Somewhere around Mile 2, we made a left to head up the Delaware coast, and there it was: a magnificent sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean. There will be no Instagram post of this sunrise; however, this moment will forever be etched in my mind. What a beautiful moment. I wanted to run slower in that space just to soak it in a little longer.
The Rehoboth Beach Marathon and scenic course would provide many beautiful moments despite not every mile feeling beautiful.
Roughly two weeks after the Chicago Marathon, a running friend convinced me to run this race. It didn’t take much to convince me: 1) I was still in decent shape, 2) I saw it as a redemption run after Chicago, and 3) One of the runners I coach was already running it, so I figured I could pace him for part of the race or just provide some additional support. Plus, I knew a few others that were running the Half.
Despite registering for this race, I had no lofty “must do” goals other than to have a good experience, run competitively, and support one of my runners. I knew I was not in PR shape; however, I also knew I could have a decent day under the right conditions. And, wow, we had perfect race conditions: 40 degrees at the start with no wind (this is practically a miracle at the beach in December).
At the start, I lined up with one of my runners, Colin. He was going for a BQ, as well as sub-three hours. I figured sub-3 was a long shot for me since I hadn’t done as much speed as I wanted to after Chicago; however, I told Colin I would stay with him for the first half, and (to myself) figured I’d hang on during the 2nd half.
We settled into a comfortable pace during the first half (hitting our miles in the 6:40s and 6:50s). The Marathon separates from the Half around Mile 3, and we headed into the beautiful confines of Cape Henlopen State Park, which consists of hard packed trail as well as a raised wood / metal (a bit slippery on this day) footpath through the woods & marshy areas adjacent to the Ocean. It was quiet and picturesque.
Yes, very quiet.
I love quiet races. If you do not like quiet races with less spectator support, this might not be the race for you. What also helped, in my case, was running with Colin. This made the first several miles fly by. If you run with a group or another runner, you know what I’m talking about here.
After the park, we headed out and back on Cape Henlopen Drive which is where the Cape May Lewes Ferry is located. At Mile 10, we looped around a parking lot near the ferry. My wife was cheering us on here. Also, once out on Cape Henlopen Drive again, I saw some friends (Chad, Dave and Nikki). This is one of the perks of an out and back portion of a race. Seeing familiar faces is always uplifting.
Once we were back into the park a bit, we hit the 13.1 mark, slightly under 3 hr pace for a marathon. I ran with Colin for another two miles; however, at Mile 15, the 6:50 pace was starting to get onerous for me, so I encouraged Colin not to let me hold him back. I did manage 6:48 and 6:49 for Miles 16 and 17 respectively, but I knew I would not be able to hold that much longer.
Here, I dialed it back a bit. Overall, I still felt decent. It was a boost coming back into the town center of Rehoboth at Mile 18 where there was more crowd support; however, just beyond Mile 20, there was another wooded out and back trail portion of the race. Despite being scenic, the surface of this trail felt less forgiving on my feet than the earlier trail did. I was getting tired too.
Plus, we were once again on the same route as the half marathoners which made the course a bit more crowded. Miles 21 to 23 were definitely slower, as my legs were fatigued and my heart rate crept up. I still managed to cheer on the other runners as they did for me as well.
Just before the turnaround at Mile 22, I saw Colin who was ahead of me, and it looked like he was struggling. I said some encouraging words to him before running under a series of flags that were hung across the canopy of the woods. These were a series of state flags for all of the US state flags (I think — I was a bit out of it by now). There was music here, and I thought this was the turnaround point; however, there was still 3/10 of a mile until the turnaround!
Despite this portion of the race becoming more crowded, I enjoyed seeing other runners and friends, such as Madeline (another runner I coach) who was running the half for fun with a group of friends, as well as Chad and Dave again (and my friend Katie).
Miles 24 and 25, despite being slower, were still under 8 minutes per mile pace. At Mile 25, I caught Colin and we headed to the finish line together. At this point, we knew he wouldn’t be going Sub3; however, he was well on his way to a strong BQ in only his second marathon.
We ran and walked a bit together, and in the home stretch we saw my wife again, as well as other friends cheering near the finish, including our friend Meredith who had done the Half and Madeline who snapped this photo…
We finished together in just over 3:06, and took 2nd and 3rd in our age group.
It was a fun experience and exactly what I needed after my disappointing performance in Chicago. I didn’t really tell anyone ahead of time I would be running this (aside from the few folks that would be there). I recommend running a race and not telling anyone about it ahead of time. It makes it feel more personal. I hope that makes sense.
This race was well-organized, easy logistically and fun! The course is scenic and fast. Having great weather definitely helped. The post-race party was pretty raucous too. We opted for the quieter setting of Dogfish Head Brew Pub for a post-race beverage / snack.
This was the first time we had spent any time at Delaware beaches. We got to see a lot of Dewey, Rehoboth and Lewes and it is beautiful there. We plan on going back in the summer, and I would definitely do this race again.
If I had one minor recommendation, it would be to use paper cups at water stops vs. plastic cups. I definitely spilled more water / Gatorade than I would have with paper cups (but maybe that is just me being clumsy).
If you race long enough, you’ll eventually have a race where nothing goes right (I’m talking physically AND mentally). This was that race for me.
I woke up race morning as I had gone to bed: With a headache. I didn’t think much of it. This was not a time to ruminate. It was a time to “do.” This is the best I would feel until several hours after the 2017 Chicago Marathon. After the race, my wife would tell me I felt warm to her the night before (she kept it to herself at the time because she is smart).
At 5:45am, I walked to the start. The logistics of Chicago are convenient and easy. Plus, the race is well-organized. The layout at the starting area is such that it never feels claustrophobic (as it feels at the NYC Marathon to me). Anyway, I forced down my normal pre-race food even though I wasn’t as hungry as I usually am before a race. I chalked that part up to nerves because, yes, I still get nervous before a marathon (that never changes for me).
Ironically, just before the start, there was a chill in the air which I took to be a good sign. I thought to myself: “Maybe it won’t be as warm as they’ve been predicting.” In fact, the temperature was not an issue for me in the first half of the race. I went out conservatively, and decided not to look at my watch for the early mile splits (especially because I know how inaccurate the GPS watch would be on this particular course). However, I never got into a rhythm. Through Mile 6, I was probably in that 6:45-7:00 range which is where I figured I’d be (around 3 hour pace), but I needed to go to the bathroom, so once I found a porto-john, I took the opportunity.
When I resumed running, I felt better and more relaxed. However, roughly around Mile 8, my left hamstring became tight and eventually would be relatively useless, but honestly, that would not be the main issue for me. At this same point, my legs and arms started feeling heavier and sluggish (which they actually were heavier for this race. I usually lose 10-15 lbs in a training cycle, but this time I didn’t lose any weight. This may or may not have been a contributing factor for my performance on this day).
My head was pounding too. In a way, I felt like I was running at altitude which is funny because of how flat and close to sea level Chicago is. Something was obviously not right.
I tried the mental tricks to re-sharpen my focus and get my head in the race to overcome my body which was failing me. Also, I tried to use the energy from the awesome crowds in neighborhoods, such as Boys Town and Old Town. Third, I tried connecting with other runners to pull me along. Nothing was working. I have felt poorly in other races, but most times, the moment passes and I’ve been able to regroup. This was not the case on this day.
For the first time since I can remember, I thought about dropping out. I wasn’t even at the half yet. Somehow, I missed where my wife was standing just before the 20K mark. This was probably a blessing in disguise because if I saw her, I would have been more tempted to drop out (even though she would have probably kicked my ass back on to the course).
It was around here that I started to think of both the album “Alone With Everybody” by Richard Ashcroft and the following song lyrics from Dawes:
“But the only time I am lonely is when others are around.”
Yes, weird thoughts, but I was officially alone on a crowded beach on my island of misery.
I knew my race was over (at least the goal / performance part of the race). It is a lonely feeling. People were everywhere around me (runners and spectators) but I felt so far from everyone. I cried. I pride myself on being a tough runner, but I let myself cry in that moment. In that moment, I was sad and feeling sorry for myself. I knew the next time I would see my wife and friends for support would be at Mile 23.5 (over ten miles away). That felt so far off.
At the same time, I was leaving the comfort of the shade from the taller buildings. The second half of the Chicago Marathon doesn’t have much shade. Plus, the temperature was now over 70 degrees. This is not a good combination for me because I usually overheat like my old Honda Civic in such conditions. Cue the cramps…stabbing stomach cramps that took my breath away. Up to that point, I stuck to my tested nutrition plan, but it did not fend off these painful cramps. Taking a deep breath became an issue. Also, as my body temp started rising from the warmer weather, it became harder to keep my heart rate down.
My pace slowed. I could not feed off the crowds in the Pilsen neighborhood, even though I appreciated that thunderous energy from this Mexican-American community. Now, it was about survival and finishing safely. I had another thought about dropping out, but somehow I chuckled and remembered how much I had spent on the Chicago Marathon hoodie at the expo. If I didn’t finish, I would never wear that hoodie. Yes, a hoodie became my motivator. I was desperate.
After the roar of the Chinatown neighborhood (somewhere around Mile 21-22), the crowds were more sparse which is normally a good thing for me; however, today, it only made each mile feel like two miles. I overhead a runner say this portion of the marathon was a 2 mile death march. She was correct. My left foot was now throbbing. “Whatever” I said to myself. I was disgusted.
Finally, at Mile 23.5, I saw my wife, who was cheering with our friends, Char and Luiz. I stopped to give her a hug. This is where I cried again. This time, it was full on cry. My wife asked if I was OK, and I don’t remember what I said. I remember feeling bad for making people worry about me. Those who know me understand that I never want to be a burden on anyone.
I forced a thumbs up, and said “I might as well finish this.” I also gave Char a hug (I apologize for this because of how digusting I probably was at that point) and I gave Luiz a high five. It was time to shuffle on.
Soon, I would finally be on Michigan Avenue for the last two miles. This part of the race kind of reminded me of First Avenue in the NYC Marathon; however, I no longer was able to get energy from the crowds. My adrenaline was no longer there. At this point, I was walking at the water stops, and every time I’d walk, I felt like I was going to pass out. My stomach cramps were daggers. There was nothing subtle about them. My legs had no will.
When I finally turned into the park, I laughed because there is a short incline at Mile 26. Normally, this wouldn’t even be considered a hill, but it just comes at a horrible place in the race. Once I made the final turn to the finish, I knew my day was over. Despite my disappointment, I’m always thankful when I cross any finish line. A bad race is minor in the grand scheme of things. I have my health and I live to run another day. Even though it was a bad race day experience, I’m thankful that I had the experience.
After I got my race medal, I might have cried a third time. Not sure why. Maybe because I could…because I needed to cry. Who knows? This time, it wasn’t a sad cry though. It was a peaceful cry. After all, I was still standing. I was alive.
Sometimes being humbled is a good reminder that we are human, and we can’t always do anything and everything we set out to do. The important part is to try to find something valuable in the experience…to learn from it and grow. We grow over a lifetime, not just until someone says we are adults. Is it OK to wallow? Yes, but wallow and move on. I actually did some wallowing and mourning in the race itself, so I was able to enjoy the rest of my time in Chicago, which is an amazing city.
The post-race nausea and fever were thankfully not too lengthy. I’ll spare you the details there.
Excitement, anxiety, impatience, hesitance… these are just a few of the thoughts and emotions I had going into yesterday’s run. The run, itself, would be an uneventful, slow five miles. The key word for me here was “uneventful.” That is just how I needed it to be.
For me, it was not an ordinary run. It was a run that would determine if and how my training would proceed for my marathon in May. It was my first run since being injured a couple of weeks ago. Fortunately, it was not a long layover (11 days), but that length of time off can feel like an eternity to a runner. Combine being on the shelf with the fact that everyone on social media has been posting their January mileage, I’ve felt a slight sting to my running heart with each mileage total post. Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy for those runners, but it was a constant reminder that I hadn’t run.
All of that changed yesterday with an actual run. The first run after coming off an injury is different. When things are going well for us as runners, we just run. We don’t focus as much on what is going on with our bodies. We take a lot for granted; however, during the first post-injury run, every stride involves so many repetitive thoughts and questions:
“How is my XYZ body part feeling?”
“Is that a normal twinge or a bad twinge?”
“Is the pain coming back or is that normally how I’d feel after losing some fitness?”
“Will the pain come back?”
and “Damn, how did my cardio go out the window so quickly?”
That first “Return Run” is exhausting, both physically, and, even more so, mentally. Those questions listed above run through the brain constantly.
Sometimes, it’s clear upon return that “The injury is still an issue” and it is wise to stop the run. Other times, the injury doesn’t re-emerge. This is always welcomed news, but that feeling of relief doesn’t fully arrive until the run is over. Sometimes, that feeling of relief doesn’t arrive until “The Run After the Return Run” or maybe not until a few pain-free runs have been completed.
For me, today is a rest day, so I won’t be completely at ease until my next run is finished. We’ll see. The good news is I feel sore in all the first places. There is hope. If things continue to progress, I know my fitness will return soon.
The return from an injury is a slow, cautious and frustrating process, but if we can be smart and somehow manage “patience,” we will generally find ourselves back out there running healthy again. It is just a matter of when.
“Yes, it’s just ahead. The next block is sketchy.”
Yes, there were some sketchy portions of this run. Well, I prefer to call them “gritty” sections of Philadelphia. After all, this is a gritty town but with so many hidden gems. This combination made for a unique and amazing run through Philadelphia. I felt like both an athlete and tourist at the same time.
This was the third year for the Rocky 50k, an event cooked up by Rebecca Barber who was inspired after reading the Dan McQuade article that tried to lay out the area covered by Rocky in the training montages from the movies. The route / course is a planning marvel.
This is known as a “Fat Ass” race which means no awards, no amenities, no road closures. It is a “run at your own risk” kind of event, and it does not disappoint. When you think about it, it’s simply about running and the enjoyment of our sport. At the same time, it is a great way to see Philadelphia. I’ll take a run vs. the Duck Boats any day of the week as a wonderful way to be a tourist in the City of Brotherly Love.
That being said, 50k is a long distance…31 miles. The distance requires a certain level of respect and preparation. In the previous five weeks, my longest run was the NYC Marathon; however, since then, I hadn’t run more than eight miles at a time. It probably was not the smartest idea to decide to run this only four days before the event, let alone run it in full Rocky sweats. On the other hand, I went with the “Don’t overthink it and just have fun” mentality, and it somehow worked.
I figured I would run much slower than my marathon pace, so my body wouldn’t be beaten up as much. Also, I did use my hydration vest to have some kind of safety net. In addition to liquids, my vest held my phone, energy gels and the course directions. I know I know…Rocky didn’t
have a hydration vest, but he didn’t run 31 miles all at once…oh, and he is fictional.
The race starts at the convergence of the intersection of Wolf, Lambert and Passayunk in South Philadelphia, just near the fictional home of Rocky himself. As I arrived with my wife and her friend (both planned on running the first ten miles), we were greeted by an enthusiastic Rebecca who was carrying Dunkin Donuts munchkins for anyone interested. While we waited to start at 7am, dozens of Rocky look-alikes showed up, including a woman carrying a stuffed chicken who was nice enough to allow us to pose with it.
This chicken was easy to catch
At 6:57am, we posed for a selfie and Rebecca made a few announcements, including thank you’s to those who donated sneakers to Back On My Feet. Without a ton of fanfare, we were off, heading northeast on Passayunk through South Philly and eventually into Society Hill and Old City. I stopped here and there to snap photos during the first few miles.
Lots of food / fueling options along the route
Initially, I was on my own, but around Mile 4, I met up with a pack of runners, including a woman from DC (I never got her name), and Terry, a runner from South Jersey as well as two other runners. In the Port Richmond area, Terry and I stopped to use a porto-john (near a construction site as opposed to one being provided by the race). This was a lucky placement because I needed to use a bathroom since the start. The downside was we got separated from the other runners as we ran across Lehigh Avenue.
Somewhere around Mile 8 or 9, we caught another pack of people as we ran down Broad Street. This group would become my comrades until Mile 23. There was Preston, Hannah, Brendan, Terry and me.
Our pack – as seen on Broad Street
The pace felt good with this group, and I vowed to stay with them as long as I could for fear of getting lost. We trekked back into South Philadelphia, and headed east on Washington Ave.
Eventually, we worked our way up the streets of the Italian Market, and since a car was holding up traffic as the driver parallel parked, I took it upon myself to run in the middle of the street.
As I passed a guy unloading a truck to deliver vegetables, he yelled “Go Rocky!” I couldn’t help but smile. It was one of those memorable moments that won’t be duplicated.
As we worked our way north for the second time, this time up 2nd street via Northern Liberties and Fishtown (Miles 15-17?), the pack’s pace as just under 9 min / mile, and included Mile 17 in 8:34…the pack agreed this was a bit fast so we slowed it down after that.
At Mile 18ish, we made that right onto Somerset (in an area someone called sketchy).
It wasn’t the prettiest of neighborhoods, but we were greeted with confused, polite smiles from people and we got the occasional cheer. One house even had a Christmas tree and Santa outside, which helped the area feel more festive. I must have smelled marijuana at least five times in this stretch just beyond the B Street Bridge; however, I never felt unsafe. I will say it was an eye opening experience to traverse such a blighted part of Philadelphia while running.
As we ran across Lehigh Avenue the second time (this time all the way to Ridge Ave), I began to feel the effects of running in my Rocky sweats. I was sweating a ton, but I stayed with my pack
(although Terry fell back at this point, so we were a pack of four). One of the biggest challenges of this run is the up and down of the corners and curbs…by Mile 21, I was getting clumsy.
Also, our group missed a left turn onto Hunting Park Ave, and ended up running an extra 1.3 total miles. As we ran along Kelly Drive toward Center City again (Mile 23 or 24), I fell off the pace of the pack. I was warm and had a bad headache. On my own at this point, I took a few walk breaks and decided to keep my pace slower to keep my heart rate down. I vowed not to shed the Rocky outfit out of sheer stubbornness.
Feeling warm and headachy at mile 24ish
As I got closer to the marathon distance, my wife was running out on Kelly Drive, and ran toward Boathouse Row with me. I stopped at the Cosmic Café to get water, and ran passed the Art Museum Steps (I was so tempted to just run up the steps at that point since I had run over the marathon distance; however, I decided to run on to get in the full distance).
My wife ran the last few miles with me which was probably smart because running across town on a crowded Chestnut Street was dangerous for a delirious runner. She was my brain. After I made a left onto Front Street, and a left onto Race Street, I headed toward the Ben Franklin Parkway for the home stretch. By now, my wife had run ahead of me so she could set up and take photos / video of me eventually coming up the “Rocky Steps.”
Seeing the Art Museum from the Parkway, I got a bit choked up. It wasn’t because I was about to finish a 50k (52ish kilometers to be exact…32.29 miles), it was because I was reminded how much I love this city. In fact, I was reminded over and over on Saturday morning why I fell in love with Philadelphia nineteen years ago.
Yes, it is a rugged, scarred city with an inferiority complex at times. Yes, it is a city that can be a bit parochial in its way of thinking bigger than itself. But it’s MY city, and the people of my city showed nothing but love all morning (some of whom didn’t even know what we were all doing running in such areas of the city. They simply waved and smiled or cheered or honked their car
horns…then went about their business).
Philadelphia has changed so much since I arrived here, yet has somehow managed to stay grounded and welcoming. I know the Pope recently experienced this love.
I can’t think of a better way than “running” to see such a cross section of Philadelphia…the famous and the not-so-famous areas of the town. Each year, I find something new to love about this place. So, as I made my weary way up the steps, I got a second wind and skipped up every other step. Yes, they are steps that a fictional character made famous, but these steps are real, as is Philadelphia. It is home.
If the circumstances allow for it, if you asked me if I’d run this again, my answer would be “yes.”
My mom would have been disappointed in me because I spoke to strangers in NYC at 5:30am. I’d been unsuccessfully trying to hail a taxi to take me to the New York Public Library so I could get on a bus to Staten Island. While waiting, two pedestrians asked me if I was heading to the buses, and I said yes. They told me to follow them to the subway, which I blindly did because a nervous runner is not always a smart runner. Fortunately, these were fellow racers and good people who even paid my subway fare. Yes, that is the truth.
I got to know them (a father and daughter) a bit while waiting in the bus line. The father was running his 25th NYC Marathon, and the daughter was running her 3rd overall marathon. She was fighting off a nasty cough. As we patiently waited to board the bus, they unknowingly calmed me down ahead of the trek to the start. “There are good people in this world,” I thought to myself.
The bus ride was long and quiet until the person sitting next to me made a deep, nervous exhale. I said something like “Yup, I know what you mean.” Her name was Nelly, all 4’10” of her. She ran NYC last year in the crazy wind, and was thankful for better weather this year. As we exited the bus, we talked more about the race course and other marathons we’d run; however, in the chaos of the Staten Island security entry, we got separated. I hope Nelly had a good race.
The Staten Island staging area looks like what I can only imagine an internment camp might look like. It is located at Fort Wadsworth, so it as a very cold feel to it. Fortunately, I only had to
spend just under two hours there. It is a makeshift city with a Blue, Green and Orange “Village,” more or less. It is quite an impressive operation; however, it is very difficult to stay low key before a race in such a setting.
By 9am, I was in my corral…Wave 1, Corral 1…It was a good feeling to know I’d be one of the first people over the Verrazano Bridge. When the gate slid open to the side to let us out of our corral to head to the start, I felt like I was in a scene from Gladiator…entering the Colosseum for battle. Double decker buses were lined up on both sides of us as we walked to the start. Tourists cheered for us from atop of these buses as we took our designated spot.
When the canon went off at 9:50am, it was on. I was thankful to be able to run the upper deck of the bridge. When I ran NYC in 2006, I was on the lower deck. This felt less claustrophobic. Because of the crowded start and the incline, Mile 1, as expected was slower (7:34); however, coming down the other side of the bridge, Mile 2 was blistering fast (5:59). Oops.
The Highlights and Lowlights
1)Brooklyn – The crowds and enthusiasm in Brooklyn were unmatched by any other borough. Perhaps it was because the Brooklyn miles are early. If Staten Island made us feel like Gladiators, Brooklyn made us feel like rock stars. The energy from spectators was contagious, so I had to keep my pace under control.
Most of the first half of the race is in Brooklyn. The music and crowds really lifted us as we made our way through. I will never forget a group of drummers that had spectators and runners
chanting as they played. Unforgettable. I hit the Half on the bridge from Brooklyn to Queens in 1:26 exactly. I was literally right on pace for my race goal (2:52). I felt good.
2)Queens – The marathon doesn’t spend more than two miles in Queens so I didn’t really get a feel for the borough. The Queensboro Bridge was in sight, and this was uplifting. Yes, the 59th Street Bridge had me “feeling groovy.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The bridge is long and eerily quiet. It is a good time to check in with your head during the race…a time to ready yourself for the upcoming difficult miles.
3) Coming off the 59th Street Bridge – The feeling you get from the crowds as you come off the bridge into Manhattan is hard to describe in words. The only way I could ever do it justice is to suggest you run the race yourself. Then you’ll know…you’ll get goosebumps from the wall of noise. The crowds on 1st Avenue will blow you away. I mean, there is a “Holland Tunnel” of crowd support for the Dutch runners alone!
Just passed mile 16, I saw the big yellow “G” down the street, so I knew where my wife would be. Before the race, I told her I’d wave if a PR was still in play, but I’d stop if it wasn’t. I did neither. I
simply pointed to her and did a fist pump to let her know all was good. Adrenaline was firing with the Bronx looming.
4) Stomach Cramps – Literally minutes after the fist pump, the stomach cramps abruptly showed up. I wasn’t sure if it was from my wardrobe malfunction early in the race when two energy gels fell out of my shorts in Brooklyn, leaving me with only two gels for the first 18 miles. When it happened, I tried not to let it worry me. I even said something arrogant to myself like: “Alberto Salazar didn’t take ANYTHING during his ‘Duel In The Sun.’” I’m no Alberto Salazar. Maybe it was the borderline warm temperatures. Maybe it was the later start time. I won’t ever
know for sure, but the pain was intense. I knew I was sufficiently hydrated though. Yet, the pain could not be ignored.
I still managed a 6:30 for Mile 17, and a 6:47 at Mile 18, but the pace slowed substantially after that. Mile 18 was probably my last Sub 7 mile, and part of it was thanks to my friend Jen, whom I know via social media. She was cheering just before Mile 18. Jen even made a sign for me. Again, the thought hit me: “There are good people in this world.”
5) The Bronx: As I entered the Bronx, the wheels were sharply coming off the wagon. Not only
were the stomach cramps an issue, but I was starting to lose my legs now. There is nothing worse than the brain wanting to go while the body will not allow it to go. It is a disheartening feeling. So, my goal of 2:52 slowly became my goal of a Sub 3 hour marathon, and eventually became a goal of survival. The miles in the Bronx were desolate and not so pretty.
6)Mile 24 – After gutting my way down from Harlem into Central Park, I saw my wife for the
2nd time. This time, I stopped to give her a hug and kiss since the PR was no longer in play. Also, I wanted to let her know I was fine. I didn’t want her worrying. She is a worrier.
Once I got further into Central Park, my pace picked up again. I felt like I was on my home turf. Plus, I knew the end was near. I knew that Sub 3:04 was still a possibility so I used that as my final motivation. Somehow, I picked up the pace enough to barely make it: 3:03:59.
Normally, a “Positive Split” of +11(1:26 / 1:37) would have been very upsetting to me, but I left nothing out on that course. I truly went for it, and fell short. I’m thankful for the miles and the finish. I’m thankful for the fellow runners and race volunteers. The volunteers for this race are second to none…they are the best. They are out there for hours, and are so upbeat and supportive. I do love New York and New Yorkers.
“There are good people in this world.”
The rush of coming off the 59th Street Bridge
My cheering section (with the sign from the 2006 NYC Marathon!)
This race was the perfect storm for danger. Beat the Blerch attracted a more casual runner, which is great. The more people running and being active, the better. That’s a good thing. I am a proponent of this. However, when you have more laid back runners attracted to a race, race organizers better be clear about what runners are getting themselves into.
This was a technically challenging trail race. If it is a difficult trail race, you very well better label it as such. The following is the course description on the website:
All participants will run on stunning trails that meander through the 1,000 acre park and along Whippany River. The half and full marathoners will continue on country roads and loop back through Lewis Morris Park.
When I registered for the Half, I knew there would be some trail (as there is in other races I’ve done…St. Luke’s Half, Steamtown Marathon, etc). Yes, some trails, but clearly road races. Beat the Blerch was a trail race, which is fine, but again, please label it as such, especially when it is a challenging course that is rocky, full of tree roots, ruts, constant elevation changes and switchbacks. The safety of those registering for such a race depends on accurate information.
In an email a few days prior to the race, we were told the following:
There are “some sections” that are legit trail running, some roads, some packed gravel and some couches. Hey, it’s an adventure!
Oh, and for the love of all runners, please put a course map with elevation chart on the website so the mystery can be digested ahead of time. A map of the state park was on the website, but not an actual course map. We email requested a course map, and finally got one the day before the race.
I truly felt bad for the runners who clearly did not expect the level of difficulty of the terrain. My wife witnessed at least one broken wrist.
Fellow runner and friend, Jen Miller, offered to help a woman who cut open her finger.
When somebody falls during a trail race, there is a distinctive and disturbing “thud” that makes one shudder, but yes, that is part of trail racing. I understand.
The danger was magnified when the half marathon merged with the 10K on the most difficult part of the terrain. Some runners were not aware of trail rules and got annoyed at people trying to pass.
As far as the logistics, parking was easy, and there were plenty of buses which took runners to the start. Our bus driver got lost, so we arrived to the start area around 8am. Fortunately, the Half Marathon started at 9am, but I felt bad for any runners on the bus that had the 8am Marathon start time (maybe that’s why the marathon started at 8:10 instead).
Second, bag check took longer for 1,000 runners than it did for 40,000 runners for the NYC Marathon. The volunteers were great, but clearly the system was slow. Since this was the first time the race was put on in New Jersey, I can forgive this.
What is less forgivable is a poorly marked course. Just after Mile 10, I came to a T in the trail. No volunteer there, no arrows, no ribbons or spray paint on any trees. I had a 50/50 chance of guessing correctly. Up until this race, I’d done one trail race: The Half Wit Half which was more challenging, and had more varied terrain and direction changes, yet was better marked. I decided to wait for a runner that was behind me. I asked him “Which way do you think, left or right?”
“Hmmm, let’s go left” he replied. We ran a good half mile before we realized we went the wrong way. Fortunately, the volunteers at a water stop for the 10K corrected our direction. Ok, fine, we did some bonus distance (I think the race was shorter than advertised anyway); however, at this point, I was ready to be out of the woods: “Get me the f**k out of here” I said to myself out loud hoping nobody heard me.
Also, what I didn’t know at the time was that I was in the beginning stages of the stomach flu. Maybe this is why my belly was bothering me pre-race and why I was so cranky. Initially, I chalked it up to nerves, but it wasn’t the case. Let’s just say the last couple of days haven’t been fun. I was supposed see the Pope yesterday, but had to stay home to recover.
Anyway, on the bright side, I managed a 12th place finish (1st in Age Group), but I was upset with myself for not having fun during the race. Despite my competitive nature, I still manage to have fun in just about every race; however, in this race, I had trouble adjusting to the thought of doing a fairly technical trail race vs. other races I typically run.
I do love to run on trails, but I don’t like to “race” on trails. When I race, my body and mind want to go fast. Trails slow me down, which I do like to do on many training days. Yes, I do like to take in the beauty that is around me on runs, but during a race, it’s harder to appreciate nature when my main concern is not falling on my ass. The level of concentration required is mentally exhausting. Yes, I probably need to lighten up more during some races. I could learn a thing or two from the more laid back runners.
The post-race amenities and food were what you’d expect if you know anything about The Oatmeal’s comic about running. There was cake and several couches upon which to sit. You could pose with the Blerch or have a marshmallow bacon chocolate snack. It was a festive and pretty setting for a race.
I was thankful everyone I knew at the race finished safely. If this race is held again next year, I’d rename it to Beat the Blerch Trail Marathon/Half Marathon/10k. The pre-race email included a clever and hysterical comic on the Do’s and Don’t of Running Your First Marathon. Here is the link:
We waited at a restaurant in Sandy, Oregon for Enterprise to deliver the correct-sized Van 2 because the initial van had a broken mirror, and the replacement was not ready. When it did arrive, it was not big enough, so we waited for another as we waited for our food. We waited,
Service was slow at the Trattoria Sapori. Tony, our charming waiter, was proving that charm and humor can only take you so far when you’re serving a pre-race dinner to twelve runners and two van drivers the night before a 198 mile relay.
In the grand scheme of things, these were two minor bumps in the road on the way to Seaside from Mount Hood. The good news was that Jackie from Enterprise showed up donning sunglasses in the dark, and delivered a sweet van. Plus, the food finally made its way to our tables, albeit served in a manner described by Tony as a “Staggeration”method. This meant two dishes at a time over a twenty minute period. Not ideal, but we were still fresh with enthusiasm ahead of our upcoming adventure. We adjusted. Isn’t this what runners do? We adjust and move forward.
Our Team consisted of runners from Colorado and Pennsylvania, so we became the CoPa
Bananas, mostly because we are “crazy runners,” but also a tip of the cap to the Philadelphia restaurant(s).
Race Morning involved a 40 minute drive to the base of Mount Hood where it was a cloudy, breezy 54 degrees. Mount Hood is a majestic peak, but because of an unusually warm summer, had no snow covering it at all.
We had time to decorate our vans, take team photos and buy race souvenirs before Runner 1 (Walter) lined up for our start time of 9:15am. Before Hood to Coast, I had never met Walter. I only knew he was the oldest runner on our team.
By the time we would made it to Seaside 28 hours later, I knew Walter was a retired professor, a wine expert, a strong coffee fiend, and a closet potato chips lover. His ancestors were almond farmers. When he was 22, Walter had half of a lung removed because of an illness caused by the Donora Smog in the Pittsburgh-area back in 1948. So, he is a survivor, and a tough, compact runner, no more than 5′4″. Walter insisted on being Runner 1. He brought quiet civility to our van.
After the start, our team separated into two worlds: Van 1 and Van 2. Van 1 would soon learn the logistics of Exchange Zones and changing weather conditions. Van 2 was still four to five hours from sending a runner onto the course. I was in Van 1, but Runner 5, so I had time before getting my “Hood to Coast legs.” However, as Walter passed the bracelet to Greg (Runner 2) at 10:02am, the remaining runners in the van started to get into race mode. It was on.
Greg had a super-fast leg, partially from adrenaline, and partially from some serious downhill. He, like myself, is a fan of pop culture, 80s music, and movie quotes. In such situations of finishing strong or if our van was driving and had to abruptly stop, Greg would quote “I”m coming in hot!” His humor and movie-quoting ability came in handy during down time and
Runner 3 was Jeff aka Jefe. Jeff, besides my wife, was the only teammate I really knew well heading into the race. I have known him for fifteen years, and paced him to his first marathon finish back in 2008. He and I share a similar balance of quiet seriousness and silliness. Jeff is a true gentleman. He had been recovering from a calf injury, but his legs held up nicely as he handed off to his significant other, Katy (Runner 4).
Katy is relatively new to road running. However, soccer was always her sport, so she knows all about competition, running and endurance. She doesn’t love running, but she’s learning to like it.
She would hand off the HTC bracelet to me. When you’re in a relay, you develop a bond with your teammates, but you particularly develop a bond with your exchange partner. The moment
your teammate passes off to you is so brief, but it is a lasting bond. In the past, I have written about this kind of phenomenon that occurs in running: The temporary yet lasting bonds it creates.
The Exchange is that brief moment you’re able to cheer on your teammate coming in, say something quick like “Great job!” and they, in turn, send you on your way with encouragement of their own. “Go get it!” or as one super-competitive team kept saying along the way: “FUCKING CRUSH IT!!!!” We found this entertaining.
I was Runner 5. When runners from other teams would find out I was Runner 5, the response was usually “You got the shaft” or “Oh no, you have the toughest parts of the race.” To make things more fun, the sun finally came out just before my leg was about to start, so the temperature was now just under 80 degrees.
Adrenaline carried me through my first three miles pretty fast (this leg was 6.05 miles and labelled “Very Hard”). I started to labor during miles 4 and 5, and the last mile was completely uphill, so my pace suffered here a bit. However, I managed 18 Kills, which is what it is called when you pass a runner at Hood to Coast: A Kill. You either Kill or become Roadkill.
At the top of the hill, Runner 6 was waiting for me. Runner 6 was my wife, Jill. Seeing her was a sight for sore eyes and tired legs. What I didn’t realize was that parking at this exchange area was a challenge, and Jill had to walk/run nearly a half mile to make it to meet me in time.
Jill would take us back into Sandy, Oregon again, where we would meet up with Van 2 for the
first Van 1 to Van 2 exchange. This occurred just before 2pm when Jill handed off to Tim (Runner 7). Seeing members of Van 2 was a morale boost. We were reminded that we were a team of twelve runners, not just six. Van 2 was having its own experiences and stories to tell, and we
wouldn’t really be able to fully hear or share these stories for another 24 hours.
Total mileage for Van 1 through the 1st Leg: 35.34 Miles – We were back in Sandy, Oregon, and we had about 4.5 hours of downtime before meeting up with Van 2 again in Portland.
We were hungry and sweaty, so we stopped at a Subway in Gresham where we ate in a church parking lot. Fortunately, our driver and wife of Runner 2, Sarah, had a friend in Portland that offered up her place for us to shower and recover before gearing up again.
Speaking of Our Driver…
The unsung hero / MVP of our van was Sarah. She did ALL the driving along the 198 mile course. She had to deal with six personalities and parking challenges at just about every exchange zone, not to mention her own fatigue. Sarah was able to remain even-keeled throughout the race. This kept the rest of us calm and focused.
At 6:37pm, Paul (Runner 12) handed off to Walter, and our van resumed running in Portland. This is when we transitioned from daytime to night time running. We each wore reflective vests, headlamps and two additional lights to see and be seen.
When it got dark, the weather began to change. It rained on and off, but all in all, our van was spared the truly awful downpours yet to be experienced by Van 2. Actually, just before Jill handed off to Tim for the second time, it started to lightning and thunder, and at roughly 11:29pm, our van was finished with the 2nd Leg.
The rain became more steady as we drove an incredibly dark road with constant curves to Exchange 24 in Mist, Oregon. We decided this would be a good place to attempt to sleep before our 3rd Leg was estimated to begin at 4:07am. We arrived in Mist just before 1am.
Sleeping was difficult. It was stuffy in the van, so we opened the doors; however, it was noisy outside with runners talking and walking past on a regular basis. Also, the exhaust smell from the other vans was not the ideal air quality for sleeping. Furthermore, we were all slightly haunted by the fact that it started pouring overnight. Rain pounded the roof of the van. We worried about our runners in Van 2 and how awful it must have been to be running under such conditions in the dark.
Somehow, we managed anywhere from 40 minutes to two hours of sleep, and before we knew it, Walter was dressed and ready to run. He had some uncertainty about when Paul would be arriving since we hadn’t heard from Van 2 yet. We had limited to no cell service, and the two-way radios didn’t appear to be working. Walter didn’t want to spend more time outside waiting in the rain than was necessary, but at 4am, our van collectively (and coldly) sent him on his way.
We all felt guilty about this, so Greg decided to go wait with Walter at the exchange, and somehow my phone call to Van 2 went through…”Paul should be arriving between 4:20-4:30″ is what Shannon, our team captain told me. So, I went to meet up with Walter and Greg to let them know. Since Greg was next to run after Walter, he went back to the van to get ready and I waited with Walter. This is when Walter said “Is that Paul?” and sure enough, Paul was there…panicked because he initially didn’t see Walter, but the exchange was made at 4:14am.
3rd Leg / Finish
At daybreak, the rain began to ease as our team started progressing through our final legs; however, just before Katy handed off the bracelet to me, the winds kicked up. Fortunately, the rain wasn’t too bad, but the winds began gusting at an alarming strength. As I made my way up a 3.5 mile ascent, tree limbs started falling, and runners had to be vigilant about debris on the road and above the road. My final two miles were downhill, and I knew these would be my final miles of Hood to Coast, so I tried to savor them. I took in the beauty of this wooded country road despite the weather. “I’m running in Oregon!” I thought to myself.
I barreled down the hill and saw Jill waiting for me again. I attempted humor by mocking the “FUCKING CRUSH IT” team by saying something in a similar tone, but more CoPA Banana-centric. So, I went with “PEEL OUT!!” and I proceeded to miss her wrist with the bracelet. I sheepishly tried again, and off she went.
After we parked the van at Exchange 30 to meet Jill for the final time, the winds were even
stronger. A large tree fell near the parking lot. Fortunately, it fell away from the vans, but it made an eerie crackling sound and caused the earth to shake. Those of us who witnessed it fall gave a collective pause but we all moved on from there.
As Jill became visible, so was her enthusiasm. Wet leaves were blowing all around, but she was smiling from ear to ear and her arms were up in a celebratory motion. It was as if she had no idea what kind of weather she was running through. As soon as she handed off to Tim for the final time at 8:45am, it began to pour, and the wind somehow got worse. We started to wonder if Van 2 was cursed.
Now that we were “finished” until we needed to meet up with Van 2 to finish as a team in Seaside, we had one goal: Coffee. So, we set off for Astoria to Three Cups Coffee House. When we arrived, we were all in a happy, exhausted fog, so the coffee and food was such a boost. Our van thought of Van 2 and we hoped everything was safe for them and that they were somehow able to have a positive experience despite the weather. After coffee, we drove to Seaside to await their arrival.
In Seaside, it was clear that the race would not be finishing on the beach because of the weather. The wind and rain were just too much for such a location. The tents were abandoned / coming apart and some of the Porto Johns on the beach had been knocked over by the wind. The finish line had been changed a couple of times while we waited. It was a bit deflating, but we all understood that runner safety came first. There was still a palpable enthusiasm on the Promenade as teams finished. Fortunately, the rain let up, but the winds only became more angry.
Sometime around 1:30pm, Paul ran down the Promenade, and we joined him to all finish together. The moment was surreal. We were all awake for over 30 hours, yet we were all smiling, relieved, weary. We had made it:198 miles, 36 legs, and we were all safe.
After we finished, we got our team medals and took more photos before checking in to our rooms.
Something strangely amazing occurs when you’re doing a relay and your home for 28 hours is a van: You become insulated from the outside world: No television, and very limited cell service. You become protected by the Hood to Coast Bubble. You’re unknowingly “in the moment” with your van-mates and running mates, and we all know how difficult it is to “be in the moment.” To
me, being able to be in the moment is a rare and beautiful thing. It helps us feel alive vs. simply being alive.
When you’re in the bubble, you have no idea what is going on with current events or what day of the week it is, and it feels good. You’re in the Hood to Coast world, and more specific: You’re in the Van 1 or Van 2 bubble. You eat, travel, run, plan, laugh, joke, sleep, bond, bicker and take care of the less glamorous things in a tight space over a long time-period. The bubble is intense yet safe. It is freeing.
Somehow, in this bubble, we managed to gel. A collective “I don’t want to let the team down” way of thinking evolved. I hadn’t felt this way since my track and cross country days. Now that
the van has long been returned to Enterprise, and most of us are back at work, we collectively miss being inside the “Bubble.”
Random Memorable Moments:
-The mountain coffee shop at Exchange 4
Leg 2 in the dark…quiet, peaceful yet an amazing experience to run from Scappoose High School to St. Helens High School
-Learning about Hawaiian onion chips and church coffee
-The vinyl record collection at Trattoria Sapori, and Tony, our waiter, referring to every customer as “Tony”
-The woman with the green hair at Plaid Pantry who made us our Subway sandwiches
-Passing our teammates on the road with the van and honking the horn / shaking the cowbell each time they ran
-Being stuck behind the team with the horse’s behind on it as we waited at a train crossing
-The great music pumped out of a speaker on the roof of Team Hoodzillas’s van
-The parade of blinking LED lights of the other runners moving in the dark
-Soup at the Columbia County Fairgrounds just before midnight
-A chocolate chip cookie at 5am
-“I have a hard boiled egg in my purse.”
-The music…a 6hr11min playlist, which of course included Copacabana by Barry Manilow. Some members of Van 2 did not like this song.
-Shopping for food supplies at Safeway in Sandy, OR
-”I like chips.”
-The amazing volunteers: 3,600 of them enduring the same weather as the runners
-The natural beauty of Oregon
Team pace: 8:32/mile over 198 miles
Start Time: 9:15 am on 8/28
Finish Time: 1:32pm on 8/29
Van 1 Kills: 198
Team CoPa Bananas: 258th out of 1,050 teams (Top 25%).