runners who then get a full 14 hours to finish -- so I leave my Super 8 a few minutes after 4:00 on race day and drive to the Boonsboro High School where the runners gather. I miss most of the “mandatory 4:15 pre-race briefing,” but I already know I’m supposed to run single file on the trails, not litter, etc. We walk about a mile to the downtown start, and I see on the bank sign that the temperature is about 34 degrees, about 15 degrees warmer than the last time I ran. People switch on headlamps and flashlights and we’re off. I have trouble getting my new GPS watch to lock onto satellites, at least until after we leave the skyscrapers of Boonsboro. We go up the now-familiar U.S. Alt. 40 to climb up to the South Mountain Inn, where we turn right and get on the rocky and cranky Appalachian Trial. New this time is chip timing, and the first timing mat is at the start of the trail, an odd thing to see in the woods.

The LED headlamps light up things quite well in near-pitch dark, and I enjoy getting on the trail. It’s a bit crowded for a while as people figure out their pace. The crowds thin out when we hit the fire road on the trail, a two-mile respite from having to dodge rocks and roots, but no break from the climbing. Then it’s back to the “real” trail. I start looking forward to the first signs of dawn at the top of the mountain, when it gets closer to 7:00, and you start seeing subtle pink sky off in the distance, growing brighter over time, and the trail gradually becomes more visible (and your headlamp becomes worthless). I reach the aide station at Gathland (part of the Battle of South Mountain) within my usual time, continue the hassle with the never-ending rocks, and eventually enter the switchback trail to come down the mountain. I compliment a woman on her nice race uniform, which she tells me she and her sister are wearing in the name of their brother, who loves the race but isn’t with them today. (Turns out he is on a hunting trip in Montana.) I am again amazed at seeing the leaders from the 7:00 a.m. start to pass me by on the switchbacks, admiring how fast they can run on such difficult terrain. I come off the mountain and see Ken Swab who graciously awaits with my drop bag with change of shirts, hat, and shoes. My feet are already starting to blister, caused I think by my “size-up” trail shoes which make my feet slip around on top of the hard surface of my orthotics as I cover the uneven terrain. When I change my shoes and socks I notice the top of my left foot is red, a little irritated I guess by the shoe when I twist and turn over some of the rocks I step on. (Note to self: do more training on the trails.) Anyway, the change of shoes feels great, and off I go. I pass the Weverton check-in station at my usual time of about 4:22 and head to the towpath for the next 26.3 miles, remnants of the C & O Canal on the right and might Potomac on the left.

This monotony can be as much a test of one’s sanity as it is physical prowess. This time my mental fitness was ok, but it was a physical grind. I had the strength to keep going, but no real “spring in the step,” so to speak. I dueled the rest of the way with the blisters and what turned out to be a bruising on top of the left foot that had started to swell up. Nothing was excruciating, but it was continually annoying. But I still enjoy the various landmarks on the trail that are becoming more familiar. I spot Harpers Ferry and its bridge, and later approach the Sheperdstown bridge and hear the crowds from the football stadium. I miss seeing Don Libes and his interactive aid station at Taylor’s Landing, but it was a lot to ask of him to keep coming back. I miss Coach Cathy who has moved away and no longer can organize our training runs and drop bags as she did in prior years (but I still remember her training tips). I notice a couple of our black MCRRC shirts made for prior JFK’s, so some of the club has turned out. The Reston Runners are out in force, more organized than ever, with nice matching drop bags with a sponsor’s name printed on them, arrayed together at specific aid stations.

Unofficially, I reach Antietam Aqueduct (27.1 miles) about 5 minutes slower than last time, Taylor’s Landing (38.5 miles), about 32 minutes slower than last time (bad patch there), and Dam #4, the last point on the Canal, about 30 minutes slower than last time.
I stop to take a picture of the dam, and a volunteer offers to take a picture of me, with the sun getting low in the sky. It’s obvious I wouldn’t be finishing anywhere near 5 p.m., and thus would be running well after dark, still wearing my sunglasses. (I’ll take them off before the finish line. No sense trying to look cool.) The last 8.4 miles, after leaving the towpath, are on rolling country roads, code words for “hilly”. If I could run all the downhills and walk briskly up the hills, I should be able to at least finish under 13 hours. My new Plan B. I soon get to enjoy the sunset, on my left, and the full moon rise, on my right, simultaneously. I have trouble keeping up Plan B, but pick it up as I get closer to the finish, at the usual Williamsport Middle School, managing a time of 12:56:36, about 50 minutes slower than last time. The road section was tough, but I’m happy as I cross the finish. But I’m never doing this #*(&^*!? race again. I enjoyed the catered burrito supper in the gym, and managed to limp into the shower for one of the last warm showers left in the pipes. I chat a little with a nice guy who I had seen wearing the shirt “The chemo is over, now it’s time to run.” He was talking about how much he enjoyed the race. Several times I thought about Coach Mike, who never even got to the chemo part. Yeah, I think I can handle a few blisters.

I took the last bus back to Boonsboro, where my car was parked, riding with a group of friendly Reston Runners, including one poor fellow who got pulled from the course because he wasn’t making the 14-hour cutoff.

My next few days were marked by sore feet and quads, and a morbid fear of stairs, but I’m fine by the following Saturday. Maybe I’ll reconsider that “never again” thing. After all, what goes around comes around in time. Mays and McCovey were in the parade celebrating the Giants’ Series victory this year. The White House is again preaching fitness. And the 50th JFK 50 Miler is only two years away.

Thanks for reading. You can click here for an interactive Google map of the course, with an option for Google Earth view if you like to play with that. Let me know if it doesn’t work.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Marshall University Marathon
November 7, 2010

This mania of marathon running works in strange ways. It would have made more sense to have made the 400-mile trip to Huntington, WV, in 1995 or 1996, when Montana, my alma mater, played Marshall in back-to-back years for the national I-AA football championship. But as much a football fan as I might be, that seemed too far to drive at the time, while now undertaking that 7-hour drive just to get in another marathon was no big deal. Especially when I needed more long training runs to prepare for the JFK 50 later in the month, or when it notched my ninth state in a year to move up to the four-star level of Marathon Maniacs.

I know that’s not very convincing, but there were other attractions as well. Aside from remembering Marshall as the team that Montana had to face two years in a row (winning and losing one), I had a vague recollection of reading during my first fall at college about the November 14, 1970, plane crash that killed virtually the whole Marshall football team and coaches as they returned from a game against East Carolina. I certainly remembered going with my daughter Natalie to see the 2006 movie, We Are Marshall, about the rebuilding of the team, and the community, after that event. I tend not to go to a lot of tear-jerker movies, but that one was pretty good, and I did think Matthew McConaughey did a nice job (if not a little too cute) as the new coach. (Natalie seemed to think he was very good.) It was a compelling story, and I was curious to see where it all happened. Having now been there, I can say the town has never forgotten for a moment that bit of history. There are memorials, plaques, renamed streets, and, soon, the 40th anniversary.

The drive through beautiful western Maryland and West Virginia on the day before the race got me on time to the packet pickup and pasta dinner (included in the race fee), all held in the school’s big new recreation center across the street from the football stadium, where the finish would be. There was no parking left at the stadium, because it was taken up by the participants in a big state-wide “battle of the bands” (marching bands, that is), but downtown parking was available, just as it was the next morning when I drove in from my motel in the still-dark, West Virginia morning, after scraping the frost from my windows, to the start area about three blocks from the stadium. It was a beautiful, crisp, fall morning all around.

The marathon was sponsored by, Inc., an organization formed to bring healthier habits to an area that evidently has lagged behind in several health indexes. The runners, of course, were the usual very fit people, most of whom left me well behind. The course was one of the more complicated routes I’ve run. By the map generated by my new Timex GPS watch I never got off course, but there were moments when I wasn’t so sure, even though course marshals were usually within sight of the turns. The course had out-and-back loops both east and west of the stadium on the city’s broad avenues, alternating with two loops headed south a few blocks and then by and on sections of the city’s pretty Ritter Park. About three miles of the park trails were soft crushed gravel, and everything else was the usual asphalt and concrete of a typical city. Although the east and west routes were parallel to the Ohio River, we had but minimal views of that great river.

My running tights had no pockets, and I forgot my waist pack, so I could bring along but one gel packet, crammed into a small shirt pocket, but I thought that would be all right. Well, I did get pretty starved for energy as the race went on since the course aid was limited to water and Gatorade, but no gels or other snacks. Good for the diet, I guess. The other runners were particularly friendly, and I chatted with several other Maniacs, all from out of state as far as I could tell.

You knew the finish was getting close as you entered the campus and saw flowers on the ground, dropped by some of the runners who tried to grab them from a volunteer to place by the memorial fountain as they ran by. The flowers were all taken by the time I got there, but I stopped at the fountain and picked up one from the collection basket and placed it on the ledge of the fountain. Then came THE BIG EVENT: getting tossed a football as you entered the stadium, and then heading down to the other end of the field to make a u-turn and run up the field to score a touchdown at the finish line. (“Did you spike the ball? Do a Lambeau Leap into the stands?” a co-worker wanted to know on Monday. “Yeah, except I was penalized for excessive celebration.”) After enjoying the post-race junk food and drinks on the tables on the sideline I limped slowly up the ramp out the side of the stadium, where I encountered four or five football players in gym clothes on their way to work out in the team gym just next to the field. They looked at me as if they were wondering why I was limping, and in turn I was wondering why they weren’t limping, knowing they had just played a game the day before. (Maybe these guys didn’t get that much playing time.)

Soon it was back on the Interstate for my seven-hour trek home. I stopped a couple times to eat, refuel the car, and, finally, change out of my running tights. I was in a bit of a hurry to get in at least a few hours on the road before the early sundown now that we were off Daylight Savings. I found that I had a lot to think about during the drive home, going over the race and the whole experience of my short visit, and the trip went relatively fast and smoothly, considering the normal post-race aches and cramps.

Did the effort do the job in terms of preparing for the upcoming ultra? I didn’t run well or feel very strong during the race (similar to how I felt at Niagara two weeks ago), but I’ll take it as a positive. I recovered enough to run five miles the next day in relative comfort, and at least I’ve got nice memories from the event. I saw a lot of beautiful country along the way, and I clearly see more West Virginia races in my future.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Merci Canada

Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.Norman Maclean.

You could indeed be haunted by waters, in the Niagara Falls International Marathon, as you run 20 miles downstream, the Niagara River usually in view, on your right. I haven’t run a race so far along a single stream since my last JFK 50 Miler two years ago, with its marathon-length section along the Potomac (usually in view, on your left). You have plenty of time to think while spending hours along side something that continually moves, yet doesn't really change. It's indeed a kind of haunting, but it’s a good haunting, and I do recommend it, if you think it might be for you.

I first looked into this race while considering dates to visit my daughter Natalie, who has started graduate school in Buffalo. Late October seemed a good time for both, and this race boasted of many positive reviews, and I thus began looking forward to a nice visit with Natalie (while taking care not to interfere with her study time). It indeed was a nice visit, albeit somewhat short. I also had the fortune of connecting with my long-time friend Gail, now from Toronto, who drove around Lake Ontario to join in a little touring of the area and dinner, on the day before the race. It also happened to be her birthday. (Our friendship goes back to grade school and junior high days, and while in recent decades it has been largely confined to on-again, off-again correspondence, we scarcely missed a beat in catching up when we got together. What a treat!)

Three weeks earlier I had DNF'd at the Freedom's Run in the Harper's Ferry, W.Va., area, due to very nagging foot pain related to an earlier sprained ankle. The problem now seemed almost entirely resolved and I was eager to get in another marathon, for ego and conditioning purposes alike. Although my training had been lacking by this time, I felt confident I could do it.

And so it began, on race day October 24, 2010, with an early morning bus ride from the hotel and casino area of downtown Niagara Falls, Ontario, to the start in Buffalo, N.Y. A prerequisite to getting your bib at the expo the day before you had to be checked off by Canadian Customs, so as you run into Canada during the race you are already cleared and can just waive to the folks at the Customs booths as you go by. The bus ride to the start will stop at the U.S. border, where an agent will board the bus and check everyone’s documents before you proceed. That interlude only took us about 10 minutes, and we were back on our way to the start, with no more document checks.

The race schedule builds in a lot of time to take care of all this. Now I’m not a big fan of long wait times at the start, which is why I often go for the smaller races. But the two hours at the start area in this race was a
remarkably pleasant time for me. The bus lets you off at the lovely Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and you basically have the run of the place until start time – you can browse the Van Goghs or Pollocks, listen to the Flamenco group playing in the hall, or, as I did, go to the quiet auditorium and lay down on the carpeted floor and sleep for an hour. Did I mention there were several restrooms there as well, and that the lines in the men’s rooms were practically non-existent?

Anyway, at 9:30 or so I was ready, and went outside and checked my bag in time for the 10 a.m. start. The bags were well-secured on the buses to go back to the finish, but I decided to carry my passport card with me anyway, in a pocket in my waistpack. Four pleasant miles in Buffalo were followed by a run on the International Peace Bridge, the location of the only real hill on the course, and then about a mile and a half loop in Fort Erie, ON, before starting your 20-mile downstream trek on the Niagara Parkway, still decked out in glorious fall colors.

The numerous water stations on the Canadian side are staffed by some of the best-themed groups I’ve seen in a marathon/ultra – high school groups and private clubs, all showing their spirit and reaching out to give you their high-fives. My fave: the group dressed up as jailbirds (“Caution: Do not pick up hitch hikers. Chain gang at work up ahead.”) This is a great feature of the race that should be advertized. It was about 10 miles from the finish that we caught our first glimpse of the Skylon Tower, the iconic structure that signals the location of the Falls – and the finish. In any event, the curves of the river won’t let you see the Tower again until about three miles out, when you also can make out for the first time a small puff of mist from the Falls.

You again you lose sight of that area as the course twists around some more, but you know you’re getting closer. The last mile takes you away a bit from the river, and you're pleased to see that the roads are now slightly downhill as you wind around some of the downtown streets to the finish.

The finish could hardly be closer to the Horseshoe Falls, and you'll catch a glimpse of the them as the finish beckons. No time for sightseeing yet, but you'll have plenty of time after the race to do that. If you don’t get any mist on you in the finish area, you will in a short walk along the Table Rock area nearby.

There you’ll have some of the best views of both Falls available, as you walk along on your tired legs. And tired and sore they were, as I stopped at the Falls to take a few pictures, and then trekked about a mile and a half to the parking garage that was so convenient to the bus pickup early that morning. (What shuttle bus?) I kept telling myself the walk was doing my legs good, and I'm sure that's true, although it was quite slow going. I then rejoined Natalie at our hotel on the American side, cleaned up and enjoyed a fine "dinner" of pancakes, eggs, and hash browns.

I started home the next morning, and Natalie went back to her class. The eight-hour drive through pretty Pennsylvania was a most pleasant wrap-up to the trip, and I certainly had to count this trip as well-worth it in many ways.

Thank you, Canada, for a memorable experience.

Next up: "We Are Marshall."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Limping Along the C & O Canal

Don’t sweat the small things. And just about everything is a small thing. At least that’s my take on it all, and I’m sticking to it.

These are the days when marathon runners thrive, as the first true signs of fall and its crisp mornings replace the dog days of summer, seemingly for good. As a runner, you’re also a fan of the sport, and there’s no way you can’t get excited about these beautiful days of near-perfect running conditions – even when you’re finding yourself more observer than participant. That’s what I became this weekend, not really by choice, but due to the eventual recognition of physical inability to continue. Yes, that dreaded balrog, the DNF.

It started with a simple ankle roll during a routine run four weeks ago -- at least I thought it was simple. Hey, I was able to keep going another 17 miles afterward, so it couldn’t be that bad. Could it? Well, in certain ways it’s been healing in good order, but there’s been something on-going underneath in the “soft tissue” as my doctor called it (the ultimate medical term for junk inside that’s not bone), causing a stabbing, burning feeling under the foot when I try to run. It was all starting to behave much better, so last week I decided to give it the old college try in the half-marathon event at the American Birkebeiner Trail Run in Hayward, WI.
This was held on a perfectly glorious fall day, with brightly colored trees in northern Wisconsin on a well-groomed, if rather wet from recent heavy rains, cross country ski course. I was surprised how strong my ankle felt, particularly on the many ups-and-downs of the terrain, and the annoying pain underfoot was really quite manageable.

But it was a matter of “pay me now or pay me later,” and the past week was the “pay me later” time. I knew (deep inside at least) that I had aggravated something and had no business running the October 2 Freedom’s Run marathon, from Harper’s Ferry to Shepherdstown, WV. But of course, denial is a powerful thing, especially when it comes to running on some of your favorite ground and you think there’s some way you can run-walk fast enough to beat the cut-offs and not require your friends Chris and Rebecca, who carpooled with you, to wait hour upon hour for you to finish. Well, after arguing with myself for two hours on the marathon course, I decided that it made no sense to keep going when I couldn’t even walk at a moderate pace without a limp. I eventually found a ride at a water station and was driven by some nice volunteers to the finish area. All the stress was now gone and I truly began to enjoy the whole event. I visited the food tent for the runners and helped myself to pizza, did a few pushups in the parking lot, and got my free beer glass (and beer) at the Bavarian Inn. I then met up with Chris and Rebecca, who both had done a very fine job in completing a tough course.

It’s interesting how this day was truly “déjà vu all over again.” My last DNF was four years ago, when I dropped out near that same point (on the C & O Canal) in my first attempt at the JFK 50 Miler, on another glorious fall day, when I got a ride to the finish line and also got to sit and watch all those strong runners basking in the victory of crossing the finish line. Both occasions were opportunities to celebrate others’ achievements, and also to regroup and learn from my own miscalculations. And what have I learned? Well, I’m not going to try any marathons at all, for at least three weeks.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Missoula Marathon July 11, 2010

It’s Monday, July 12, the day after the Missoula Marathon, and my friend Joanna has come up with a great idea for spending the afternoon: let’s drive the 40 miles over to the old Lolo Hot Springs resort so I can soak my legs in the natural hot springs and mineral water. I ponder this for a moment but a higher priority intervenes: I want to drive to Big Flat Road and get a more relaxed look than I did the day before of that three-mile uphill section on the otherwise relatively flat marathon course. And so we did, cell phone camera in hand, for a sweet tour of this scenic area (adding on a hike around Maclay Flat, a nature preserve a mile southeast of there next to the Bitterroot River ).

In my view, the oddly named Big Flat Road is the marquee section of the race. It offers wonderful views of the Clark Fork River valley below, and it is a real challenge to both your race preparation and race day strategy. I haven't done that well with either. Both years I’ve run this race I’ve overestimated my preparation for maintaining pace up to the highest point on Big Flat, at mile 15 or so, and let’s just say that is pretty much a guarantee of several grueling miles before finishing, as flat as the latter part of the course may be.

The first 11 miles are a fine warmup to this section. Ample numbers of busses have previously taken 1,500 of us out to Frenchtown, a few miles west of Missoula , where the 6:00 a.m. Army cannon sounded the start. You then start running essentially due east on level road, with a splendid view of the rays of the rising sun that turn the mountains ahead of you all the various pastels you could hope for. You soon may be able to make out Mount Sentinel on the far eastern edge of town many miles straight ahead. That’s the mountain with the big “M” that casts its morning shadow down on the University, just as it did throughout my college and law school years in the 70s, and as it apparently still does to this day. When this big valley was under a glacial lake 20,000 years ago, Mount Sentinel was a mere island poking out of the water, the big “M” no doubt obscured by that deep, cold water.

At about mile 4 we run through the edge of the Smurfit-Stone paper mill, with a decidedly different look this year now that it has closed in bankruptcy. We see dozens of hard hats tied to the wire fence, left behind by the workers as they clocked out of their final shift. We make the right turn at about mile 10 to cross the Clark Fork River and head to our climb up Big Flat and those amazing views that I will not fully enjoy until the next day. We won’t be seeing Mount Sentinel again until the last few miles of the course, and only then if we make a point of looking up -- sometimes hard to do at mile 22 or 23.

The downhill section of Big Flat ends before mile 16, and before you cross Maclay Bridge over the Bitterroot River, which will be joining the Clark Fork a bit north of there. Drive about 10 miles south up through the Bitterroot Valley to the town of Lolo and you can visit Traveler’s Rest State Park , said to be verified by physical evidence as the only identified campsite of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. The captains and their crew stayed there in September 1805 before heading west over Lolo Pass and the endless snowy peaks of the Rockies, almost starving to death in the process, and again in June the following year, just before Lewis split off with a separate contingent to follow the Bitterroot to the Clark Fork and go upstream through downtown Missoula and then over the continental divide for a return to the Great Falls of the Missouri. Lewis and Clark might have thought this marathoning to be rather odd business indeed. However, I do remember reading that their men enthusiastically engaged in footraces with Indians in what is now Washington State before beginning the eastbound return journey in 1806 -- obviously viewing a good run as an enjoyable and effective way to get back into condition after a winter of relative inactivity. Sound familiar?

After mile 17 a series of turns through several friendly neighborhoods follows, featuring abundant sprinklers of many residents for the runners needing some cooling off to run through, as I did with the sun bearing down in full force the last 10 miles. The last several such turns are in the University district, before heading to a welcome and fitting finish over the Higgins Avenue Bridge -- and one last crossing of the Clark Fork -- into the funky and revitalized downtown area. The finish area included showers, a medal, a finisher's handkerchief with the course map imprinted on it, and a pose for a free finish photo by the official race photographer. Hydration, pasta, and popsicles were also offered. Then it’s down the steep stairs to the park under the bridge for the award ceremony, free beer, and other festivities. Watching runner after runner limp down those stairs was worth the price of admission -- it was humorous, at least, after you were done limping down them yourself.

The Missoula Marathon had a lot to live up to after having won the polling in Runner’s World for Best Overall Marathon earlier this year. I must say that’s a big part of why I returned. A lot of people may have come expecting something really off the charts – a bit of a wrong-headed approach, I think. (A marathon is always 26.2 miles, and isn't it always tough?) I noticed a few critical comments in questioning the award, but c'mon folks, let's keep things in perspective (says I from my biased point of view). It’s Best Overall Marathon , which means it’s really good in pretty much every category. It didn’t win most scenic, but it is very scenic. It doesn’t have the biggest crowds, but it has excellent crowds for the town’s size with plenty of eager volunteers, and believe me, the whole town knows about and supports the marathon. Everyone -- from the barista making my latte to the clerk at the Post Office -- responded positively when I told them I was in town for the race. And I’ll bet a lot of Missoulians now know who the Marathon Maniacs are. The expo is small and you won’t find a lot of different vendors besides the Runner’s Edge, the local running store, but it’s more than adequate, and it’s creatively placed in an outdoor pavilion in the park right next to a wonderful Saturday Farmer’s Market, which is staffed by tables and tables of vendors of organic vegetables, rhubarb pie, and other enticing homemade goods. This is the "green" culture of Missoula , and your goodie bag and technical shirt are attractively made of recycled and natural products. In addition to the free finish area photo, an extra 10 bucks at registration gets you access to all your photos taken throughout the course. (Mine are now safely tucked away in my computer, most never to see the light of day.) And don’t forget to top off your marathon with a tour of Traveler’s Rest, Glacier Park , or whatever outdoor glory may suit your fancy.

For my money, the race organizers outdid themselves this year in every detail and delivered a great race. It’s not a New York or Chicago race; it’s a Missoula race through and through. To me that's a good thing, a very, very good thing. Just train and strategize properly, and the race will bring its best for you. Don’t train properly and, well, it’s still well worth it.

Eugene Marathon May 2, 2010

Marathoning and Unfinished Business

It’s a bit oxymoronic to write a race report about a destination marathon in which the memories that stand out the most are not moments in the race at all, but rather from two days of sightseeing after the race. Having signed up through the local community college for a two-day tour of the Oregon coast following my second running of the Eugene Marathon on May 2, I am now finding myself more inclined to recall the geology lecture about the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate that is crashing into the westward-traveling North American plate and thus creating a subduction zone which uplifts the coastal mountain range and exposes the great mounds of volcanic basalt all over Oregon beaches. Or recalling expert birder Anne and her shouts of “Bird up!” and pointing at a flying cormorant with one of her two canes as everyone refocuses binoculars skyward. Or recalling the tour of a trail high above Cape Perpetua, led by naturalist and cartoonist T. McCracken, who has the funniest shtick you’re ever likely to hear from a trail guide. For some reason those thoughts predominate over memories of things like the marathon finish on the legendary Hayward Field track of Track Town USA. – as very cool as that was. But I digress.

This trip follows a similar trip two years ago when I ran the second annual Eugene Marathon and visited big brother Brad and his wife Stephanie, who are having a great retirement on the Oregon coast. At that time I was getting introduced to the history and mystique of Track Town USA, and immediately after the 2008 race I proceeded to read my autographed copy (from the expo) of Kenny Moore’s great book on (Coach Bill) Bowerman And the Men of Oregon, and then watched the definitive Steve Prefontaine biopic Without Limits (also written by first-hand participant Moore). The race had gone well, with some signs I was moving toward a PR, and I felt there was potential to move more that direction upon a return. I also had listened briefly to a talk of coach Joe Henderson at the 2008 expo, encouraging people among other things to visit “Pre’s Rock,” the spot where Pre had overturned his sports car one night in 1975 on a windy road on the east hills of town, and thus ensured the continuing legend of his running talent and grit. I thought at the time that sounded a little macabre, but looking into it later convinced me that it was a runner’s imperative. Add the fact that I had enjoyed a wonderful visit in 2008 with Brad and Stephanie at their new home and while driving around coastal mid-Oregon, and I now had plenty of reasons to make a return visit to the Eugene Marathon. Unfinished business.

This time I didn’t train adequately for the marathon, which is the norm for me lately anyway, so the PR I was somewhat hoping for was never in the picture. But I started out the pre-race day with having Brad drive me up to Pre’s Rock so I could visit this running shrine recommended by Coach Henderson and see first-hand that part of the culture. I then went to the expo and bought a copy of Fire on the Track, the documentary movie on Pre that I had been unable to get through Netflix. I also made time to hear the full lecture Henderson was giving at the evening pasta dinner. Henderson, who now writes for Marathon and Beyond, also teaches running classes at the U of O and leads a marathon training group out of the Eugene Running Company store. I struck up a chat at the dinner with one of the runners in Coach Joe’s marathon group, someone who obviously thinks the world of his coach. At the lecture I could see why, as Henderson is soft-spoken and modest, and conveys an obvious joy in seeing his students (young and older) overcome obstacles and prove time and again that anyone can break through boundaries. He has a nice interaction with the audience, giving away gifts to those answering trivia questions, and freely recognized running students who had particular accomplishments – including one 60-something fellow who shared with Joe the distinction of recently overcoming prostate cancer.

This time I ran what was probably my best 14 or 15 miles going out in any of my marathons, but then the lack of proper training (and going out too fast in view of that training deficit) led to a fairly vicious wall to go through, accompanied by IT band/knee pain that made most of the rest of the race a repeat of some other not-so-great attempts in recent months. But I had my handy cell phone to take pictures, which I did primarily at the end. Oh, that cell phone thing is not necessarily such a good idea, such as when I pulled it out and saw a text message from Judy telling me the car had been broken into during the night and telling me to call asap so she could take inventory of anything missing. (I saw Brad at mile 19 and asked him to make a preliminary call until I could finish the race. It turns out nothing of any value was taken.) The course changed somewhat since 2008, to include, of course, the Hayward Field finish, and also some more street mileage and a hill in a nice scenic neighborhood in the south part of town. But it maintains the signature river and bike trail sections that make this race so “green” and scenic. Course support and entertainment are ample, including many live music spots, aid stations, and lots of people cheering from their porches, as well as picnickers just out enjoying the parks on a beautiful spring day (sunny and about 55 degrees). The finish offered nice hot Krusteaz pancakes and a good variety of other rehydration and refueling options.

The race is a wonderful event and I recommend it highly – a great experience in a historically meaningful environment. But back to the Juan de Fuca thing. I can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Never mind that he was a great explorer who is mistakenly thought to be from Spain because his Greek name was too hard to say. But with the scientific push these days to understand the dynamics of plate tectonics, and how the plate named after him may cause the next Real Big One, who remembers his actual discoveries? As we toured beautiful Newport, OR, and learned that NOAA is moving its Pacific Marine Operations Center there next year, I began to appreciate the significance of this area, beyond the obvious abundant natural beauty and wildlife of all kinds. Completely unexpected discoveries of the dynamics of Mother Earth may be coming.

So as you might have guessed, I am inclined to feel I’ve “been there, done that” as to the Eugene Marathon, but there is more out there I would love to see and do. I’d love to rejoin Brad and Stephanie and get back to watching those birds, and also try another turn at looking for whales, ideally on calmer seas that don’t require the boat to turn back to the bay, as we had to do. I’d also like to hear what more NOAA and others are learning about JDF and his mischievous plate. And there’s other unfinished business to tend to. You see, there’s this very popular little marathon in Newport, and . . .

Disney World Marathon Weekend 2010

Honolulu Marathon December 13, 2009

Sitting in the IHoP across the street from my hotel in Honolulu about to eat my pancakes, I was letting myself feel a little too smug about finishing a marathon the previous day -- not a very good race performance by any means, but feeling smug nevertheless from the satisfaction of finishing my fourth marathon or longer race that fall, and believing I was well on the way to recovery for the next. All sense of smugness was shattered, though, when I realized I was pouring coffee, not syrup, all over my pancakes. Yes, the Marathon always gets the last word.

And why Honolulu? I wish I could say going to Hawaii has been a life-long dream, or that running this marathon has long been on the top of my list, but none of that is really the case. I guess my interest has developed over the last couple years for various reasons--watching the Ironman telecasts on the tube, and being encouraged by friend Kate who goes out there regularly for outrigger races. This fall things just seemed to work out; I had some frequent flier miles, a good hotel discount thanks to my daughter working at Marriott, and a short break between deadlines at work, so why not just go and do it already?

I flew out on a Friday morning and got in about midnight Honolulu time, or more than 19 hours later. (We were delayed a couple hours out of Minneapolis because the winds were too favorable and ATC wouldn't let us leave. Go figure.) I managed to sleep relatively well on the plane, and even the turbulence rocked me off to sleep, but man it's a long way from the west coast to Honolulu. I slept a few more hours when I got to my hotel room, had a good "trucker's" breakfast at the IHoP, and went over to the Expo with a 9 o'clock plan to meet up with Jeff, a nice guy and fine marathoner I met through a Disney World runners' forum who wanted to get a group photo of some fellow forumites. Mission accomplished, and then I got the usual bib, chip, race brochures, and a souvenir or two. No shirt yet, since you have to finish the race to get that. It was about a mile walk back to the hotel, where I went directly to my room to watch the playoff game of the Montana Grizzlies. They played in the cold and snow in Missoula against Appalachian State, in one of the best games I've seen in quite a while, even if I do say so. (Several people at the Expo saw my shirt and said "Go Grizzlies!" How great was that!) After that I walked over to Kapiolani Park, the finish area, to check a bag of a few items for after-race wear. Then it was back to the hotel to meet Liz, a friend and co-outrigger racer of my friend Kate, for a driving tour of the course and Italian dinner. (Running partners Sara and Gayatri will remember the trouble I have pronouncing Italian meals, from our pre-race dinner in Richmond.)

Early on race morning, I started out in the wrong direction walking toward the race start, and then after a mile or so of somewhat frantic run-walking I just made it to the start area as the fireworks were going off (5 a.m.). Shades of the JFK 50 Miler start--still very dark, a crescent moon high in the sky--except it was much, much warmer than Boonsboro in November. I had to work my way through the corral of hundreds of 10K walkers to get up to the marathon runners' corrals, and then it was a good hour and a half of running on sidewalks, weaving in and around people, etc., to get to where I fit in with the paces of other runners. I took the hassle somewhat "in stride" and was just hoping to get into a rhythm soon.

The local paper said this race of 22,000 is something like 65% Japanese, about 25% locals, and about 10% mainlanders. Japan Airlines and other sponsors seemed to have some kind of promotion to bring tourists out for the race, and they must have been successful in their recruiting the general populace because this was the slowest overall field I've ever seen in a race. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the day after the race there were many people wearing finishers' shirts limping really badly all around Waikiki. (Of course, there were lots of very good runners as well, and the elites were world class.)

This was the first race where I wore my Marathon Maniacs singlet, and I found that pretty cool. Other Maniacs came up and introduced themselves, took a picture, or waved as we passed, and people in the crowd regularly yelled "Go Maniac" or something like that as I went by. Recalling races where my name is printed on the bib, I found it much preferable hearing "Maniac!" called out rather than hearing my name. Normally I wouldn't want to join a club that would have the likes of me as a member (to quote a famous Marxism--Groucho, I believe), but the Maniacs seem like a good group to be a part of.

As Liz predicted, once daylight was in full swing, by about 7 a.m., we had nearly an hour of sun in the eyes, except for a few turns here and there. In general, there are not a lot of turns in this fairly simple course. After a loop at the start away from Waikiki, it turns clockwise back through Waikiki, Kapiolani Park (10k mark) and then up the edge of Diamond Head, and out several more miles following the shore line (but not usually seeing the shore) to the Hawaii Kai area, then a turnaround and heading back toward Kap. Park. The last climb gets you up to mile 25 on Diamond Head, then it's all downhill, or at least flat, the rest of the way to the Park. As Liz also warned me, the sun is very hot there in Hawaii! I drank Gatorade like a fish at the water stops, poured water and ice on my head, and grabbed the ice-cold sponges they were handing out at every opportunity. Each stop was refreshing, but I needed that refreshing regularly. I might have been a bit dehydrated to start, but there was only a brief time where I felt dizzy or anything like that. I didn't feel particularly tired from traveling, but clearly I didn't have a lot of fuel in the tank. I just tried to "enjoy" the sucky part the last few miles and go with the flow. Later, I chatted with a woman headed back to D.C. on the same plane who runs this marathon regularly, and she said she always takes about a half hour longer than in races "on the mainland." If that's the case, my advice is just to enjoy it while it lasts!

At the finish you're given a shell lei, and a medal you can clip on it, or not. There was no need for space blankets to keep you from overcooling, and the finish area showers to cool you down were much preferable to that amenity. There were the usual tents with food lines, and you needed to pick up the all-important finisher's shirt--a pretty good one, I think. I didn't really need the clothing change I had checked the day before, but put on a fresh hat and stuck my medal in the bag. The walk back to the hotel was about another mile, a slow one and kind of tough with my quads stiff and sore. After cleaning up and resting a while, it was out to refuel with Mexican food, hydrate with a couple local brewskis, and watch Sunday night football at the bar in the middle of the afternoon.

So the next morning, after my humbling experience with that weird syrup at the IHoP, I shopped a little more for souvenirs, including returning to Kapiolani Park to look at the post-race "finisher" merchandise (but deciding to skip the long lines to get my finisher's certificate), then checked out of my room and took a bus out to tour Pearl Harbor for the afternoon. (That was a wonderful experience, and is a whole story in itself.) That all made for a pretty full time and in many ways I was ready to leave and get back home by the time of my Monday evening flight. (Holiday parties awaited.) Of course, that's not nearly enough time to spend out there in paradise. I don't know if I would do the marathon again, but I'm definitely happy to have had the experience. It's just amazingly beautiful out there, the people are very friendly, and, well, it was just a taste of paradise after all.