Re-read: 2013 story about an electrocuted marathoner’s comeback won an award

prizeThe Independent Free Papers of America gave me first place “Original Writing Feature Story” for my “Miles to Go” piece in the Advocate — it’s about runner Brandon Cumby. The story basically wrote itself.

In summer 2012 Cumby began training for the Dallas Marathon, but his plans screeched to a halt in August. Cumby cannot cohesively recall anything between July 28 and Aug. 24, he says. But family members and friends help him piece together the events that nearly snuffed out his future … here’s the full story.

This is the second running-related piece that’s won an award. The Society of Features Journalism last year gave me third place overall for my personal essay, published in the Dallas Morning News, about my checkered past and the role running played in my recovery.

Bragging done.


Hood to Coast, from the perspective of Runner 1

Despicable We, Van 1, ready to roll

Despicable We, Van 1, ready to roll

Note: As with my Boston Marathon write-up and most everything I write for this blog, it took me about a month to get this done. See, when I go out of town for something like a race, I return to a shit-ton of work and do not have time to write recreationally. Also, it is long. I want to not only document my experience for personal use, but also to provide useful information to readers anticipating this race in the future. Anyway, enough bla bla bla. Here’s the Hood to Coast report:

It’s mid-morning on a Friday in August. I am at the top of Mount Hood in Oregon, 6,000 feet above sea level. With me at the starting line are some 40 or so other runners. Our teams cheer us from the sidelines. My adrenaline is pumping. I have never been more ready to run. Minutes later I am flying down the mountain, running the fastest miles I’ve ever run past a million evergreen trees and rivers and waterfalls — yeah, friggin waterfalls.

It all started many months ago …
… when my running buddy Danny Hardeman asked me to be on his Hood To Coast relay team. Friends from our White Rock Running Co-op ran the 2013 HTC. They made it sound insanely fun, but not at all like something I wanted to do. Twelve-man teams, some 25 hours in a crowded van, scrupulous planning and related meetings, a litany of expenses … not exactly ideal for a frugal, disorganized loner who despises hassle and deeply values personal space, not to mention sleep.

But Danny was so excited. He thought my husband could drive one of the vans, he said. Yeah, like that would happen.

My husband, Josh, is not a runner and he thinks we are weird. If my husband wants to drive, I say, I’m in. I figured that would be the end of it.

But something happened that night — local radio personality Craig Miller, a competitive runner and triathlete whom Josh and I both love, came for dinner at Josh’s restaurant.

“Hood to Coast?” Craig apparently said, “You have to do it!” So Hubs called me and said he was in.

Danny put together a team of 12 solid runners. Most were people I know and a few were people I did not know well yet. At our first meeting, we argued over team names. Suggestions that required the least bit of mental calisthenics were met with blank stares; most enthusiastically praised were suggestions alluding to sex, gross bodily functions or food (I later would learn that these things drive most HTC team names). Eventually every name proposed at said meeting was rejected and somehow we became Despicable We. It turned out to be a beloved team name and theme — later, throughout the event, we would hear, “It’s the minions!” “I love your shirts!” “Love your van!” Not to overstate it, but we were kind-a famous.

The unveiling of the Despicable We campaign, featuring Susan, Gigi and Jenny: Photo (and poster) by Paris Sunio

The unveiling of the Despicable We campaign, featuring Susan, Gigi and Jenny: Photo (and poster) by Paris Sunio

The other WRRC team is called Cereal Killers. I wrote all about them here last year.

I did not really know before I partook in Hood to Coast, but I know now: name and theme — this also involves T-shirts and van decorations — is a big deal. A seriously big deal.

As race weekend neared I realized the complex planning and expenses that go into HTC — registration, travel, two vans with (preferably) two drivers each, starting-line accommodations, finish-line lodging, getting to and fro the airport, and so on. Fortunately a few of my teammates were real leaders when it came to planning and I did not need to do much other than pay my way and do my best to follow instructions.

Then there is the training — how does one train to race three times in less than 24 hours?

I pretty much just followed my training schedule for my upcoming November half marathon. Through the early summer months I maintained a base by running about 40-50 miles a week; in May I began adding speed work twice a week. I’d run, for example, 12 times 200 meters or 400 meters on Tuesday and six mile-repeats on Thursdays and a long run on Saturday and Sunday (usually 10-15 on Saturday and 10 on Sundays). In July I ramped up the mileage to about 70 miles per week, adding a second run about three days a week. I sought out hills and used the downhill treadmill at the gym for several runs. Normally I would schedule a 5k or 10k race this time of year; instead, HTC would be my end of summer fitness test.

But there is nothing to prepare one who resides in Dallas for the infamous Leg 1 of Hood to Coast. It is six miles of extreme downhill running. Overall, it is one of the shortest and easiest legs of the race, but the mountain makes for some really intense racing. I decided that no matter how fast or controlled I ran, I would hurt afterward. I knew from research and personal experience that the worst muscle soreness would set in about 48 hours after a given run, so I would be able to finish all three of my legs before the really intense pain set in (which it did; in the days following the race I could barely walk). So I chose to let the momentum and adrenaline carry me through my downhill leg — no holding back.

me at start

I’m so excited. I’m so excited. I’m. So. Scared. Photo by Brent Woodle

Book 1

I believe the faster teams usually start later, but somehow Danny had negotiated us a 9:45 start time. Teams start in waves — about 30-40 every 15 minutes all day Friday.

So I started with other Leg 1-ers who were planning to race a bit slower than we were. Therefore, from the starting horn to the end of my almost-six miles I was out front and all alone. The few times I looked back, I saw not a soul. About a mile in, my van passed me en route to the first exchange and they yelled that I was running on the wrong side of the road. I was kind of scared to cross the street but then another van pulled over; the driver said we’d be disqualified if I didn’t cross and she watched traffic so I could cross. Thanks, friend.

I clocked a 5:36 first mile. My second mile was closer to 5:40, and I maintained a sub six-minute mile right up until the final quarter mile (where things flattened out). To give you an idea of the speed-assistance this mountain offered: my fastest-ever 5k prior to this was run at a 6:12 per-mile pace.

My buddy Matt was waiting to take the relay wristband. The van and the rest of the team parked across the street and was cheering us on. Teammate and friend Susan was waiting for me at the exchange, too, thank goodness, because when I came to a halt, my rubbery legs gave out and she caught me.

Me and Susan: Photo by Brent Woodle

Me and Susan: Photo by Brent Woodle

No time to waste — getting the van from one exchange to the other in a timely manner is part of the competition. We hopped in and drove down a scenic thoroughfare thickly lined with fir trees. At 10:30, the air was crisp but the sun was emerging and it was warming up. As we waited for Matt, I walked around and rolled my hamstrings and calves with The Stick. I drank a bottle of Gatorade and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

By the time Matt finished and Jenny started, it was nearing 70 degrees. Susan was dreading Leg 4, a sunny 7-mile race, but she wound up being right on pace. Brent, our fastest, had the toughest overall assignment, but his first leg, though hot, was handily slaughtered. By the time Danny finished Leg 6, and we went to rest a few hours while members of the second team van did their thing, it was blazing hot. The sun was shining full force as Van 2 minion Julie embarked on Leg 7. This relay and van exchange took place at a high school. The parking lot was an ideal place to check out the competition and all the creative team themes, costumes and decorations.

While Van 2 minions ran legs 7-12, us Van 1-ers went to a pizza place. Pizza was delicious. As I tore into my second slice, I asked Brent — who had created a spreadsheet to estimate our start and finish times based on each team member’s predicted pace (and as we went along, actual pace) — how much time I had until my next run.

Four hours? I guessed. “No,” he says. “Two.” I returned that second slice to its plate and said, “Crap.”

Pizza before racing on a hot afternoon: not the best idea.

Ready for round two: Photo by Paris Sunio

Ready for round two: Photo by Paris Sunio

Book 2
My second run, a.k.a. Leg 13 was just over four miles, but it was through the middle of Portland at 5:30 p.m. The sun was still baring-down and it was about 85 degrees.

In Portland, a half HTC relay race called Portland to Coast begins, so it is crowded. As I waited for Leg 12-er, Kevin, to hand off to me, the race officials started announcing that if we were not going to be finished with our leg by 6 p.m., we needed to be wearing our reflective vests. I asked some of my team members to get me the vest, but the van was too far; there was no time. When Kevin arrived, glistening with sweat and smiling broadly, the linesman said to me, “Where’s your vest?” And I confidently proclaimed, “I’ll be done before 6.”

Of course there was no way I was doing 4.5 miles in fewer than 30 minutes, but they let me go. In fact, I ran these miles at a little over 7 minutes each. I had hoped to keep my miles all under 7, but I was beginning to understand that running 13 or 14 miles in HTC was very different than running, say, a straight half-marathon. By the second round of running you are sore from your first race, cramped-up from being in a van all day, and there’s a good chance that your lunch has not fully digested.

I grew very nervous during this leg that I was on the wrong track. The course runs through a Portland park, where vagabond loafers smoking pot stare at you. You can’t really blame them for being baffled — while they are just blazing,  this pink-faced, heaving chick is blazing through their park. WTF? But finally I saw two HTC fans sitting in lawn chairs — they cheered me as I approached, told me I looked hot (and I think they meant the sweat soaking my body and my fire-engine-red face, as opposed to the complimentary sort of hot) and they verified that I was heading the right way.

On the other side of the park is this industrial area that smells of burning rubber. It is hot and miserable and the few other Hood to Coast-ers I saw were walking. I miraculously managed to hand off to Matt without regurgitating the pizza, which was my constant unwelcome companion through the aforementioned miles.

I am so grateful to be done with that leg! Here on the edge of Portland we also encountered the Cereal Killer team. We were neck-in-neck with them and competing in a friendly way. Meredith, a CK member, wound up carrying a second reflective vest because she had heard I did not have mine. She was trying to get one to me. When I heard that, it warmed my heart. It was one of many sweet fuzzy feelings to come as the night wore on.

After my second race, I stretched, drank a protein shake, continued to hydrate, popped an allergy pill and some aspirin and attempted to relax as my husband and his co-pilot, Paris, navigated the runner exchanges.

As it grew darker, we ran farther, through scenic, wooded, mountainous Oregon — through towns called Scappoose and Mist and Jewel — toward the finish line at Seaside.

With the night came cooler temps. Once Danny finished Leg 17, we pulled into the campgrounds at the start of my final leg and attempted to get some shuteye. This was practically pointless. Several of us stretched out on the seats of the van while a couple tried the tents provided by Dick’s Sporting Goods. For about an hour I was able to relax myself into a near-meditative state, but never slept. Then I had to pee. As I walked from the van through the dark to the potties, I realized my legs were toast. I mean, they felt like someone had beaten them, and ruthlessly, with a baseball bat.

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In the middle of the night — Brent, Jenny, Susan, Me, Danny, Matt: Photo by Paris Sunio

Book 3
For about 45 minutes I walked around the campgrounds trying to loosen up. Just a little over 4 miles left, I told myself, but I knew I had to move fast to keep our team on pace. We wanted to break 24 hours. It now was super-chilly. I grabbed some coffee from a vendor. Van 2 arrived at the exchange to pick up their last runner of part 2, Kevin, and members of Van 1 began to emerge from that pseudo-sleep and gather to cheer Kevin in and me out.

Despite my soreness, I was much more excited about this leg than I had been about the last. It was cool. It was dark. The stars were abundant. It was 3 o’clock in the morning, and I was totally pumped.

Again, Kevin arrived with a smile and I screamed his name. “Keeeevvvviiiinnnn! Come on, buddy! Yes! Alllrriiigght! Wooo hooo!” And then I was off.

As the noisy, crowded exchange area faded into the background, I breathed in and concentrated deeply on the moment. Even with my flashlight, visibility was low. All I could see was the gravel-y road at my feet. The fog made even the few runners I passed invisible until I was just steps behind them. I turned off my light for a moment and looked up. The stars were thick and endless. The night was sparkling.

My legs refused to match my overall enthusiasm and didn’t move much faster than about 7:15 per mile. I worked as hard as I could, tried to mentally photograph that sky, and when I handed the relay bracelet to Matt for the last time, I felt a pang of sadness. My run was over.

When I reached the van, I offered my one bit of advice to my teammates: “Be sure, at least once, to turn off your light and look at the stars,” I said. “They are amazeballs.” (So shoot me — I get sentimental when I am sleepy.)

The night flew by. We grew more excited as morning approached. Brent tackled the toughest leg of HTC — 3.5 miles of  extreme elevation followed by 2.5 miles of treacherous downhill running. By the time he reached the exchange, traffic was bad. We were fortunate enough to avoid any delays due to the backup at the exchanges, but Brent did have to walk an extra mile after his run to reach the only spot we were able to park the van. Luckily we also were able to drop Danny off at his proper starting point, and Susan got out with him and helped Brent find us. More evidence that this race is in large part about navigation, logistics and luck.

Danny embraced the final leg of Van 1, flying downhill at breakneck speed. He hopped into the ride and we all took a moment to be proud of this little team he had put together. We were done, and every member of Van 1 performed brilliantly in his/her first Hood to Coast experience.

Turns out, though I did not get to observe it so closely, our Van 2 members did the same.

Finished!: Photo by Paris Sunio

Finished!: Photo by Paris Sunio

A memorable finish 

We drove to another Oregon high school that was welcoming Hood to Coast runners (for a small donation) to use its showers. At that point, I think we would have paid anything. (Um, thanks, Brent, for paying for both me and my cash-broke husband.)

After old-school group showers, we headed toward Seaside — famous for providing a backdrop to the classic “Goonies” movie and — more importantly if only on this day — the Hood To Coast finish line.

First we made a couple of pit stops for well-earned potables of an alcoholic variety. Now, I no longer drink alcohol, but I sure do love watching others get plowed. And mixing alcohol with exhaustion is always funny and unpredictable. So as to not incriminate myself or any of my teammates, I will not go into any more detail there. I will just say, when you are a runner, there ARE actually times when it is acceptable to purchase Crown Royal at 7 a.m., though it is not easy to find someone selling it.

Josh, me and Matt, done.: Photo by Paris Sunio

Josh, me and Matt, done.: Photo by Paris Sunio

After a couple of hours we know we need to get to the finish line. We estimated that Kevin would be finishing just about 9:45. (As it turned out, our finish time was 24:08:00 which placed us 8th in the open division — about a 7:12 overall pace for almost 200 miles. Not bad.)

The way the finish works: as the anchor runner rounds the last corner, about 400 meters from the finish, race organizers announce the team number, then the team gathers in a corral and joins its runner as he passes, so that your whole team finishes together.

Problem: Van 2 got caught-up in traffic. As Kevin embarked on his last mile, they were just finding a parking space. A good eight blocks from the finish. The members of Van 1, already gathered at the finish, were beginning to worry that the second half of our team would miss the big finish. Biting my nails, I watched the road for signs of Andre, Julie, Kelly, Ryan, Gigi and their drivers Tamra (Kevin’s wife) and Sohale.

Then, we heard it — the announcer called out “Here comes team 825. Despicable We!” Just as we filed into the corral, I spotted Andre. I started screaming at them, “He’s here! Kevin is here! Huuurrryyy!” This effort would mean the last of my voice, which was hoarse for the next two weeks. Andre and the gang surveyed the fence between them and us, and they assessed that there was no way over; they would need to go around — a bit of a hike. At that point, Kevin, who was hauling, came into sight.

Not to Kevin, but to his teammates we screamed, “RUUUUUN!”

They had no choice but to revive their dead legs and start running toward us. Just as Kevin came down the final stretch, the members of Van 2 stumbled through the corral. All together, we ran to the finishing chute — under the banner, some of the guys lifted Kevin to their shoulders. I felt a little catch in my throat, and it wasn’t from my pained vocal chords. It was emotion.

I hugged my good sport of a husband and the rest of my teammates. A lady handed me an armful of medals and I put them, one by one, around the necks of my relay brothers and sisters. Danny. Kevin. Matt. Susan. Jenny. Gigi. Kelly. Ryan. Julie. Andre. Brent. Me.

Shortly after, the members of Cereal Killers arrived. We ate and drank and recapped the hilarity. I bonded with CK friends Meredith and Greg, who like me were veterans of “Leg 1” (this and last year, respectively).

We dreamed about “next year.”

Seaside beach was magnificent.

Cold waters: Photo by Matt's camera, but that's Matt, so I am not sure ...

Chilly water, sand and fog: Photo by Matt’s camera, but that’s Matt prancing along the coast, so I am not sure …

Josh and I, while too wimpy to fully submerge ourselves in the icy water like some of the others, dove into the balmy sand and slept for 45 minutes, and we woke as the sun burned off the last of the morning’s dense fog.

Thanks, Craig Miller. You were right. We absolutely had to do this.


Dallas runner finishes famous Comrades Marathon

White Rock Running Co-op team member Hari Garimella ran the 2014 Comrades ultramarathon: Photo courtesy Garimella

White Rock Running Co-op team member Hari Garimella ran the 2014 Comrades ultramarathon: Photo courtesy Garimella

Hari Garimella accompanied by his wife and young son, just returned to the White Rock area after successfully trekking the mountainous 56-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa. A version of this article was first published on Advocatemag.com.

A few years ago I read a piece in Runner’s World magazine about editor and former professional runner Bart Yasso’s experience running the Comrades Marathon in South Africa.

Even here in The States, among the running community, Comrades is notorious. In Africa, beginning in 1921, it has reached Super Bowl — or World Cup, even — levels of acclaim.

The race involves running about 56 miles through the mountains of South Africa in under 12 hours.

It is more popular, say the editors at RW, than the Boston Marathon, with as many runners, from as many various nations; the entire country — anyone who isn’t racing or spectating — watches the 12-plus hour television broadcast, they marvel.

After first reading about the event, I too was enthralled. Unlike our usually precise American races, the 56 miles is an estimate. “They change the course every year and no one minds,” RW editor Amby Burfoot says. There seems less a spirit of competition than a spirit of community. A group of physically disabled students sing for the runners. Most participants, aside from some elites, aim not for a particularly fast time, but to strategically pace themselves to finish before the 12-hour cutoff. At 12:00:01 a course marshal fires a shot. Anyone who has not crossed the finish line at that point did not run (according to the official results, anyway).

Students from the Ethembeni school for disabled children performed for Comrades runners: Photo courtesy Hari Garimella

Students from the Ethembeni school for disabled children welcomed Comrades runners with singing and dancing: Photo courtesy of Hari Garimella

At that point, runners stop where they stand and fall to the ground, often wailing, moaning and weeping from exhaustion and disappointment, one former participant tells RW.

To finish before that dreaded gunshot was the goal of 39-year-old White Rock Running Co-op member and Texas Instruments employee Hari Garimella, who just returned to the neighborhood after racing the 2014 Comrades ultra-marathon.

“During the course of my training and previous experiences of running a few ultra-marathons, which included tasting my first ever DNF (did not finish) on a 50-mile race at Palo Duro Canyon, I realized that I was going to have to get very disciplined on my training, as the Comrades run was going to be my longest-ever race,” Garimella notes in his race report that you can read in full here.

Garimella says he trained near White Rock on Saturdays, with his running club. The rest of the week he ran with his dog, Dunbar or his friend Viresh Modi, who also was training for Comrades.

His preparations began with a New Year’s Eve marathon followed by six months of daily runs, which included several long training runs of 21, 31 and 35 miles, and one day of rest per week.

When he arrived in South Africa last week with his wife and son, he says his appreciation for the historic event grew, following a trip to the Comrades museum and meeting a few renowned Comrades competitors. (Former Olympic runner Zola Budd — famous in the 80s for her bare feet and for becoming tangled with American runner Mary Decker during a disastrous 3,000 meter Olympic race in 1984 — was one of the top female competitors).

Garimella’s strategy, he says, involved walking some on the uphill sections and running nonstop on the downhills. Despite temps in the near 90s and more hills than he ever could have imagined, he stuck to it. Mostly. With just 5k to go, fatigue forced him to walk, but a fellow runner motivated him to finish the last of the 89 kilometers fast.

“I felt this motivation come out of nowhere. I thanked my new friend, and all of sudden ran the remaining one-kilometer, and ran it strong. I got to the Kingsmeade Sahara stadium and could hear the entire stadium cheering for the runners,” he says.

Garimella family in South Africa: Photo courtesy of Garimella

Garimella family in South Africa: Photo courtesy of Garimella

“I saw my wife and son on the sidelines and waved to them. I kept running strong and in a few seconds I crossed the finish line. I was done and had succeeded in finishing my first Comrades marathon in 11:13:12.”

He says his wife, Nirisha, and son, Jay, are his biggest cheerleaders. “My son is going to be a better runner than me soon.”

Garimella is home and intends to take a couple of weeks rest before resuming training. His plan? The 2015 Comrades, which will run the opposite direction (with more uphill than down) of this year’s race. He says he will continue regular uber-long runs, which he thinks contributed vastly to his healthy condition at Comrades, and he will run more on hills and add weight training to strengthen his quads. Read more from Hari here.

Sidenote: Zola Budd reportedly has been stripped of her age group win at Comrades for failing to properly pin on her runner identification information.


Back from the Boston Marathon 2014

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Boston Marathon poster 2014: Poster Gallery

Note: I wrote this on the plane home from Boston, fell asleep and neglected to edit and post it for one solid month. How’s that for grade-A procrastination.

A bad, short training season, low thyroid and vitamin deficiency 

In the weeks leading up to the Boston Marathon, I was depressed, and not in an AJ Soprano, I’m-gonna-drown-myself-in-the-pool sort of way, but as in, my whole body was physically tired and I was seriously concerned I wasn’t going to be able to run a marathon. Especially one as hill-acious as Boston.

I was so tired just a month before the race, that I was falling asleep, literally, in the middle of the day at work. I was taking four-hour naps on a Sunday. I was struggling to keep up with my running contemporaries. I was failing to maintain my typical tempo pace, even during a 15k race.

I finally went to the doctor for lab work, which showed low thyroid.

Nothing new — my thyroid has been low for almost 10 years that I know of. Every six months, doc increases my dosage a bit. This time, after the labs, the doc’s assistant called to say I was very low in vitamin D as well. What does that mean, I asked the assistant, who replied, “It means you need to take a supplement.” Thanks for that flippin’ wealth of information, lady.

So she told me to start taking D supplement and to pick up a new more-potent RX for Synthroid. On my own — thanks, Google — I learned that D deficiency makes it tougher to absorb synthetic thyroid. That made me feel better — like I had a lead. I did as instructed and also began taking a multivitamin with iron every night. I never had done this for long because vitamins usually make me puke. But taking it at night on a half-full stomach (because I never eat dinner ‘til like 9, at least) and then going to bed made it work.

Ok, back to Boston training.

So, within about 10 days of this vitamin supplementation, I was no longer taking George Costanza-style naps at work. I felt markedly better. And my last long run of 16 miles, which was eight days before the marathon, felt OK. Not fabulous, but OK. And I started getting excited about Boston.

Fine-tuning my attitude 

The week leading up to the race was production week at work, so I was too busy to get too panicked.

I made it a point to do a (relative) lot of running with friends who I enjoy being around. Talking to them helped me put things in perspective. If I am all worried about my personal time and performance this year, after what the city of Boston and the marathon participants experienced last year, I am a selfish asshole. Basically.

I was going to be in Boston on the day that the city, the runners and all the fans of the sport take back Patriot’s Day. That alone was a reason for insurmountable gratitude. Though I trained hard, the time on the clock this day would be secondary.

In the days leading up to race day, I hardly checked the weather. Usually I check compulsively starting 10 days out. I was not as worried this time.

I was a little concerned about finding my way around the city — and I had every right to be — but about the race itself, I was not freaking out.

I am not religious, but I do frequently chat with the god of my understanding (a.k.a. pray) and when I was praying about this race, I got the distinct message to let go.

Getting there 

I did the carb-starve and carb load the same as I did before Louisiana. This has become a very important step in my improvement at long distances. See this post for a more-detailed explanation.

Leaving on a Sunday was nice because I had all day Saturday to pack and rest up.

I left Dallas at 6:30 Easter morning and arrived at Boston at 11 a.m. I got confused about the location of my hotel in relation to the marathon expo. Note to future Boston travelers: there are two convention centers in Boston. The Boston Convention Center is not where the marathon expo is. It is adjacent to my hotel. All along I was thinking my hotel was outside the expo, but it actually was three miles away.

OK, so that meant I was lugging my suitcase 1.2 miles up Boylston Street to the Hynes Convention Center. The crowd thickened as I progressed up the street. Congregants were exiting en masse following Easter service at the church, and I rolled over a kid’s foot with my suitcase and he commenced screaming.

I finally realized why thousands of people, including TV reporters and cameramen every few yards, were crammed together here in the street. I was at the Finish Line. Before I knew it I, and my suitcase, was stepping over the iconic blue paint, and my head was buzzing with the voices of hundreds of runners and running fans, speaking in myriad languages. Tons of people were already donning the bright orange 2014 Boston Marathon jackets, and reporters were stopping them for interviews. It all was, as one of my friends later said, surreal.

I took a very deep breath as images from last year’s bomb aftermath bloodbath filled my head. I was a little distressed that the Finish Line was not as somber as one might expect — instead there was giddiness and photo snapping and selfies. I get it, but it was unsettling.

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The Finish Line, Sunday

I found a back entrance to the race expo—thank God because security was examining bags and I had a freaking suitcase with me.

Got the shirt/number and hauled ass to the nearest exit, where I easily caught a cab to my hotel. I wanted nothing more than to rid myself of that horrid suitcase.

The Westin Boston Waterfront is really nice and a little removed from the chaos, which is good for me. I rested for a couple hours and then walked over to a pub where I got a pre-race dinner, baked mac and cheese, at about 4:30 p.m.

Usually before a marathon I eat my last big meal at like 1-2 p.m., but since this thing was starting at 10:25 a.m., I figured I’d eat later.

I actually feel asleep easily after watching a Boston Marathon special narrated by Ben Affleck. It featured a guy who was found after the bomb clutching his own disembodied leg. He got married this past week at Fenway Park.

I woke a few times in the night, but slept OK, considering it was race night.

Race Day

Getting to Hopkinton was smooth. I had been to Boston Marathon back in 2011, but I stayed in Framingham, so didn’t get the full experience hopping on one in a massive fleet of county school busses. A convoy of yellow busses carried more than 35,000 runners to a town 26 and-a-half miles away. On the bus, I met runners from Jersey, Ontario, New York, other parts of Texas, San Diego … you name it.

Upon arrival in Hopkinton, a temporary “Athlete’s Village” houses the marathon entrants.

Again, there are runners from all over the world. Boston is one of those races where you have to wait around for a long time pre race. It can be chilly, so people wear warm clothes that they can discard prior to the race. Therefore, you see a lot of folks walking around Athlete’s Village in funny getups — men in thrift-store suits, people in funky old coats and sweaters, three guys were in Breaking Bad style lab suits and one couple was wearing what looked like their hotel bath robes.

I fortunately ran into two friends, Brent and Ally from the WRRC, right off the bus.

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Ally and I: Don’t sue me Marathon Photo

We hung for a while. Brent who’s planning a 2:50 marathon started in the wave before us. Ally and I got in the bathroom line. And waited, oh, 45 minutes. We were supposed to head to the start at 9:50 and were still in line at 10. Nightmare. All around us people were dropping drawers and letting it all out on the grass. We opted to wait for the box. It was ugly out there. There were not enough toilets for 36,000 participants. I cannot imagine being one of the volunteers who had to clean up that dump after we left. Bless them.

Once your wave is released from the Athlete’s Village, you walk almost a mile to the Starting Line. By now the elites and the top-of-the-field runners have started.

My wave’s corral had started by the time I got to the line, but I tried not to panic. One volunteer told me: Don’t worry. The time doesn’t start until you cross the mat. So I took a minute to stretch and breath, and then I jumped in with wave 2 corral 4.

Action

The first mile of Boston is fast no matter what. It is very downhill, and people are lining the roads screaming. I mean just bellowing like soccer fans.

I thought I remembered the course as all-downhill the first half, but it is far from that. It is net down, but there are rolling hills through this entire race.

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My fellow White Rock Running Co-op members captured this image on TV. That is me :)

At the start, the temps are OK. It’s in the mid-50s, but it’s been worse. See 2012. I consider running at the pace of my last marathon, about a 7:20 minute mile, which seems doable for about 30 minutes. It becomes very clear that the temps are rising quickly and by mile six people are mumbling about the heat. Layers of jackets, long sleeved shirts, mittens and arm warmers are flying from the course (anyone who started with a jacket on was just in all-out denial anyway).

At that point I decide to run by heart rate for a while. The Coach and I had discussed an acceptable range and agreed that exceeding that range early on would spell certain bonk. It was tough though, with the rolling hills, to keep my heartbeat in range. I knew I could not afford to tax myself too much early on, because I remembered how tough the Newton Hills are.

Around mile 5 maybe, we pass a bar with a parking lot full of what appears to be a Hells Angels-type biker gang. They are going nuts. One girl near me says, “A gang of bikers at a bar at 10 a.m. cheering for a bunch of marathon runners.”

The crowds along the race route never thin. There are some deeper, more-intense crowds at certain points, but there never is a quiet moment. It always is a sea of runners ahead and a throng of screaming fans on both sides essentially for 27+ miles.

Going through Framingham (mile 8), the spectators roar with marked excitement and I see ahead that I’m passing the famous Team Hoyt. This is a father son team that has run the Boston Marathon for decades straight. Theirs is an amazing story.

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Team Hoyt: Vimeo

I try to take Shot Blocks every 20 minutes; I took an S Cap electrolyte tab before and during the race; I sip water and pour the rest on me at most water stops. By noon it is in the mid 60s. Great for spectating; bad for marathoning. By mile 13, when we run through the Wall of Sound at Wellsley College my legs are sore. The downhill is rough on the quads. The raucousness of that crowd propels me for the next 5k, which is where the Newton Hills begin. At this point my pace had fluctuated between 7:20 and 7:5x minute miles. My slowest miles are through the hills, but I feel surprisingly not bad. First, my legs actually find some relief running up. It’s like an opportunity for my quads to rest. Second, I begin passing a lot of people. Entering Newton, I see several runners full-stop at water stops or walk or wander over to the med tent. You don’t see this on a good day in Boston.

Heartbreak Hill is not necessarily a bad hill. Loving Hill in East Dallas is decidedly more intense. It is just the placement that makes it so tough. It is the highest of several hills that follow some serious rollers that are net downhill. It is just a really tough terrain to train your body for if you do not live in Boston.

But I think with the right mindset, these hills are not so intimidating; they are all short. None last more than about a quarter mile, I think.

Now, the best part of my race comes after Heartbreak Hill. I know I am overheating, but I am stoked after making it through Newton and there is a long downhill and there is an awesome group of Boston College kids along said downhill and I give one of them a high five and the others start going nuts and slapping my hand and it is like, neverending. I high-five probably 50 people there. I am whoo-hooing and thanking them and then — good times end — the wave of nausea hits. Dizziness. OK. Calm down, I say. I retreat to the opposite side of the course where there are no geeky-cute 20-year olds tempting me with their high-fives.

With five miles to go, there are people walking. Guys cramping up and hobbling. Mile 22-24 is the worst. I am in serious pain in my quads and I am red, sunburned and I just felt red-hot, like my face is going to explode. At each water stop, the water on my face feels heavenly. During the last third of the race it is between 65-70 degrees. It is not the worst conditions you can get, but it sure ain’t the best.

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Pain train and finally finished: stolen photos

I am pretty happy to see Brent W, another member of the WRRC who was out with an injury but cheering, at mile 24.

After that I am praying hard. “Carry me home, please!”

Every other race or marathon I run, this is the point where it hurts so bad that I’ll come up with any reason to slow to a more comfortable pace (a walk seems preferable). My reason, usually is, “Oh there’s no reason to kill yourself; it isn’t Boston or anything.” But today, I did not have that one.

“It is Boston,” I tell myself. “Hold nothing back.”

The turn onto Boylston Street is bittersweet. I am trying to take in the scene. The crowds. The history of this race. The buildings and businesses that suffered in the wake of last year’s destruction. But, argh, it hurts bad. I can see the finish now but it is so far. I am just over 3:20 and I can see the Finish. I am pushing. I feel a pain equivalent to that of giving birth. It is that pain that you would never tolerate if you didn’t know that a) it would end soon and b) the reward would be worth it.

Then I step across the line. I think my time (by my watch) is 3:23, but later learn it’s officially 3:24:00.

I struggle to stay upright, but I have a huge smile on my face. The people are still lining the section after the finish line, cheering for us. At the end, runners walk “Mile 27” — stop at medical if you need, get water, food, your medal, check the leaderboard (American Meb Keflezighi won!) and finally exit at Boston Commons. As we limp outside the official corridors of the race, a massive mob of Bostonians stand, hooting and hollering “You did it!” You beat them!” “We beat them!” They are speaking, of course, about them — the young terrorists who wreaked havoc on this city last Patriots Day. “Thank you for running!” they shouted.

“Thank you. Thank you so much,” I answer. And some tears come out of my face.

Post race reflection, gratitude 

That night, as I celebrated with friends at a Boston bar, I fully appreciated the sadness that must have engulfed this city following the last marathon. One friend mentioned how he felt guilty even going to eat at a restaurant that night and retreated to the suburbs for dinner, out of respect. Many runners packed up and went home that night; those who couldn’t hid out in their hotel rooms, feeling sickened.

It was a stark contrast to this year. The whole town filled with runners. Every business in Boston sported a motivational running sign in the window. Random citizens stopped runners to thank them for being here. Fun-loving, money-spending, crazy tourist marathoners fill the bars and restaurants.

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Dallas runners/Boston Strong

At the celebration with my D-town team, one of our more-seasoned runners, “Coach Steve,” made a toast:

“A year ago,” he says, “they stole our opportunity to celebrate. A year later, we are back … and I am so proud of everyone … Boston Strong 2014.”

Cheers ensued.


Dallas runners remember, return to Boston Marathon

White Rock Running Co-op members Brent Yost, Grant Wickard, Ann Marie Brink, Brent Woodle, Allyson Gump. Kristi Madden and Steve Monks completed the 2013 Boston Marathon. Most of them are returning in 2014. Photo courtesy Brent Yost

White Rock Running Co-op members Brent Yost, Grant Wickard, Ann Marie Brink, Brent Woodle, Allyson Gump. Kristi Madden and Steve Monks completed the 2013 Boston Marathon. Most of them are returning in 2014. Photo by Greg Brink

Originally printed in the East Dallas Advocate Online Magazine.

A year after the terroristic and deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon, members of the White Rock Running Co-op say they are grateful to be returning to the 2014 race.

Lochwood resident James Ayers had departed the race grounds an hour or so before hell broke loose last year.

He left Boston last year grateful for he and his wife Amber’s safety (she was waiting for him near the finish line), impressed by Boston’s swift resilience and determined to return. But, like the rest of the day’s marathoners, bafflement and depression trumped a wide range of other feelings.

A sub-three hour marathoner, James handily qualified for the 2014 marathon, and the couple decided returning to this year’s race would be a privilege.

“Being a part of this year’s race is important to me because of its significance. This particular race seems to epitomize overcoming adversity. The belief that we press forward in life despite difficult situations and circumstances is something that is important to me,” Ayers says. “To see the way the city came together after last year’s horrific events was incredible. I don’t doubt that this year’s race and the events that surround it during Patriot’s day will serve as another chance for the city to move on and become stronger. It will be a special day for the city and one that I am very proud to be a part of.”

White Rock Running Co-op members Brent Woodle, Adam Rubin and James Ayers will run the 2014 Boston Marathon: Photo by Mark Olajetu

White Rock Running Co-op members Brent Woodle, Adam Rubin and James Ayers will run the 2014 Boston Marathon: Photo by Mark Olajetu

He adds that he thinks this year’s race will be about as safe as it possibly can be.

“I think there is always going to be some small worry with any large public event, and I’m sure that Boston probably won’t be the last time we see a tragedy like last year. But what can you do? Unfortunately it is the world we live in today.

Marathon organizers have taken major measures, such as prohibiting all bags and adding checkpoint screenings. Instead of tightening the race, however, they increased the field by some 9,000 runners. That means this will be the biggest Boston Marathon with the exception of 1996 when they allowed more than 36,000 runners in honor of the event’s 100th birthday.

Preston Hollow resident and WRRC member Ann Marie Brink ran her first Boston Marathon last year and was back in her hotel room before the blast.

This year she’s back and her husband Greg Brink will be cheering her on.

“Running the race after last year’s events is an honor,” she says. “I hope that by running, cheering, and volunteering we can all help the city of Boston reclaim Patriot’s Day as the celebration that it has traditionally been. The fact that it will happen the day after Easter lends even more weight to the idea of renewal and rebirth.”

Full disclosure (or am I just bragging): I also am a member of the WRRC will be running the Boston Marathon Monday.

See also: Neighborhood runners show solidarity after Boston Marathon tragedy


Dallas women kick ass at Rocky Raccoon 100

I spent last Saturday night in front of my laptop watching the results of the Rocky Raccoon 100-miler.

Seamus — the mutt I adopted from Nicole, the RR100 champ — accompanied me as I followed the race online.

Seamus — the mutt I adopted from Nicole, the RR100 champ — accompanied me as I followed the race online.

My friend Nicole Studer won the women’s race, for the second year in a row (Nicole fostered my dog Seamus and brought the two of us together, so I will forever be indebted to her; he is the best mutt in the world – just look at him).

The second-place female Kaci Lickteig began gaining on Nicole over the last several miles and the 16+ hour ultra came down to a near neck-in-neck with Lickteig just three minutes behind Nicole at the finish. Whew – what a day.

Worth noting: the ultra-running/trail-running community did a bang-up job on coverage with live streaming, tweeting, Vine-ing, blogging, etc. so kudos to irunfar.com and endurancebuzz.com.

Below is the write up I posted on Advocatemag.com about our area’s kick-ass ultra-running women.

White Rock Running Co-op members James Ayers, Brent Yost, Nicole Studer, Eric Studer and Brent Woodle

White Rock Running Co-op members James Ayers, Brent Yost, Nicole Studer — and her hubby Eric Studer — and Brent Woodle are exhausted but ecstatic after a long day at the Rocky Raccoon 100-mile race.

Ultra-running is a fringe activity that is gaining popularity, and women from the Dallas and White Rock area are proving to be leaders in the sport.

An ultra-marathon refers to anything longer than the 26.2 miles that is a regular marathon — 50k, 50 miles, 100 miles and beyond — and they typically are run on dirt trails (and frequently over mountains and other grueling terrain).

We wrote a year ago about White Rock-area resident and White Rock Running Co-op member Nicole Studer when she won the Huntsville Rocky Raccoon 100-mile race.

This year’s Rocky Raccoon 100, held this past weekend, served as the USA Track and Field 100-mile Trail Championship, and Studer defended her title against an even tougher field of women than last year. She won again; she ran under 16 hours and beat second-place Kaci Lickteig from Nebraska by just three minutes.

Another neighborhood woman, Shaheen Sattar — who also improved last year’s time by more than an hour — placed third.

Dallas Running Club member and neighborhood resident Bryan Fisher snapped this pic of Claudia Zulejkic, who he supported as she tackled the 100-mile race.
Dallas Running Club member and neighborhood resident Bryan Fisher snapped Claudia Zulejkic, who he supported as she tackled the 100-mile race.

Claudia Zulejkic, who you’ll find most days working at Bikram Yoga Dallas on Mockingbird-Abrams, ran all day and night, completing the 100-mile ultra-marathon in a little more than 25 hours and placed in the top 25 women out of more than 100 who started the race.

The finishers all benefitted from the help of pacers and crew, they say, and therefore several members of the neighborhood-based Dallas Running Club and White Rock Running Co-op participated in that capacity.

Studer, an attorney by day, tells us her toenails are a little messed up, but other than that she’s feeling good.


Makeup marathon: Louisiana Marathon (plus a look at the long-run myth, carb unloading and loading and miraculous healing)

There are many things I searched for and obsessed over in the weeks leading up to the Louisiana Marathon, and in many cases there was a lack of information, so I am going to share my experiences and findings on the following:

What to do after a canceled marathon

Sudden calf injury

Running while on vacation

Running a marathon after two weeks of rest

Running a marathon on no long runs in training

Nutrition — carb starve and carb load

The Louisiana Marathon

As I wrote in December, I was probably better prepared for a marathon than ever I had been when the Dallas Marathon was called off due to ice. In the ensuing desperation and disappointment, I registered for the Jan. 19 Louisiana Marathon. As soon as I made the decision, The Coach says I need to figure out a way do a tempo run. Immediately. Your last two weeks basically have been recovery, he says, and if you want to do a marathon in a month, we need to stop losing fitness now.

It was as if I was hemorrhaging fitness and the only way to stop the bleeding was to head out in the 20-degree icepocolypse and run for two hours.

OK. I was feeling antsy anyhoo.

Richland the day of my run

Richland the day of my run

The entire city was blanketed in ice that day. I could not drive to the gym (it wasn’t open anyway) so I strapped on my heart-rate monitor and bundled up and walked to the soccer fields at Richland College (running on the streets was not an option. Too slippery).

I ran through the snowy grass and did a 10-mile tempo run by heart rate. It was similar to running in sand. I trained through the next few days and then I got sick with a cold. I kept running daily but cut it short on a couple of occasions — felt superbad. The following Saturday I had another 12-13-mile tempo run. About six miles in, a sudden wrecking pain in my left calf stopped me in my tracks. It was so bad I had to call for a ride home. I went to the sports chiro that week, got it taped, started wearing a compression sock on the injured leg and switched to the elliptical.

I left for Las Vegas a week before Christmas. It was supposed to be a relaxing, post-marathon trip to visit my sister, bro-in-law and nephews. Instead I had no marathon under my belt and I had to figure out how, if and where to run — there was no elliptical access. Fortunately, I adore running while on vacation and Las Vegas is a beautiful place to run. My sister lives about 20 minutes outside of the city and the landscape and the weather was perfect, so I worked in a very easy hour-long run each morning before the rest of the family woke up. The calf was sore, but as long as I went easy (we’re talking a 9:15 pace) it did not worsen.

Vegas

Vegas

The day after Christmas, back in Dallas, I had a hard workout on the schedule. Three times 30 minutes at race pace. The first 30 minutes was OK — I easily managed about a 7:10-7:15 pace. Then the wheels fell off. My calf pain erupted and my pace slowed. Coming up the Katy trail on the last three miles I slowed to 7:30 and was hurting immensely. After that, coach mentioned the marathon probably wasn’t a good idea. I argued that I did not want the training of the last several months to go to waste; I wanted a marathon. He said I could run the half marathon, that it would be like the marathon without the extreme strain. “Thanks, I teased him. That’s what I need a coach for. To tell me that the half is the same as the marathon but not as extreme. Haha.” So we had a laugh, but resigned to see how the next few days went.

This sounds weird, but my calf problem was miraculously healed. I know. Crazy. But I did a ton of reading that weekend about healing and I concentrated and meditated on health and I told the pain it didn’t exist. And then the pain was gone. Again, I realize that this sounds insane and there certainly is some other explanation. I’m just saying: this is what happened.

I resumed running easy two times a day for one hour each.

DRC 10k: Terrell Daily Photo

DRC 10k: Terrell Daily Photo

I ran the DRC 10k in right-at 41 minutes — about a minute slower than my PR — but still good for second female. Also I added miles before and after the race to make it a semi-long run. Still, I did not feel great about my speed. However The Coach reminded me that we hadn’t done any speed work in months, so this was to be expected.

Now we are two weeks away from the Louisiana Marathon and we decide that this next tempo run will determine whether or not I am going to be able to run a marathon.

Ten days out, I schedule a four-times-20-minute at race pace run within the heart rate zone 160-165.

I was very nervous about this run and I woke at 3:45 a.m. to get it done before work. I warmed up by jogging the 1.5 miles to Richland College. I would do the run on the parking lot and track — wanted to give myself every opportunity to do this.

Halfway through, I knew things were looking relatively good. I managed a 7:05-7:15 pace with no fade for the whole workout.

I wasn’t in quite the shape I was in right before Dallas — running sub-7s — but I was in form to run a conservative marathon, we decided.

After that workout, I continued to run twice a day, easy, right up to race day. Three days out (Thursday) I knocked it down to two 30-minute runs and the day before the race (Saturday) I ran one 30-minute run.

Long run

As race day approached I really started freaking out about my lack of long runs. Now, other than the marathon last December, I hadn’t run any single session all year over 15-16 miles. Still, leading up to Dallas I felt pretty confident — I had multiple weeks of 90-plus miles and some days of 24-26+ miles, just never all at once. But leading up to Louisiana, my mileage had dropped to 70-ish pw or less over the last 45 days and I had only two runs of 14 miles or more. So I scoured the Internets seeking someone who had seen marathon success on such low mileage — there weren’t many, or any that I could find.

Still, I had to trust what my coach and other respected coaches have stressed — conventional wisdom regarding long runs of 17+ miles is flawed. (“A farce,” is what the Hanson brothers call it.)

Nearly every marathon training program out there has a Saturday or Sunday weekly 16,17,18,20,22 mile long run.

The 20-22 mile long run three weeks out from a marathon is a ritual so deeply ingrained in the running culture that it is very difficult to ignore. It is a staple that even some of the most famous coaches call “The Key”. (Even the most old-school coaches now agree, however, that a 3 or more hour run is counterproductive, so someone whose long runs are done at a 10 mm pace, say, should not be doing 20-milers)

There are better ways. Simply, and this is the logic behind the increasingly popular Hanson plan, miles are important but training is far more effective when those miles are distributed throughout the week.

Many runners do a long slow Saturday run. They go easy or take Fridays off to prepare for the run. They are so pooped from the run that they need another day off afterward. With my training, I might run 12-15 miles on Saturday while others are doing 20, but I run 12 on Friday and 12 on Sunday, which the majority of us are not doing. My training, similar to Hansons, is based on cumulative fatigue. You are always training on tired legs and constantly adapting to more mileage. As one of the coaches tells Running Times, your 16-mile longest long run simulates the last 16 miles of the marathon rather than the first.

Some of the really fast, hardcore runners I know do 12 Friday, 20 Saturday and 12 Sunday and so on … but, think about it, a fast runner can do 18-20 miles in two hours. In addition, they are clocking some 100-120 miles per week, so the 18-20 is a smaller percentage of their weekly mileage, which is a significant point.

Placing too much importance on one run is a training mistake.

Also, I am going to hurt the next person who implies that the Hanson-esque plans are a shortcut. One guy told me it was fine if you want to “just finish” the marathon, but to PR you need several 20 milers. Another person said, “it is amazing you run so well on your type of training,” as if I am slacking and do OK despite it.

Look at these cumulative fatigue-based programs and you will see, it is tougher and requires more commitment than what 90 percent of recreational or semi-competitive runners are doing. It is for those who wish to improve time. No one who wants to “just get by” or “just finish” is doing anything like this.

I have been injured here and there, but far less since I began splitting my runs into two-a-days. I can run 80-100 miles a week with only a little fatigue and no injuries. Before, when I was following a typical marathon-training program, I could not run more than 60 mpw without getting hurt.

Goal

So my coach looked at the stats on my last workout and decided I should go for a “conservative” 3:12. LOL. He is very optimistic and I think he sometimes forgets how old I am. I so appreciate his belief in me. For perspective, my PR in the marathon was a 3:26 (albeit at a very hot and humid Dallas 2012). I converted his goal to a slightly more conservative goal of 3:15, which would allow me to run with a pace group.

The idea of knocking 10 minutes off my best, even in decent weather, on this f-ed up last few weeks of training, still seemed like a reach.

Eat

I needed any extra help I could get, so we looked at nutrition.

A week before the race I did a low carb diet, in an effort to prepare myself for the carb load which would begin three days out.

Low carb is difficult for a vegetarian. Luckily I am not vegan. I lived, basically, on eggs with cheese and fake bac’n and, for dessert, Cool Whip. Warning: day two of no/low carb can leave one feeling pretty bad. When I got to a point the second afternoon that I could barely stand up from my desk, I chewed a sugary piece of gum and felt instantly better.

Then there was three days of carb loading, which meant rice, Powerbars and spaghetti. The goal is five grams of carbs for every pound of body weight. At one point my husband offered me a piece of cheese and I actually said, “no thanks I am on an all-carb diet.” As fun as it sounds, I actually hate the carb load. I went from 115 pounds during the carb fast to 121 during the load, so I felt fat and icky by the last day and my Lululemon shorts (thrift-store bought because their prices are a travesty) hardly fit. I let up a little on the eating the day before the race, but still grazed all day on Powerbars and pretzels and had spaghetti with marinara for dinner.

The Race

I woke up race day feeling good and excited. When I walked outside I panicked a bit. It was warmer than expected — 59 degrees. But by the time I arrived downtown it dropped to 53-ish. Race had an early start, thankfully: 7 a.m.

Scientifically, 41 degrees is the ideal temperature for the marathon, studies show,  and performance decreases slightly with every 5 degrees above 50. However, considering that my last marathon was run in 70-degree, 80-percent humidity, I was thrilled with this weather.

I did a warm up of 1-mile jog and some light stretches, leg lifts, skips and a quick stride or three.

Might I get in trouble for this? Might. Unpurchased Sport Photo

Might I get in trouble for this? Might. Unpurchased Sport Photo

The Louisiana Marathon is low key — 4,000 (1,475 marathoners and 2,528 halfers, plus relay, etc.) runners, cheap hotel rooms, easy access to start, gear check etc. This all is to my benefit because crowds and waits and lines increase my panic. I easily found the 3:15 pacer, George, an ultrarunner from Florida who claimed it was way too cold for his taste. It was his third year running this marathon (which means he’s been here every year). He described the two hills on the course; it’s the same hill, actually, that you hit at mile two and again on the way back at mile 24.

The half and full marathons start together so it was a crowded first few miles through downtown.

There are water stops every 1.5 miles, which I find a little excessive, but it seems to be the norm now.

I decided I was going to consume this race in four parts — every seven miles would be like one loop around the track, using the mile as an allegory. The last loop would be shorter but much harder.

I felt great for the first “loop” — listened to George and the other guys talk about various races and running habits and letting the group block the wind around the lake.

The second “loop” also felt relatively good, but at about mile 14 I knew the full truth that I was running a marathon and felt the hints that pain was imminent.

By 16, I was feeling weary in some ways, but not enough to slow down. At mile 18, we turned around and began passing the runners behind us. I saw the 3:25 pace group and knew I was a good 10 minutes in front of them at mile 18-19. I told myself, as long as you keep going you will have a personal best—3:25 can’t catch you unless you start walking.

Around mile 20 two women passed me coming the other way and one said, someday I want to be that fast. She was talking about me?!

Somewhere around 21-22, George and the two guys still with him began to pull away. I struggled mightily, but kept thinking about how far five miles actually is and knew I had to hang on and not blow up by trying to push too hard with miles still to go. At mile 22 George turned around and said to me, Come on! And I said, I am trying! That was the last of our communications. Around mile 23 a guy in the crowd said to me, You are the seventh place female right now. Your name is definitely going to be in the paper. That guy got a big smile from me.

I saw a woman — must be sixth place — ahead of me and told myself, Catch her. I thought it would give me something to focus on, but within moments she stopped to stretch, so I passed her and never saw her again.

At mile 24-ish, things got weird. The half marathon met back up with the marathon. So there are many scattered walkers of the half marathon that I had to weave around, and, then, The Hill. It seemed so small at mile two. Now it appeared insurmountable. As I ran the hill I was grunting and dry heaving. The strolling half-marathoners gave me some terrified looks as I passed. A couple ladies actually laughed at me. But most were like: You go girl. As I crested the hill, I could see George, but barely. Telling the pain it did not exist did not work in this case.

At this point I did have a terrifying thought — if that hill felt so bad, what will Boston and it’s heartbreakers feel like in April?!! Shit. But, hey, one race at a time.

At mile 24 and 25 my pace had slowed to about a 7:40-7:48. But now the crowds were gathering and I was weaving through walkers into downtown. I was hurting but I knew I was in for a personal best by close to 10 minutes if I could just hold on.

I even picked up the pace slightly on that final mile, and I hauled ass once I could see the finish line.

My watch read 26 miles well before I passed the 26-mile sign, and the last .2 seemed like two. My husband started yelling at me as I rounded the last corner. He says he tried to run alongside me but got tired — ha! I saw the finish line. The clock clicked over to 3:16 as I hit the mat. My official time was 3:15:53. George and the guys finished right around 3:14, so they were traveling just a little fast.

Sorry Sport Photo. Don't sue me.

Sorry Sport Photo. Don’t sue me. Why are your photos so expensive? Really, it is ridiculous.

There is no better feeling I know than crossing the finish line at the end of a marathon. No matter how good or bad the race went. (But especially when it goes well).

Imagine you find yourself at the bottom of a lake. You have to swim to the surface, but you are deeeep. You try not to panic and start making your way toward the sunlight above. At first, you are confident you will make it — you feel strong and can see the blue sky, after all. But then you realize it is more distant than you imagined and the farther you travel the more your lungs ache for oxygen and the more labored your movement and the less hopeful your thinking. As you struggle upward, you become more desperate to breathe. You become increasingly afraid you will not make it. Every stroke seems an eternity. The deprivation of air — the sheer sureness that you won’t make it — feels so engulfing, painful and horrific that you are tempted to succumb to death. Still, you want life; you resolve to give it one last push. And when that resolve is all but gone your hand — stretched out above your head — shatters the surface. Your fingers touch the wind and your face follows. Finally, you inhale the air. Beautiful life-restoring air.

That first breath? That is what crossing the finish line feels like.

Dramatic? Hell yeah — I live for drama. But that actually is the best way I can describe finishing — being able to breath after some borderline unimaginable deprivation.

After 

As for post-race festivities, the Louisiana Marathon is the best I have ever seen. There were booths upon booths of food vendors feeding runners everything from vegan gumbo to beer and sausages and deep-friend doughnuts. The weather by the end of the race was in the high 60s low 70s and we just spread out on a big lawn, listened to the band and hung around for the award ceremony. I received a nice medal and poster for winning my age group.

My cool poster

My cool poster

This was an excellent race, overall, and though I hated that Dallas was canceled, I had a great time in LA. The remainder of Sunday was dreamy — we ate, lounged in our room, watched football and two excellent pay-per-view movies (12 Years a Slave and Gravity).

Now, of course, I am in post-marathon depression, which might be the next topic I cover.


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