Running

Getting running in Seattle

Welcome to Seattle, land of more trails, and rain, than you can imagine! As you look out over the landscape, you might be wondering where to get started, where to run, and where all of the other runners are. Hopefully, this little post will help you out.

One caveat before we get going here - I am a road running marathoner. As a result, I don’t have any great insights on trail running in the area. I know it’s plentiful, and there are plenty of trail runners around. I’m just not one of them.

General Seattle notes

First and foremost, let’s talk about the wet elephant in the room - the rain. Seattle has a mostly deserved reputation for having a lot of rain. As a result, you will need to run in the rain. When I moved here from San Diego, this took a little adjusting for me.

That said, it does not rain nearly as often as the media implies. In addition, it’s rarely real rain; it’s mostly a hard drizzle. It’s pretty easy to just deal with. You will notice most Seattle runners eschew a rain jacket, as all they generally do is lock in body heat and sweat. Plus, you can only get so wet.

The one thing you might not realize if you’re new to Seattle is the hills. There are hills basically everywhere, and the majority of races in town will have some good climbs. There’s no avoiding it, and really - you don’t want to avoid it. Hills make you stronger. If you plan on doing any of the races here you’ll need to train hills.

Big races

The surrounding region features races nearly every weekend, or at least it seems that way. If you decide on a random Sunday morning you want to add a new medal to your collection, chances are you’ll be able to do it.

The two big races are the Rock ‘n’ Roll Seattle Marathon in June, and the Seattle Marathon in November. The former is a bigger race, with June being a more desirable month to run, and of course the marketing power of Rock n Roll. Both courses are similar, and have been recently redrawn due to construction on I-90, and are hilly. You will certainly be tested in those races.

Rail Trails - Burke Gilman (The Burke) and Sammamish River Trails

Totalling over 30 miles of (mostly) uninterrupted paved rail trail, the Burke Gilman and Sammamish River trails make up some of my favorite areas to run in King County. They offer miles upon miles of wonderful views, nature and tree-lined goodness. Because they’re rail trails, they are bone flat, so you certainly don’t want to make it your regular route as it won’t serve you well come race day. But they’re a wonderful treat, and extremely popular with the locals.

One thing to note about The Burke is there is one section where the trail is broken by an industrial neighborhood in Ballard. It looks like they’ll finally be completing it, but until then you will have a little bit of neighborhood running to deal with depending on where you are.

Alki Trail

As a West Seattleite, Alki Trail is my backyard, and one of my favorite spots. You can run from the southern tip of Lincoln Park, through a couple of cute neighborhoods, along the beach area, and all the way to downtown Seattle if you feel like crossing the bridge. The run will treat you to wonderful views of Seattle and the sound, fantastic people watching on summer weekends, and the occasional view of Mount Rainier.

Green Lake

Easily the most popular route in Seattle, Green Lake boasts a 2.8mi inner trail (and just over 3mi on the outer trail), which is perfect for a quick jog. Green Lake has a similar vibe to a much smaller Central Park, and the same walker congestion to match - you will be weaving on busy days. That said, the people watching and the feel draws me out there on a regular basis.

Lake Union

The second most popular route according to Strava, the lap around Lake Union is just over 6 miles. The route will treat you to views of the lake, and a few charming neighborhoods. There are a couple of hills on the path, but it’s still pretty flat by Seattle standards.

Seattle Green Lake Running Group

There are a few different running groups in Seattle, but the only one I have any experience with, and easily the most vibrant, is Seattle Green Lake Running Group. Offering runs every day of the week (sometimes twice), SGLRG is a community driven group which fits almost any runner’s needs and schedule. You can find tempo runs on Wednesday mornings, speed work or hill repeats on Mondays, and long runs on Saturdays, which is by far the most popular run for the group. The Saturday run starts at Green Lake, and ventures out into the neighborhoods from there; I’ve been able to get a wonderful tour of Seattle during my time with SGLRG. If you’re looking to join, the best thing to do is to post a distance and your pace on the Meetup page for the Saturday morning run, and jump right in.

Got any other tips? Feel free to comment below! I’d love to hear them.


New York Marathon - 2016

The New York Marathon. There’s really nothing else you need to say to runners and non-runners alike. It’s the largest marathon in the world, and arguably the most prestigious. While it doesn’t have the qualifying cache that Boston does, it’s a marathon everyone knows, and is on the bucket list of every runner, or at least all the ones I know.

As a Jersey Boy, it’s a race I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember, long before I laced up a pair of running shoes and heaved my way around Fiesta Island with a friend for my first “run”. I’d entered the lottery 3 times prior with no luck. So my joy upon seeing that email that contained the word “Congratulations” cannot even begin to be described. I’m honestly getting chills just sitting here thinking back to that day.

The Training

Anyone who knows me knows my snake-bitten history with marathon training. This cycle was no exception in that aspect, but there were a few other factors that contributed to a less-than-optimal summer.

For starters, and I’m just going to point the biggest finger at myself, I was frankly just tired. I’d done Grandma’s Marathon at the end of June. For those of you scoring at home (or even if you’re alone), that’s just 4 months before the New York Marathon, or about 20 weeks. That doesn’t give you much “I’m just going to sit on my keester and do nothing” time. The moment I finished my last marathon I was already back in training mode. That was a bit much for me, and I was burned out going into the next round. As such, I wasn’t as committed as I should have been, and it certainly showed.

In addition, my travel schedule was a struggle. While I used to travel full time, my schedule and destinations were relatively predictable, so it was easy to work my training into the week. During the training period I had a handful of oddball trips that threw off everything, including a trip to Japan. As a perfect example, I’d hoped to knock out an 18 miler in Japan - the weather conspired against me, and my body quit after 14. (Actually, it quit after 8, but I pushed through the rest.) While it did give me an opportunity to do 18 with a great friend the next week, it wasn’t where I needed to be.

The week after said 18 I’d intended to do “the 20 miler”. After about 3 miles I had a tendon behind my knee start to complain. I kept thinking it just needed to loosen up, but after I finished 6, and the group I was with got back to the parking lot where we were going to meet more people for the rest of the run, I knew I was done for the day. I tried to stretch, which elicited a stream of curse words that would make a sailor blush. I hopped in the car, had a good cry thinking I wouldn’t be able to run after all. I went to my PT, who threw everything he had at it, rested, compressed, and everything else, in hopes I was able to run.

Amazingly, I was able to meet the one true goal every marathoner has: toeing the starting line. And this time it was at the foot of the Verrazano.

New York City Logistics

I knew I wanted to stay in the Financial District (FiDi), because it’s both quiet at night, and walking distance to the Staten Island Ferry. I found a nice little Airbnb that was just a few blocks away from the terminal, and thought all was good. Until about 6 weeks before the race when I received an email from the host saying his building’s management wouldn’t let him rent the place out any longer. Anyone who knows Airbnb in New York knows how little the government cares for Airbnb, and how little Airbnb cares for government regulations. So despite Airbnb being one of the sponsors of the event, it was pretty clear to me this wasn’t going to be an option, or at least not a reliable one. (FWIW, I’d suggest avoiding Airbnb in New York for this exact reason.)

Fortunately I managed to get a great rate on the DoubleTree, which is about 3 blocks from the terminal. It’s also a hotel I’d stayed at many times, so I was familiar with both the hotel and the area around it. I’m all about the comfort provided by routine, and this was going to give me exactly that.

I arrived on the Thursday before the race, so I could see Tim Minchin perform, and to get adjusted to the time zone. Landed in Newark, Lyft (speaking of companies with contentious relationships with the government) up to FiDi, and focused on relaxing as much as possible.

The Expo

Obligatory Expo Photo

I’d been told many times to get to the expo as early in the day, and the week, as possible. Heed this advice! While they take over a convention center floor, and have an amazing amount of real estate, there’s still 50,000 runners that need to make their way through the area, not to mention family and friends they bring along for support.

I got there at about 10:45, 45 minutes after opening, and it was already very busy.

That said, it’s as well organized as an event of this size can be. If you were smart enough to print out your check-in sheet at home you could head straight over to pickup. Or, if you were like me, you head over to a little kiosk, and get a little receipt printout, and then go get your packet. From there it’s over to grab your shirt, where there was a huge line for Men’s Medium. Fortunately I still have a few extra pounds on my frame, so I was grabbing a Large, and was through that pretty quickly.

Next up - swag. Yeah, we’re going to ignore the race fee, and the free shirt they just gave me. I needed more swag. So through the swag store I went, picking up a jacket. And another shirt. And a pint glass. And a hat. (I’m honestly I was that restrained.)

From there it’s on to the main expo floor, where you’ll find vendors selling all manner of snake oil, running gear, and last minute supplies such as gels. I made a bee-line for the CEP section to find a quad sleeve to help my ailing hamstring tendon. Upon acquiring that, I checked out a great little seminar put on by the Whippets running group, who walked everyone through the course. If it’s your first New York Marathon, I can’t recommend attending this enough. As an added bonus, I happened to see someone with a custom bib with his name on it; he pointed me at the station that was doing that, and grabbed ones that said “Chris” and “Jersey”, unsure of which one I was going to wear on race day.

Finally I realized I was tired, and hungry, and needed to get out of there. I spent about 3 hours there, and I’d say that’s probably about average for most people.

The Day Before

My wife took the red-eye on Friday into New York, and my brother caught an early flight from Burlington down. My support crew had arrived. Just having them there gave me great comfort.

I truly wouldn't be able to do this without amazing support

We spent Saturday doing a dry run of the three different viewing spots they were going to cheer me on at. It worked well for them, as they got to see the locations, and which trains they needed. It worked well for me, as it gave me great visuals of where I was going to be on the course, and where to look for them.

We also walked about the last 2 miles of the race. While it was much longer than I really wanted to walk, I wanted to see the last mile. In the end, I’m glad that I walked the distance. It allowed me to make a few mental notes in regards to landmarks, and to see the exit and re-entry into Central Park.

It also allowed me to see the hill that is the .2 of the 26.2. Make sure you’re ready for that! They make you work for that medal.

BTW, if you’re looking for a good cheer strategy, take a train out to somewhere close to Barclay’s Center (it was the R train for us). You can see people at the 8 mile mark, just after where all the runners come together (more on that later). From there, hop the 4 train to somewhere along 1st. The crowds start to think towards the 100 blocks; my cheer crew waited for me on 86th. From there they can walk over to 5th for one last cheer. From 5th, you can catch one of the paths across the park around 86th and 5th. I was able to meet up with them on Columbus and 74th. It all worked out perfectly. Granted, you can’t be much faster than about a 4 hour time for the 3x strategy to work, so YMMV.

We bid my brother farewell for the night as he had family obligations (which I managed to dodge.) My wife and I went off to find Japanese food (rice is my pre-race carb of choice), and then off to sleep with visions of PRs dancing in my head.

The Morning

Now I should mention at this point that I, like many a runner, have a delicate stomach. Part of my plan behind paying the money for the DoubleTree in FiDi was to be in a familiar neighborhood, with familiar shops. During the short period of time we were there I’d asked the Essen deli/bagel shop about their hours. They assured me they were 24/7. Perfect!

I woke up after a pretty good night’s sleep, and began my preparations. I’d already laid out my deflated runner, so I knew what I was wearing, and that I had everything in regards to that. I put everything together, donning my running outfit, filling my water bottles, and tossing on my donation outfit of a sweatshirt, sweatpants and a robe.

That's a comfortable looking robe

Yes, a robe. I mean, if you’re going to be up that early, you may as well have a robe.

After kissing my wife goodbye, and getting the good luck wishes I certainly needed, I roamed over to Essen for my english muffin and peanut butter. Only, the “grill”, so to speak, wasn’t open. OK, deep breath. I’m not going to let this get into my head. So I bought two raw english muffins from the guy behind the counter, and a Kind Bar, which I hoped would be OK with my stomach.

I walked over to the ferry, with hundreds of other runners. If it didn’t already start to hit me that I was about to run the New York Marathon, it became a reality at that point. I chatted with a couple of other runners on the way over. Seeing the Staten Island Ferry sign elicited a couple of tears.

The security presence was obvious, but not overwhelming. My bags were sniffed by a couple of rather cute dogs, and away I went onto the 6:30 ferry. I was originally set for the 6:45 ferry, and I was hoping to see a couple of Seattle Green Lake Running Group (SGLRG) runners, but the draw of just getting to Staten Island was too much. (As it turned out, the ferries after 7:30 started having issues from what I’ve heard, so maybe it’s just as well.)

The ferry was full of runners, save for a few people that were riding it because it’s, well, the Staten Island Ferry, who weren’t necessarily thrilled we were there. I <3 NY. The ride is relatively quick, and gives you an amazing view of Lady Liberty, which is a wonderful way to start any morning.

Good morning Lady Liberty

Upon arriving on Staten Island it was a bus ride over to the start. Relax. That’s where the line really starts, as well as the waiting. Bring a paper, a copy of Runner’s World, or something to pass the time. Or, just people watch. Between the people who’ve done numerous marathons, to the first timers, to everyone else, there’s plenty of sights to see. Take it all in. You’re about to run the greatest marathon on the planet (again - sorry, Boston).

We unloaded at Fort Wadsworth, where we were greeted by more security, and more dogs. And then it was time to get prepped for the race.

The Waiting

Follow the signs

I’d read a few things in the past that said to get to Fort Wadsworth as late as possible. I landed a good 2 hours before the start, and I felt like that was perfect. Next time I run the race I fully intend on getting over to Staten Island relatively early.

The organizers have this down to a science. They know exactly what they’re doing. The race is broken down into 4 separate start times, and then 3 different colors, and then corrals from there. On top of that, the start area has a ton of real estate on which to spread out. As a result, it oddly feels like a much smaller race than it actually is. There was plenty of space to spread out, to take care of last minute preparations, or to just close your eyes and relax on the grass.

That said, the porta-potty lines are ridiculous. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to answer nature’s call. In fact, it’s not a terrible idea to take care of things an hop back in line, just in case.

As for me, I worked on my last bits of prep. I assembled the rest of my outfit, attaching my bib and my name bib to my shirt. I drank more and more water. I worked on not letting the fact I was about to run the New York Marathon hit me, with mixed results. Seeing the Verazano Narrows Bridge in the distance is hard to ignore.

The Verazzano

The Time Goal

At some point I should probably talk about my time goal. Every runner has one, despite how much they might deny it. If they are admitting to a time goal, they probably have a faster one they’re not really not wanting to make public.

I’m not that runner. I have one simple marathon goal: I want the first number to be a 3. I don’t care if it’s followed by 59:59, my white unicorn starts with the number 3. Just once I want to finish under four hours.

Considering the disjointed training plan I had I wasn’t sure what my body might offer. But during that “taper” period, where I was mostly just trying to not upset that tendon, I was running a comfortable 8:40 pace, or about 30 seconds faster than what I’d need on race day. In fact, the last run I had with my Canadian Running Wife (CRW) featured a push up a hill which made her work, and she’s much faster than I am.

After all of that, I thought I’d be able to finally find that white unicorn.

The Corrals and Colors

The race of course starts on the Verazano Narrows Bridge. There’s two stories on this bridge. And a couple of entrance/exit ramps on the other side in Brooklyn. And, of course, 50,000 humans to try and work with.

As a result, they break things down into waves, colors, and corrals. The corrals are mostly what you’d expect - packs of runners. And the waves are the various start times. Where things are truly different than most races are the colors. There are actually three paths for the first few miles of the race. Two colors, blue and green, take the top deck of the bridge, while orange takes the lower deck. Each of the three colors exits on a different ramp in Brooklyn. Because they’re all at different paces, there’s enough time, and distance, for everyone to naturally spread out before hitting the point in Brooklyn where everyone is brought together. Don’t get me wrong, there will always be people around you, but you’ll never feel like you’re fighting for elbow room.

Corral A

My Start

They called my (now updated) corral of Wave 3, Blue, Corral A. I roamed over and waited. And waited. And waited. They were still unloading wave 2, which took quite a while. I used the time for last minute prep, ditching my robe (sadly). I dropped a Nuun into my water belt bottles, and filled them with water. And I started to get a feel for the weather.

There are few things runners obsess over more than the weather, save for maybe pre-race-porta-potties. You could not have asked for a better day for a marathon. It was in the 50s to start, and sunny. No threat of rain, but there was talk of a little bit of wind, which did hit at times. But really, gorgeous running weather.

They opened the corral, which is really just another brief waiting area before you walk to the start. I saw a glimpse of the 4:00 pacer, who was towards the front of the corral, as I waited in line to, well, take care of business. By the time I got out they were long since gone.

I walked towards the start line with everyone as they released us, working on breathing exercises. Someone sang God Bless America, rather than the anthem, which got my blood going. I kept trying to find that 4:00 sign, wanting a pack to run with. Alas, I wasn’t able to find them. I ditched the sweatsuit and focused on the goal.

Then the cannon went off.

The Verazano Narrows Bridge

Marathon rules:

  1. Don’t go out too fast
  2. See Rule 1

It seems so simple. Especially in New York where the first mile is straight uphill. I mean, really, go slow. In theory, that first mile for someone trying to break 4:00 should still be around 10:00, if not even slower.

But, there’s a cannon. And cameras. And the fact that it’s the New York Marathon.

The adrenaline carried me up the hill in 9:40. I didn’t mean to run that fast, but there I was at the top of the bridge. Amazingly I still couldn’t find that 4:00 pacer, but at that point my concerns were focused around that lovely quad compression sleeve I’d purchased which was now around my knee.

Compression had been helping my tendon leading up to the race, so I was really hoping to have the sleeve for the race. The sleeve, however, had other plans. I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure having all of that around one’s knee is not a good thing. Once we hit the top of the bridge I stopped for a few seconds to pull the sleeve off and ditch it.

Then I focused my attention on relaxing. It’s just mile 2. I need to slow down. 9:40 was not where I wanted to be that first mile, so let me settle in and just enjoy the downhill.

The watch beeped at mile 2 at 8:20. So much for relaxing.

That's me on the lower right in green!!

Welcome to Brooklyn

I’d always been told that the New York Marathon was like no other marathon in regards to fans, that there would be fans the entire race. Obviously there are no fans on the Verazano, but landing in Brooklyn brought the first pack of fans.

It oddly felt at that point like a lot of other early marathon stages. Having run the San Diego Rock-n-Roll, it felt like I’d turned onto Washington St. There were people lining the streets, but only about one deep. And there were bands.

But there was still a different energy. There was a crescendo building.

I tried to settle in. Tried. I wanted nothing more than to just settle into a 9:09 pace (4:00 hours). But my legs just refused to go that slow. I was caught up in the energy. The fans and other runners carried me.

The crowds continued to build. Even though I was running in the middle of the street to try to just get into my own head and find my pace, I could still feel the energy they were giving me.

I crossed the 10K mark a full minute ahead of schedule. This was not good. And I knew it wasn’t good. My body started to feel it. The four to six mile section of the course features a steady downhill, which beat up my quads. But I kept hoping my legs would come back to me, and I knew that I had my cheering squad at mile 8.

I focused on the couple of turns that took us through the heart of Brooklyn and towards Abram and Karin. I took the right, drifted towards the left, and saw the green and pink poster boards they had. Giving them both high fives filled me with more energy than I can explain.

The crowds through that area are amazing. They’re 4 to 5 deep. And screaming at the top of their lungs. You feel like an absolute rock star. You’re on top of the world.

Around mile 10 you hit the traditional Jewish part of town. There are still fans there, but it’s more quiet. People are just going on about their day, mostly just ambivalent or annoyed at your presence. It was surreal coming out of such an energy filled section of the course to the exact opposite, and get a glimpse of the town going on about its day.

As for me, well, that was when I started spewing axle grease all over the course. My quads started to give way. As did almost every other subsystem in my body. I felt lightheaded. And nauseated. And miserable. I started walking, weaving a little side to side. While it’s certainly hard to self-diagnose, I’d be willing to bet I was over-hydrated. Whatever it was, I just refused to let it stop me. Slow me down, sure. But I wasn’t going to stop.

I focused, took a deep breath, found some form of a cadence, and kept moving.

Welcome to Queens

You don’t spend much time in Queens. From a marathoner’s perspective, about the only thing you do in Queens is get ready for the bridge. You do have to climb the Pulaski Bridge to get into Queens, but you’re only in the borough long enough to make a few turns.

I did have to walk a bit in Queens. My motivation was still high, and I still had a goal. At this point I knew my white unicorn was gone, but I was still hoping for about a 4:15.

Welcome to Manhattan

OK, maybe not yet.

Now, full disclaimer, I’m generally not one to swear. Because there’s only one way to tell this story, and that’s as follows.

We took the left from Queens onto the Queensboro Fucking Bridge. I’m convinced that’s its real name. The Queensboro Fucking Bridge (QFB).

At this point, my will to live was slowly sucked away.

The QFB has many terrible features.

For starters, there are no fans. There’s no way onto the QFB unless you’re a runner. It’s just you, and the sounds of everyone else around you.

In addition, you’re on the lower deck. That, for me, and many others I’ve talked to, creates this terrible illusion the crest of the hill is just ahead, but it’s not. It seems to just go on forever.

The views are certainly amazing.

But the rest of the experience is disheartening.

I finally got to the end of this interminable bridge, and my quads were truly gone. I had to stop as I got onto 59th to stretch, something I’d never had to do in any marathon prior to New York.

Welcome to Manhattan (for reals)

If you’ve read anything about the New York Marathon, you’ve certainly heard about the crowds that await you at the end of the QFB. All of that is real, and it continues for a good couple of miles. Fans will be there 4 to 5 deep. There are truly no words in my vernacular to describe how amazing the atmosphere is through this section of the course.

When you finally take the left onto First you are greeted by unmatched energy, and a view of a sea of runners stretching out as far as one can see. It’s breathtaking. It truly feels at this point like you’re running the New York Marathon.

As for me, it’s now truly a struggle. My goal has been adjusted to just making the New York Times, who does a special section for the marathon listing off marathoners; I had heard the cutoff is 4:30.

Walk as needed, force myself to run as much as possible. But just keep moving.

I knew Karin and Abram were at 87th, and that was all I was focused on. I saw them, and gave them both a hug. Normally I wouldn’t have done that, but considering most of my time goals were shot, I wanted to take the time to thank them.

I shared my hatred for the QFB with them, and said I was happy I wasn’t the guy I passed a little earlier who’d pooped himself. It’s all about perspective.

From there I kept working my way on to the Bronx, with a single focus - seeing Karin and Abram one more time. I’m not going to say I would have dropped out of the race, but at this point I was rather miserable, and my main reason for staying on the course was to see them one last time on 5th.

Welcome to The Bronx

As much as I loathe the QFB, and I do, I have to say that the bridge leading into The Bronx has its own special kind of awful. It’s cambered, and while not long is just steep enough to truly frustrate you. Or, at least frustrate me.

That said, the fans in The Bronx, while certainly not as numerous as Manhattan, are feverish. They were truly proud of their neighborhood, and wanted you to know it. I appreciated that more than my face showed.

Although, my face only showed misery at that point.

Welcome Back to Manhattan

At this point my body is just shot. Mentally, I’m still in the game. After all, I’m running the New York Marathon. I mean, what could be better than that? But I couldn’t get much behind a 50/50 run/walk, and even a 50/50 ratio was a struggle at best. My goal had shifted to just finishing in under five hours.

After climbing the last bridge (finally!!) into Manhattan, I tried to just enjoy the atmosphere. The atmosphere through Harlem was all that I had hoped it would be. There was a church choir out singing, and, again, a prideful neighborhood.

It’s at this point I realize how well the course shows off the city and its neighborhoods. You get a great feel for what makes New York the greatest city on the planet.

It’s also when I realize the hill that is mile 23, and 5th Avenue.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the driving forces I had was to see Karin and Abram. We had made plans for them to be in the mid-to-upper 90s along 5th, on the left side. After taking the quick right, left, left, and right around the park, it was all I was focused on.

The hill was tougher than I expected. That said, the crowds were beyond comprehension.

Callback

At this point I’d like to double back to the name tag debate I had in my head before the race of Chris vs Jersey. While I truly hate being called Chris, I was worried that wearing “Jersey” in New York would bring me nothing but heckling. I asked a friend of mine who’d run the race a couple of years prior, Elaine, who told me there is no negativity on race day.

I can safely say she’s right. I heard nothing but either “Jersey Strong!!” or people chanting “Jersey”.

And down 5th, that energy kept me going.

Back to 5th

I hung to the left side where we’d agreed to meet, and didn’t see them. While I was disappointed, I kept to the left hoping they’d simply not ventured that far north, while accepting the fact I’d missed them.

And then there they were. I gave them both a hug.

Welcome to Central Park

Welcome to Central Park

Shortly after seeing Karin and Abram I turned right into Central Park. I’d seen the signs the day before, but seeing them on race day brought me to tears.

I love Central Park.

It is my favorite place on the planet to run, full stop.

Seeing that sign not only meant I had less than 3 miles to go, it also brought me into my “running mecca”.

It had been a while since I’ve run Central Park, so the walk the day before helped remind me that the path back towards Central Park South is longer than it seems. I focused on the sights, but also on hitting the 40K mark at 4:45. I knew, if nothing else, that I could force myself through 2K in under 15 minutes.

Coming down 5th, and then into Central Park, you’re just surrounded by runners and energy. It’s near deafening. It’s truly special.

The Last Point 2

Mile 26

Taking the right from Columbus Circle back into the park was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. I saw the 26 Mile sign and started bawling. After a few steps I realized it’s hard to breathe while crying and managed to contain myself.

Then you hit the uphill that makes up that last 385 yards. It’s tough.

And then the finish. No words can describe finishing a marathon, and nowhere is that more true than in New York.

More tears. More joy. I just finished the New York Marathon.

The Next Mile

Yes, you read that right. There’s one more mile to go as you work your way out of the finishing chute. There’s 50,000 runners to contend with. As large as Central Park is, they still need to go somewhere. Add to that the fact that there’s only certain exit spots from the Park to the City, and you’re looking at a solid mile walk to the finish if you didn’t gear check (which I didn’t.) On top of it all, you have to walk uphill.

The Reunion

After making it through the next mile I met up with Abram and Karin at 75th & Columbus. Karin gave me a huge hug, and Abram handed me a can of Heady Topper. We figured on race day open container laws would be overlooked. :-)

It was then time to go find food and celebrate.

We walked into a German beer hall (Reichenbach Hall), where they cheered every runner who stumbled in. This city embraces the marathon.

And the celebration was in full swing.

Celebration

Post mortem

When it comes time to do it again (because there will be another go):

  • Focus on training
  • Focus on hills - lots of hills
  • Respect the course
  • Go out slower
  • Enjoy it all over again!

The reward

Race Day Tips

  • Wear your name on your shirt. Yes, you’ll feel a bit dorky, but I’m here to tell you that hearing your name chanted at mile 23 makes all the difference in the world.
  • If you’re going to have a cheer crew, work out exactly where they’re going to be. There are a lot of runners, and it’s easier for the runner to spot the fan. Work out the side, the corner, what they’re going to be wearing, what signs they’ll be holding, etc.
  • There are porta-potties where the busses pick up at the Staten Island Ferry. If you don’t feel the need to have an actual restroom, there are no lines there. It’s a great place to, well, take care of business.
  • Do not check a bag if at all possible. Having to walk through the bag check area is a challenge you don’t want to face when you finish.
  • Bring a phone if you can for post-race coordination. Having a Metro card and a $20 is also a good idea.
  • Enjoy it. It’s the New York Marathon.

Running Ragnar

Our finish photo at Ragnar
Long road relays seem to be all the craze in running these days. Considering the basic concept is you get a bunch of your friends together and cover 200 miles in shifts, the appeal is pretty obvious. Well, obvious to runners anyway. ;-) Chances are if you’re a runner you’re familiar with this style of race, and you’re probably considering doing one. I just finished my first, and while I’m certainly no expert, I did learn some lessons that I wish I’d have known about before the race. So, I’m going to share them with you.

Clothes

You will want one outfit per leg. After all you run your leg, and then rest, either in your van or elsewhere, for the next few hours. You’re either going to be wearing wet, stinky clothes, much to the chagrin of your van-mates, or you’re going to be putting on wet running gear to head out for your next leg, which is certainly not something you want to do.

Ziplocs are your friends

2 gallon Ziploc bags are your friends. Not only are they a great way to group together gear, they’re also a great place to store those wet clothes we talked about above. They’ll not only keep the stink contained, they’ll make it easy to keep everything else nice and dry.

When I did my race I meticulously packed each of my three outfits into three separate bags. What I discovered, though, was I wound up swapping things around from my original plans. Next time I’d keep tops in one, bottoms in another, and things like socks in a third. And then just toss your dirty stuff into a single Ziploc.

Find the right team

Make sure you know ahead of time what everyone’s goals are. I did my race with a friend, and we were originally thinking we’d be running a slightly faster training pace. It was only after we joined our team that we discovered everyone wanted to race their legs. We adjusted and rolled with the punches, but it would have been good to have those expectations ahead of time.

Go with people you’re comfortable changing around

Depending on the speed of your runners, you’re not necessarily going to have a lot of time at the exchanges to change. On top of that, the only place you will have to change in private is in a portapotty, and that’s not really the best place to be for anything but the original design of the equipment.

This means, often, the best place to change is going to be in the van. You can set up an area in the back seat, with a couple of towels, that can help give a shield to the person changing and keep the right parts covered. This isn’t to say that you have to give up all privacy, but being comfortable enough to simply have people not look goes a long way to making it easier to get out of those wet clothes or into the next outfit you’re going to wear.

Have a transition plan

As I mentioned above, there isn’t always a lot of time in the transition areas. You’ll want to have a plan in place on what you’re going to be doing in the transition area. There are three runners you need to support at all times - the one who just finished, the one who is about to start, and the runner that’s currently on the road. You’ll want to make sure you figure out how you’re going to balance all of those runners to make sure everyone has what they need.

Find a driver

If at all possible, have a dedicated driver. Having to run and drive, which I did, makes for a very long day.

Have everything at the ready

Try to keep everyone at some state of ready as you go from transition to transition. Trying to load a van to head to the next exchange can be a bit like herding cats, as someone realizes they need a headlamp, or a reflective vest, or a granola bar, or … This takes time, and makes it that much harder to get out to cheer on your runner, and get to the next exchange in a good amount of time.

Sort your gear

Make sure everyone has a headlamp, vest, and back light of their own. You don’t want to worry about trying to share them. And keep those in a separate bag, or maybe in the same bag with your socks (see above). This way you know where everything is at any given time.

Put your keys on a lanyard

Lost car keys are always a risk as everyone keeps hopping in and out of the van in sporadic order. In addition, you’ll be passing the keys around as different people are driving or going into the van. Having them on a lanyard, and around someone’s neck, decreases the chances you’ll lose it, and makes it easier to spot who has the keys.

Focus on sleep

When you’re packing, make sure you have a sleeping bag and a good pad (or small air mattress) to sleep on. You’re not going to have a lot of time to sleep, so you’ll want to make the best of it. Those little creature comforts will make all of the difference in the world. They’ll also give you the flexibility to sleep outside (maybe pack a small tent?) rather than the high school.

While we’re at it, an eye mask and earplugs are an absolute must. Trust me, you absolutely need them.

I didn’t have any of the above, and I was not a happy man come the following morning.

Always bring the map with you

Ragnar (I can’t speak to the others) does a good job of marking the course, but not always. There was one turn in particular where they had everyone running on one side of the road, but the sign to turn was on the opposite side - very easy to miss, and one runner I know did. Bring the map.

In fact, one thing you might want to consider is leaving someone at the challenging corner if you see it while driving along the route to help the runner make the turn. The little bit of lost time to pick up the person left behind is far less than risking losing a runner.

Make a point of cheering on your runner

And the other runners as well.

There’s not going to be a lot of runners out while you’re running, and not much in the way of support beyond those running the race. As a runner, you know how much support helps. Give that support to your runner, and the other teams while you’re at it. They’ll appreciate it.

Rent a house after the race

Chances are you’ll be away from home when you finish. You’re not going to want to drive right home afterwards, and why would you even if you could? I mean, you just finished a great race with your new best friends! You should celebrate it.

If you rent a big house you’ll be able to get showers (you’re going to want a shower!), beds, a kitchen for food, etc.

Have fun

This goes without saying, but enjoy the experience! It’s great being able to see the sun go down, and then come back up. It’s great being out on a country road, at night, running along. And you’ll share laughs, and a great time.


Grandmas Marathon

Background

18 months. That’s how long it’s been since my last marathon. I’ve battled many an injury: shin splints, back issues, and IT band, the last of which sidelined me since last January. It’s been a long struggle back, and fortunately I have many friends who’ve given me more love and support than I could possible ask for.

Grandma’s Marathon, a race which I’ve run in the past, a race which I love, and a race to which I have a connection, as my wife and I went to college at University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), seemed like the perfect race for my triumphant return. Well, at least it seemed that way.

The race

First up, let’s talk a little bit about the race itself. It’s called [Grandmas][Grandma’s Marathon] because the title sponsor is a local restaurant/bar named, fittingly enough, Grandma’s. They’ve been the title sponsor since the second year the race has been held, which was 39 years ago. That made the 2016 running the 40th annual event, which also meant there was a cool medal. It’s all about the cool medals when you’re a runner.

Because it’s based in Duluth, MN, a town of 100,000 people, and sees a minimum of 15,000 people combined running the half or the full, it takes over the town. The hotels are in full gouge mode over the weekend, with even the Bates Motel asking for no less than $300/night, but they open up all of the local college campuses for the runners. There are signs up all over town referencing the runners. And everyone you talk to just assumes you’re there for the race. It’s a wonderful atmosphere.

Dorm room

Grandma’s is a mini-Boston. Granted, I’ve never run Boston, and probably won’t ever be fast enough to do so, but there are striking similarities. It’s a point to point, starting from a small town and running into the city. It’s a net downhill, with hills throughout, and a good climb at mile 22, called Lemon Drop Hill, although none of the hills are as bad as the ones you’d seen in Boston. And, until the end, there isn’t much in the way of turns, as it follows an old highway into town, meaning all of the turns are sweeping curves.

The weekend

Our 2016 experience started with my wife, Karin, our good friend, Susan, and myself all flying into Minneapolis, with intentions to drive to Duluth, on Thursday. We all happened to be flying in from different places, Karin from our house in Seattle, Susan from her house in Ottawa, and I from a conference in Boston. Originally we were all supposed to land within about 5 minutes of one another, but in what would set the tone for the weekend, things didn’t go as planned - my flight out of Boston was delayed a good couple of hours. Fortunately, Karin and Susan were able to find dinner, and I was able to eat on the plane, so we were able to grab the car and just start driving to Duluth. We avoided rush hour, and made good time into Duluth. We checked into the dorms and fell fast asleep.

Because Karin and I attended college in Duluth, and lived there for 4 years, we wanted to share a little bit of our past with Susan. This meant starting Friday morning, the day before the race, with breakfast at the Perkin’s we all would hang out at as college kids. We showed Susan a couple of neat views of Lake Superior, the lake we’d all be running along the following day.

The race finishes around the DECC, which is where the race expo is, and the last mile is where the race organizers “make you work for it”. You wind up running past the finishing line twice, before finally making the last turn towards it. There’s also a quick, but steep, hill to cross a bridge to get over to the DECC, and a couple of tight turns you want to be aware of in advance. We took the opportunity to walk the last mile and familiarize ourselves, particularly Susan, with the finish. This was the best 30 minutes we’d spend that day, and it’d pay dividends during the race. If you decide to do Grandma’s, I can’t suggest checking out that last mile enough, otherwise it will bite you - I promise.

The expo itself was your stock expo, with all of the various tchotchkes you might want to find. What made this unique was Dick Beardsley, a Minnesota boy who set the course record at 2:09:36, a record which stood for over 30 years, was signing autographs. I needed an autograph! I can tell you Dick is probably the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, and a great ambassador for the sport. He would talk to everyone for as long as they wanted, and truly relished the time to meet with fellow runners.

Me and Dick Beardsley. One of us has run a 2:09 marathon

After the expo, and realizing we’d walked about 10K, we decided it was time to find lunch and get off our feet. Lunch location? Erbert’s & Gerbert’s, a Duluth institution. We roamed back to campus to take over one of the lounges and watch Spirit of the Marathon, because you have to. We found dinner at a great little Italian restaurant to complete our carbo-loading. Then it was time for sleep, with visions of PRs dancing in our heads.

Now, let me back up just a little bit to talk about the weather obsessing that is standard for any race. When we first started looking it looked like it might be a touch warm (highs right around 70F), but otherwise OK. Then it looked like it’d be hot. And then rain. The night before it looked like the rain was going to miss us, and we were back to a little warm, no wind. We thought everything would be good.

So we thought…

The start

Grandma’s Marathon uses a flag system to indicate the weather risk - green, yellow, red, and then black, with black meaning “extremely high risk”.

Karin boarded her 4:45 bus for the half marathon, which starts at 6:15a. Her race temps were a bit warm, but she finished the race just as they put out the yellow flag. She had a great race, even if it was a bit slower than her previous race here.

As for me and Susan, well… Things started out looking promising. We boarded the bus nice and early, and were among the first to arrive at the starting space, a car dealership. We got a picture by the starting corrals, took pictures of the green (yes, green) flag, indicating good race conditions, and found a nice spot on the grass to chill before the race. Because we were among the first to arrive, we had first crack at the portapotties, which is every runner’s dream. We went through our normal pre-race routines, and chatted about strategy and expectations.

Green flag

We waited for about as long as we could before fighting our way down to gear check, and then into the corral area. As we pushed our way towards our areas in the corral, we heard the announcer, who clearly wasn’t a runner, talk about how beautiful the day was, at a pleasant 68 degrees. 68 degrees is about 20 degrees too warm for most runners I know. About 10 minutes later, he announced it was 72. What he didn’t add was the fact the humidity was around 80%. It was going to be a slog, and I was beginning to sweat just standing there. I didn’t know that heat that was ahead of me.

A bit of background on me. I’ve run 3 marathons in the past, and I’ve yet to run what I’d call a good race. In each race I had some form of a collapse, at varying spots along the race. I know I have a 3:59 in me, but I’ve yet to coax it out of my body. Going into the race, this was my goal. This was my race. This was my time. Mother Nature, unfortunately, had other ideas.

The first 10K

I bid Susan farewell at the 4:00 “corral”(1), and let her fight the rest of the way to her 3:45 area. When I got there I started looking around for the 4:00 pacer, along with the rest of the runners in the area, to no avail. I discovered later that all pacers under 4:15 were towards the front of the starter’s chute, which did nothing to help those of us who lined up where we were supposed to line up. Grandma’s gets nearly everything right during race weekend, but this was a huge blunder on their part. It was at this point I realized I wasn’t going to have a pacer, and thus wasn’t going to have a pack to run with.

It was the latter part that really bothered me. I’m a social runner. I like to chat, to have comradery, to share the experience with those around me. When there’s a pacer, there’s automatically a pack and a sense of community. Without a pacer, well, it’s every runner for themselves. So while I did chat with a few runners at the start, once the gun went off and we reached the start line, everyone went off by themselves.

I have to say I’m rather proud of myself. I have a history of going out too fast, which is easy to do on this course, as the first couple of miles are downhill. Plus, considering the lack of a community, I could have easily latched on to a runner who was going too fast. But, when the one woman I was talking with took off a bit faster than the 9:09 pace I wanted, I let her go off and do her own thing, and settled into my pace.

And find my pace I did. I went through the first 10K at about 17 total seconds fast, or about a 9:06 pace. My overall pace from mile to mile didn’t vary by more than 8 seconds. I could not be happier with how that first 10K went. And while that green flag was a yellow flag at the first water station, I was still feeling good.

But… When I saw that yellow flag at 5K I knew this was a sign of things to come. I knew at some point we were going to see that red flag. It was too early in the day, the sun was bright overhead, and it was only going to get warmer. My body, however, felt great at the 10K mark. I was going to ride this wave for as long as I could.

The second 10K

Around that 10K mark I passed the 4:15 pace group, which I thought was rather strange. I didn’t know what had happened with the pace groups until after the race, but passing a pace group of any sort does give you a bit of a burst of energy, which I took. I did give a thought to falling in with the group, knowing the heat was only going to continue to beat me down over the course of the day, but again - my body was feeling good.

I mentioned earlier I’d run 3 marathons, and during each marathon you learn different lessons. My last marathon, Carlsbad, was an unmitigated disaster, with me having to push to finish under the 5:00 mark.(2) At mile 10 of that race my quads were shredded and I didn’t have anything. But I decided to push it, and when I hit mile 16 I had nothing left. I walked about 8 of those last 10 miles.

With that lesson in mind, I’d already made the decision to do check-ins with my body at every 10K, and adjust as needed. I cruised through that first 10K, and was settled in for a good race. I found my pace, my stride, and knew the effort that was needed to maintain right around that 9:09 pace. My watch showed me at 9:06, and all was good.

Then things started to change. I went through mile 7 and 8 a touch slow, but nothing that had me overly concerned. I noticed the overall pace on my watch start to creep up to 9:07. Then 9:08. And then I went through mile 10, at the same effort I’d done the previous 9 miles, at a 9:21 pace. It was at this point when I realized it just wasn’t going to be there. Now, yes, 12 seconds off pace isn’t much. But with the temperature starting to rise, and the sun still beating down, I decided to just settle in and enjoy the run rather than shooting for a PR. In the end this turned out to be a good decision, as the 11-mile water station flew what I was expecting to see: red flag. Yes, it was that hot.

From here forward it was all about keeping cool, staying positive, and enjoying the race as best as I could. I was going to listen to my body, try to run from balloon to balloon (mile to mile), and walk through the water stations. Unfortunately, I did wind up walking more than I’d hoped, but I was able to run a lot more than I could at Carlsbad, further reinforcing my decision to bag the PR at mile 11.

Staying cool

At this point I’d like to thank the race organizers for doing an amazing job with the aid stations, and the good people of Duluth, MN for helping keep us cool. The aid stations are easily the best I’ve ever seen at a race, and I’ve experienced many races in my time. Every single station was well staffed and supplied. You had plenty of time to get your water or PowerAde. The layout was water, PowerAde, ice, sponge, water. Yes - two water tables at each station, and PowerAde at each station. I don’t know of another race that does that. And the sponges and ice were plentiful as we all tried to keep ourselves cool, or as cool as we could.

The good people of Duluth did their best as well, setting out cooling showers, or just simply hanging outside of their house with a hose. They all understood to not simply douse the runners, but rather let the runners come to them. One of my highlights was around mile 22, when I went running towards a guy with a hose and said “HIT ME!”, which he did with about 4 gallons of water. It was amazing!

But, back to the race. I hit the halfway mark at 2:02, which made me smile, knowing I had a good time until then, but also knowing what was ahead of me time wise. At mile 15, there was a loud BANG. Turned out the blue balloons, indicating the half marathon miles, exploded from the heat. The explosions were repeated by many of the balloons, although this was the only one I witnessed. My running partner in crime, Susan, also said she heard one. See the explosions or not, you noticed the aftermath as there were few blue balloons left on the course as the day wore on.

A happier time at the 25 mile mark

The finish

The turn into the city was welcomed by everyone, as the fans really start to pick up during that stretch, carrying you through to the finish. The mile through downtown Duluth is amazing, with an energy that can’t be described, as the fans, three to four deep, cheer you through towards that last mile.

Remember that last mile? Boy was I glad we walked through it the day before, as I knew exactly what to expect when we turned left on 5th to cross the bridge towards the DECC. I focused on doing the loop behind the DECC, past the USS Irvin, past the finish line for the second time, and then around one last little loop to head into the finish - at 4:41, and in 79-degree heat. I’ve never been so happy to see 4:41 on my watch, as I had to fight to get it below 4:45.

I crossed the finish line in full celebration mode, knowing what I’d overcome that day. I was decorated with my medal, found my finisher’s shirt, and was then embraced by Susan, with a very knowing expression of “we survived!” As it turned out Susan was about 25 minutes off the time she was hoping for, and battled to get there as well. Susan then led me to Karin, and another wonderful embrace.

After the obligatory post-race photos, the two of them had been in the area for a while, and had already found their first round of post-race refreshments. They helped me find what I needed (a chocolate milk and banana to start), and my gear. Grandma’s offers changing tents, which both Susan and I took advantage of, getting out of our clothes which were soaking wet. Next stop: beer tent, for a well- earned cold one. Karin, who’d been hanging out in the finishing area the longest, then declared she was hungy, which sent us off on a search for food. Needless to say Canal Park, where the race finishes, was absolutely packed. But with a little bit of a walk we were able to find a restaurant that had immediate seating. We settled in, had a couple of bites, and beer number two. :-) We swapped stories, commiserated, and slowly started to recover from a long, hot, but successful day.

Grandma’s remains my favorite marathon, and the heat does nothing to change my opinion of this great race. Yeah, it was hot, but the organizers handled it with aplomb. The only issue was the pacers, which I mentioned above. If you are going to run this race, book your hotel, and your pre-race meal, nice and early.

And pray for rain.

The finish

(1) There aren’t corrals, just signs denoting the expected finishing times

(2) Speed is relative. For some, 4:00 is slow. To me, 5:00 is slow. To each their own strengths, etc.