Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Screaming Pumpkin - a marathon ANYONE can win!

Not that I won it. But last year, at the inaugural running of this unique race, my super-awesome relay team (Team Scream) did win! This year... not so much with the winning. But it didn't really matter because this race is all about having fun.

The Screaming Pumpkin is a predication marathon (and marathon relay). Runners (and relay teams) must gauge how long it will take them to run the 26.2 miles and then select an appropriate starting time that will allow them to finish as close to midnight as possible without going over. Whoever does this wins the race. The catch is that runners are not allowed to wear a watch, Garmin, or any other timing device while they run. They must run "blind". Add to that a very hilly and difficult course through a cemetery in the dark of night, and you can see how challenging this becomes. It's not about being fast. It's about knowing how to pace yourself.

Our 4-person relay team was comprised of me, my husband Matt, and fellow FASTies Niki and Julie. The marathon course consists of 4 identical loops through Springdale Cemetery. Yep, this is the same cemetery in which FAST often trains. Hill of Destruction, Hill of Devastation, etc... they're all in the cemetery (the Hill of Death is not, but it's close to the cemetery). So that should give you a little taste of what the course is like. That is to say, it tastes like pain. Unless, of course, you run it slowly, which is exactly what my team opted to do.

The Screaming Pumpkin is not just a race, though. It's also a Halloween party. Runners come decked out in costumes (and there's a costume contest), there's a live band (O-Face!), and lots of tasty homemade food and hot chocolate.

Costumes that must speak for themselves because there just aren't any words to describe them...

I didn't wear a costume in the traditional sense, but I donned my Flying Pig tutu and a pair of wings.. so I was a fairy? Sure!

Julie was to run the first leg, followed by me, Matt and finally Niki. Julie took off at about 6:30pm, giving our team 5.5 hours to finish. Pleeeeenty of time, right? The rest of us stood around and chatted it up, enjoying the live entertainment.

Julie gets ready to start the first leg while Niki and Matt look on

We planned on Julie taking about 1:25 to run her leg. But she surprised us all when she finished her loop about 20 minutes faster than expected! I was glad I had just taken a port-a-potty break a few minutes earlier. I took off for my leg of the race and knowing that we were ahead of schedule, I ran my loop as slow as I could manage. I trotted along at a leisurely pace, I walked up the steep hills, I stopped at the water stop and chatted with the volunteers - anything to slow myself down. I even stopped to pet a cat at one point (a very friendly little fellow who, since he was mostly black, made the experience that much more Halloweeny).

As I was winding through the very dark cemetery, I noticed that I never felt scared or spooked. I was alone for a lot of the run, occasionally being passed by other faster runners, but it was never an uncomfortable solitude. If anything, it was rather peaceful. The wind would rustle the trees, and I would hear owls hooting, or small animals scurrying away in the leaves. I even saw an owl at one point, with big glowing eyes staring at me from a tall tree. I looked for ghosts, but disappointingly, I didn't see any. I paid my respects to the many dead who reside in Springdale, thanking them for being so welcoming to all the runners who tread these paths. And before I knew it, I was making my way out of the cemetery onto the well-lit path back to the start/finish area. Matt took off for the third leg of the run.

Since I was done running, I could finally enjoy the free food and drinks. At last year's Screaming Pumpkin, the free food was decidedly non-vegetarian-friendly. I believe I ended up having a bag of potato chips and a cup of hot chocolate. I had mentioned it to the nice women who were serving the food and they said they would try to have more veggie-friendly food the next year. And boy did they ever!!! This time they had veggie chili, and homemade mac-n-cheese in addition to everything else. It was outstanding. Thank you, Screaming Pumpkin coordinators for listening and responding to runners' requests - it's very much appreciated!

Local band, O-Face, plays 80's and 90's rock hits for the runners

It was starting to get pretty chilly as I was standing around after running (temperatures were in the mid-40's at the start and were falling into the upper 30's by midnight), so I decided to go out to my car and get my warm sweats to put on. As I was walking back from my car, imagine my surprise when I saw this parked near the race start area:

Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener...

That's right folks, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile! I have no idea why it decided to show up at the Screaming Pumpkin, but there it was in all its wiener-y glory. The nice man who drives this vehicular work of art was telling us that there are only 6 of these in existence, and they are on the road 365 days a year. He gave us all very special glow-in-the-dark wiener whistles, which naturally became the foundation for a bunch of jokes about blowing on wieners. *snicker snicker*

Matt returned from his leg of the run and then it was Niki's turn to go. The person Niki was supposed to run with wasn't ready to go, so Matt offered to run with her instead. So off they went for the final leg of the run. Matt hadn't planned on running a half-marathon that night, but that was exactly what he was going to do. Overachiever!

I stayed in the food tent, enjoying the toasty warmth of the standing heaters, chatting with fellow FASTies and Stashies. Before we knew it, midnight was drawing near. I wandered out of the tent to watch for incoming runners. 11:54pm... a few runners start to come in. 11:56...a handful more runners... 11:57... a huge onslaught of runners... 11:59... a couple more, but where are Matt and Niki? 12:00... drat, we missed the midnight cutoff. 12:02... I start to get worried. Matt and Niki are two of the most injury-prone people I know - I was imagining them both lying on the ground in the cemetery, clutching their knees in pain. 12:04... there they are! They cross the finish at 12:05 and our team is awarded with the post-midnight consolation prize of pumpkins. Well, I guess you can't win them all!

Now, usually I finish up a race report with a nice graph and map from my Garmin, but I can't do that for this race and believe me, it's killing me. I HATE not having data from a run. All I know about this run is that it was 6.55 miles and it took me 1:25 (I told you I was trying to go slow!). Uh, so, here's a graph. And a map. The accuracy of either cannot be guaranteed.

Man, I am GOOD at keeping an even pace!

A highlighter and some hand-drawn arrows - the next best thing to GPS mapping

I'm not entirely sure that the map is correct, since I was running in the dark and really not completely aware of where exactly I was going, but I think it's at least close to the actual route. So how did I know where to go? Well, thankfully, they had the path lined with glow sticks. All one had to do was follow the glow sticks to one's right. That sure beat trying to read that map with a headlamp in the dark and having to ask ghosts for directions.

So will we be back next year to reclaim our title? It's quite likely. This is definitely an event to return to as it seems to get better every year. Maybe next year I'll finally see some ghosts! *cue spooky music*

Peace. Love. Train.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sweat Like A Pig goes international: The Niagara Falls Marathon

This past Sunday I ran my first race in a foreign country: the Niagara Falls International Marathon. Now, many of you may not think of Canada as a particularly exotic foreign country. Indeed, many think of Canada simply as America's hat - a stylish accessory for the US of A. But I'm here to tell you that it's totally different. For one thing, they use the metric system. So when they say "It's going to be 17° today!", you do not need to get out your puffy down coat. Also, they have a strong accent that can be difficult to understand at times. When they say "oot", they mean "out". And when they say "hoose", they mean "house". And when they say "eh", nobody is really sure what they mean. It's like a whole other language, really. So, as you can see, Canada is very exotic and therefore, a potentially exciting place to run a race.

My best friend, Shelley (who happens to be Canadian, and does say “oot” and “hoose” in that cute Canadian way), and I were planning to run the 2-person marathon relay together, with me running the first 13.1 miles, and she running the last 13.1 miles. Since this was a team effort, the race report would simply not be complete without her input. So I’d like to introduce the first ever Sweat Like A Pig guest blogger - Shelley The Running Canadian! She will be writing in purple

Well, I AM very exotic and foreign, but I do NOT say “oot” and “hoose”. You’re the one with the funny accent!

If you say so, eh. I just know I've been "oot" to your "hoose".

So, getting back to the race... This marathon claims to be the only marathon that starts in one country (the US) and ends in another (Canada). This unique feature presents a logistical challenge to the race coordinators in that they have to arrange for all the runners to clear customs prior to race day. This allows the runners to run across the border without having to stop and present their passports to a border patrol officer. Let's face it, it would be pretty hard to get a PR if you had to stop for 5 minutes and explain that you were not bringing any liquor, tobacco or gifts into Canada.

This race is in its 36th year, so the race organizers have a pretty good handle on the customs arrangements by now.... BUT, this year was the first year they offered the 1812 Peace and Friendship 2-person marathon relay. This threw a big, huge, case-hardened wrench into their well-oiled machine. Allow me to paint you a picture:

Race expo, Skylon Tower, Saturday afternoon (10/23)

Shelley and I entered the expo and sought the direction of a helpful (?) volunteer.

"We're doing the marathon relay," I told the volunteer. "I'm running the first leg, and she is running the second leg."

"Oh, uhhh, okay," said the volunteer, looking obviously confused. "Uhhh... you (pointing at me) need to go over there to check in with customs. And you (pointing at Shelley) need to go over there because you don't need to check in with customs."

"Okay, thanks!" That seemed easy enough. Ha. Ha ha ha...

I wandered over to the customs table with passport in hand. I told them my name. They flipped through their list of names, looking stern and official. I was not on their pre-approved list. I told them that it may be under Shelley's name since we were a relay team. They flipped through their list again, looking even more stern. Yes, her name was on the list. But mine was not. They argued that I could not run the first leg of the race (which runs across the Canadian border) because my name was not on their list. They said Shelley should be the one to run the first leg. I argued that Shelley is certainly not running the first leg because it involves running across a very large bridge, and she doesn't "do" bridges. They laughed sternly at that. Customs officers have a strange sense of humor. Or humour, rather, since they're Canadian and they spell things funny. I began to panic. I knew Shelley didn't bring her passport because she didn't think she would need it. I pleaded with the customs officers. I don't know why her name was on the list and not mine. Nobody from the race organization ever asked us who was running which leg - why would they assume? Finally, they agreed to write my name in their official list and let me through. They gave me a smiley hand stamp of approval. I found this ironic since the customs officers are anything but smiley.

I proceeded to bib number pickup. The nice lady at the relay table asked for my name. I told her it's probably under Shelley's name, since everything else seems to be under Shelley's name. She asked "Well, where's your friend? She needs to check in with customs too!" I ran frantically around the check-in area looking for Shelley. I finally saw her back at the customs table, arguing with the stern and official customs officers. I began to panic again. Why would she need to check in with customs? She wasn't going anywhere near a border for her leg of the run!

I think I was actually beyond panicked at this point and was just about to descend into a full-blown anxiety attack. I think the nice lady at the relay table could probably sense that and didn’t want it happening on her shift.

It's true. Shelley was starting to hyperventilate. After much haggling and panicking and arguing and begging, we finally got things sorted out with customs and they gave her a smiley hand stamp of approval. We were finally able to get our race numbers and shoe chip. The nice lady at the relay number pickup table took down notes of all the issues with customs so that they could work on those issues for next year - such as making sure that both relay runners get onto the customs list. I appreciated that they were obviously intent on improving the process.

We proceeded to get our official hooded jackets and goodie bags. They did not disappoint:


This is almost everything that was in the goodie bag. Some things are missing because I ate them (hey, I was hungry!). But look closely, folks - that's an entire box of pasta, and an entire bottle of vitamins, not to mention an assortment of granola bars, cereals, a rain poncho and such. The jacket is actually pretty nice - it's a lightweight windbreaker, perfect for those breezy, cool fall days. I was curious if it was also waterproof, so I ran the sleeve under a streaming faucet for about 20 seconds and only a little bit of moisture got through. So I think it would keep a person pretty dry in a light rain shower. Not too shabby for a $96 CAD entry fee (which is like, what, $20 USD? Kidding! I'm kidding!!!).

The actual race expo was bigger than I expected as well. This is not a large marathon. There were about 1000 full marathoners, 30 marathon relay teams, 2400 half-marathoners, 450 10k-ers, and 400 5k-ers. This event is just a little larger than the Steamboat Classic in Peoria. So I expected the expo to have a someone handing out protein bar samples, maybe a chiropractor doing "free spinal analyses", a few local races handing out brochures, and a Spibelt booth. There was actually quite a bit more. Brooks, a major sponsor of the race, had a large selection of official race-logo'd apparel as well as other Brooks gear. There were several other running apparel shops set up, not to mention many other booths for races, gear, nutrition, and more. It was certainly nowhere near the size of the Chicago Marathon or Flying Pig expos, but it was decent.

Fast forward to race morning. I had set my alarm for 6:00am. This was entirely too early for anyone to get up for a race that started at 10:00am, but the buses to the starting line in Buffalo, NY were to depart between 7:00 and 7:45am. Now, I can see you doing the mental calculation... trust me, none of it makes any sense. First of all, a marathon that doesn't start until 10:00 am? Seriously? And second of all, buses that leave 3 full hours before race start??? It's only a 45 minute drive (including time spent going through US customs) to the race start. I'm sure there is some logistical reason why the race starts so late and the buses leave so early, but I'm not privy to that information, so all I can say is... Seriously???

I got up, had some coffee and a banana and got all my race gear on. I had to bring my passport with me, since we would be going through US customs. I didn't have any pockets large enough to hold a passport, so after a bit of experimenting, I figured out that I could stash it comfortably in my sports bra. It's nice having multipurpose cleavage!

Practicing my passport-in-the-bra trick

The bus stop was just outside of the hotel we were staying at (Sheraton on the Falls), so shortly after 7:00, Shelley, who was still in her PJ's (Hey, I put sweats on!), walked me down to the bus stop. She had packed me a "lunch" - a bagel with peanut butter (it's the mom in me), so I got in line clutching my lunch in both hands and feeling like a nervous kid on the first day of school. There were several buses already filling up with people, and it wasn't long before I was boarding a bus and waving goodbye to Shelley.

Getting on the bus with my "lunch"

The bus ride was relatively uneventful. I sat next to a nice Canadian woman who was getting ready to run her first full marathon. We chatted about the addiction of running, and told stories of how we got hooked. The drive seemed to go on for quite a while, and it really made me stop and think about how far 26 miles really is. It seems much longer on a point-to-point course than on a closed loop course. We drove over the Peace Bridge, the bridge I would soon be running back over, and stopped for a few minutes while US Customs checked everyone's passports. Soon enough, we had arrived at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, which was the start of the race. It was a beautiful area, and the weather could not have been more perfect. It was about 55° with a mix of sun and clouds and a light breeze.

Runners warming up near the art gallery

There were still two hours until the race start, and the museum had kindly opened its doors for the marathoners so we could enjoy the artwork, relax, use the indoor plumbing, and stay warm up until race time. They even had a live band playing mellow world beat type music. It was an interesting departure from the typical amped-up-driving-beat-get-fired-up type of music that is typically played before a big race. I liked it. It made me kind of feel like napping, but I liked it. It went well with the art gallery.

Live entertainment in the gallery

As race time grew nearer, I decided to make one last visit to a real restroom. But it turned out that everyone else had gotten the same idea, so there was a rather long line outside the ladies' room. So I did what anyone who had just downed 20 oz of water and had 15 minutes until race start would do... I used the men's room. The guy using the urinal seemed amused. Hey, when you gotta go, you gotta go!

I made my way to the starting line and seeded myself behind the 4:30 marathon pace group. I wanted to run about 2:20 - not a super-hard all-out race effort, but not an easy walk in the park either. The start of the race was signaled by the blast of a canon (War of 1812 style!) and off we went.

Gettin' the party started!

Miles 0-4.5 - Buffalo, NY

One word can describe this part of the course: Spectacular. I never imagined I would see so much beauty in Buffalo of all places, but the neighborhoods we ran through were incredible. Gorgeous old homes with huge fiery and golden trees - it looked like a scene from a movie. (But did you see any buffalo? Well, um... no. I didn't run near the Buffalo Zoo though.) But we digress... This section of the course was a gentle net uphill, but in these early miles, it felt very easy. There was a spattering of spectators - mostly people who lived along the route who had come outside to cheer us on. Most of these people had brought their young children out to cheer too, and it was very cute. I high-fived several little kids. There was only one aid station that I can recall in these miles. The website says there were stations at Miles 2 and 4. I only remember there being one at Mile 3-ish. The next water stop I remember wasn't until after the bridge, at Mile 6.

Miles 4.5 - 5.5 - The Peace Bridge

The bridge that links Buffalo, NY to Fort Erie, Canada is actually about 3/4 mile long, but the ramp going up to it and the off-ramp on the other side make it about a mile altogether. Buffalo is at a higher elevation than Fort Erie, so there's a just little bit of a climb up to the top of the bridge, followed by a nice long downhill into Canada. Running over the bridge was really cool. There were customs officers pointing the way for us. I felt so privileged to be able to cross the border without stopping and showing a passport. I blew a mental raspberry at all the poor motorists who were stuck in line waiting to get through.

The Peace Bridge, seen from Old Fort Erie, Canada

Miles 5.5 - 13.1 - Fort Erie and Niagara Parkway

After exiting the bridge, the course ran through some back roads of Old Fort Erie for a mile or so before making its way to Niagara Parkway, where the remainder of the marathon ran. There were some nice people standing out on the sidewalks cheering us on, and a local fire department had gotten out their big fire truck for the occasion. The fire fighters were cheering us on in uniform. As the spectators became sparser, the aid stations became louder. One aid station featured goth-looking people dressed for Halloween. Another aid station featured very loud yelling boy scouts (or whatever the Canadian equivalent is). Since the aid stations were every mile from Mile 6 onward, that meant there were frequent "entertainment breaks". As I approached Mile 10, I felt a little fatigued, but my breathing was still under control, so I held pace. There were no clocks at the mile markers, but I estimated from my Garmin that I was roughly on track for a 2:20 half.

As I rounded a bend at about Mile 12, I could actually see the relay point in the distance. Knowing that it was so close, I picked up the pace because I knew Shelley was waiting anxiously for me. As my finish line came into focus, I could see and hear Shelley and her cheering squad. I crossed the timing mat and the clock read 2:18:16. They didn't provide a chip time for the individual legs of the race, but I believe mine was 2:16:39 (since it took me 1:37 to cross the start).

Running into the relay point

My Garmin data - nice negative splits

A race volunteer quickly pulled me to the side and started untying my shoe. We had to get the timing chip off of my shoe and onto Shelley's shoe as quickly as possible, because the clock was already running on her leg of the race. While the volunteer worked on the chip, I reset my Garmin and handed it over to Shelley so she could try it out. In a flash, she was off.

Miles 13.1-26.2

Waiting, waiting, waiting…. Emily had left at 7:30 to board the party bus to the start of the marathon. I went back up to our hotel room and so began the endless waiting. She wasn’t due to start running until 10, which meant that I wouldn’t be running until sometime after noon. That’s a looooooooong time to wait when you’re raring to go! (What, you couldn't, like, take a nap or something?) My ride to the relay point arrived and we finally headed out, getting there with about half an hour to kill. The mood was fun even though the weather was grey and a bit rainy. There was music (not great music, mind you, but music nonetheless) and lots of cheering spectators and all the B leg relay runners, who looked as anxious as I did to get running.

The A leg relay runners were trickling in to lots of fanfare – “RELAY RUNNER COMING” and everyone would buzz around to get chips changed over, medals dispensed and mylar blankets handed out.

Finally, I saw Emily! I started jumping up and down and screaming my head off “There’s my girl!!!!”. She crossed the relay finish line, they got the chip off her shoe and onto mine, she gave me her Garmin and I was off!

There she goes!

It felt great to finally be moving!
The route was beautiful and the Garmin helped me keep a good pace and not go off too fast, which is something I think I’m inclined to do. I was running around a 9:50 pace, no heavy breathing, no burn. I have to say that the first five miles just flew by. I passed a lot of marathoners, which made me feel good until I realized that, uh, yeah, they already had way more miles in than I did. The aid stations were fantastic. Lots of excited teens and kids handing out water and Cytoplex (or whatever that stuff was – blech) (I believe it was Cytocrap... er... I mean Cytomax).

I was on track for a great PR! I should have known the gods of fate would have something to say about that. Between mile 6 and mile 7 (I think), I started feeling some muttering from my intestinal region. Stop here if that was TMI because, oh boy, it gets better! (It's okay. As we say in the running business, "Sh*t happens" - I think we have all been there before.)

I stopped at the next aid station and grabbed the thankfully vacant porta-potty. Aaand…. nothing. Okay, fine. Back on the road, things were vaguely uncomfortable, but still okay. Next aid station, I stopped again. Nothing. Now things were far more uncomfortable. Two aid stations later, while the sun beat down on the plastic, turning the portapotty into a kind of sauna that was filled with ladybugs, there was some relief.

That’s when the aid stations ran out of water. WHAT???? How does that happen? I ran on. I walked some. I started eyeing the Niagara River. How bad would it be if I just scooped some up? Hmmmm… it probably wouldn’t help much with my gut issues. I was slowing down, walking more, but at least I was in good company. Finally, at the Mile 24 aid station, they had water! I guzzled two cups and soldiered on. I knew I wasn’t going to make my stretch goal, but I figured I could maybe still PR.

Suddenly, I could see (and hear) the Finish. It was just up there, around that bend. And when I got around that bend, there was my Coach (that's me!), ready to run with me those last few hundred meters (I had just had a big lunch and a beer, so I wasn't sure of my ability to sprint to the finish, but I was sure gonna try!).

I picked it up. She started yelling at me. " COME ON, YOU CAN DO IT!!!" I think I yelled back – "I CAN’T!!!!" (I kept yelling at her, and I think she ran faster just to get away from the yelling - hey it worked, didn't it?) Then I sped up and kicked it across the damn finish line, where I immediately ran to the fence and crouched down because I thought I was going to toss my cookies.

Our big team finish!!!

A nice paramedic man came over to make sure I was alright and I think I might have uttered a few choice words about the lack of water at the aid stations. I do distinctly recall saying “I’m NEVER doing this again.”. (Yep, she did say that, and I responded with hysterical laughter, because she said the same thing after the last half-marathon she ran. Maybe that's what we were laughing at in those pictures. Yes, I suspect that was it.)

So…. Flying Pig Half-Marathon, anyone?
(See what I mean? She's already planning the next one. Never doing this again, MY FOOT!)

After Shelley got over her initial nausea, she proceeded through the finish area and collected her medal, space blanket and bag of food. Then our cheering squad met up with us and took some pictures of Team Ooo A Shiny Medal donning their shiny medals. It's amazing how normal I look in this picture. In reality, I was dying on the inside. DYING! You wear death very well, my friend.
Ooo, TWO Shiny Medals!

The relay medals are very cool. I think these may rank in my Top 5 favorite (or favourite, for you Canadians) medals of all time. The A Leg medal has a star (for the USA) and the Peace Bridge on it. The B Leg medal has Niagara Falls and a maple leaf (for Canada, eh) on it. Put them together and they make a complete picture, kind of like those Best Friends charms from way back when. And it's rather appropriate considering I ran this relay with my best friend.

BFF medals!

Next year we could run opposite legs of the relay and get the other medal, then we'd each have both medals. But it would mean I'd have to run over the Peace Bridge, and as previously mentioned, I don't "do" bridges. That would be due to my absolutely crippling fear of heights. Well, I seem to recall you running over some pretty long bridges over the Ohio River in the Flying Pig, and you lived to tell the tale. You know what they say: if you want to overcome your fear, you must face it head-on. Joey from Friends said it best when he said "You're afraid of bugs? Get a bug!" So, afraid of heights? Get high! No wait... that's not right. Run across a bridge!!! I am sure you could do it.

Incidentally, upon reviewing the final race results, it turned out that Shelley and I placed 4th in the Women's Relay Team division. We were only 8 minutes away from a 3rd place award! That's pretty darn close in marathon minutes.

So, to sum up a very long race report (probably the longest ever in the history of Sweat Like A Pig)... This was a beautiful race that was mostly well-organized (not counting the customs issues and the whole running-out-of-water thing) and had great swag. I would definitely recommend this race to anyone (anyone with a valid passport, that is). With the breathtakingly scenic course and plenty of elbow room, it is a nice change of pace from a crowded, big-city marathon like Chicago. So get on "oot" to Canada and enjoy Niagara Falls with a nice marathon, eh!

Peace. Love. Train.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Random Post-Marathon Thoughts

Recovering from a marathon gives a runner a lot of extra time to think about stuff. I feel like this is a good place to write all those thoughts down. Warning: this will be random and may seem nonsensical at times. Read at your own risk. If you haven't read my Chicago race report, now's a good time to do it - it may help this post make a teeny bit more sense. Maybe. Eh, probably not. But it's worth reading anyway.

1. I distinctly remember running over two dead rats during the marathon. In two different places. Is this normal for Chicago? Were the rats already dead before the marathon, or did they get trampled to death by the elites?

2. And while we're on the subject of gross things about Chicago, what was the deal with the sewer gas smell? I'd say a good 25% of Chicago smells like sewer gas. The other 75% smells like fried food.

3. I need a redemption marathon. Not that getting a PR wasn't great. But I need to prove to myself that I can run a marathon in under 5 hours.

4. I'm worried that I'll just keep inching closer and closer to 5 hours without actually going under, so I'll be stuck in a seemingly endless schedule of marathons and all my toenails will fall off and when there are no toenails left, my fingernails will start falling off out of sympathy.

5. Charity Village is too freaking far away from the marathon start/finish area at Chicago. They should provide shuttle buses. Or roller skates!

6. I think I would enjoy being a volunteer at the Chicago Marathon next year. I bet I would be the best water-cup-passer-outer they've ever had. Maybe if I proved myself worthy, they would promote me to Gatorade-cup-passer-outer. Or the highest honor, Gu-passer-outer.

7. I ran 2 miles on Tuesday - my first post-marathon run. Was I not supposed to? Hal Higdon says no. Hal Higdon says don't even think about running until the Thursday after your marathon. Oops. Sorry, Hal.

8. You know, I'm not sure I really care that much what Hal Higdon says. He also says no races until 4 weeks after your marathon, and I'm doing a half-marathon in less than two weeks. Take that, Hal Higdon!

9. Hopefully I don't collapse in my half-marathon and have to deal with Hal Higdon standing over my broken body, waggling his finger in my face and saying "Neener neener, I told you so!"

10. I really shouldn't have smiled for all the cameras on the marathon course. I actually look like I was having fun at Mile 20. I mean just look at these pictures. It's so misleading, because I was actually having a near-death experience at that point and as I was walking into the light, I was filled with a sense of joy and peace. I wasn't joyful about the marathon, I was joyful about an eternity filled with all the cookies I could ever want.

Mile 18-ish: Giving thumbs up to Jesus as I go into the light

Mile 357 (or so it felt), walking and miserable, but still smiling for the camera. Also, that girl in the yellow shorts wearing the same shirt passed me all cheerful-like, saying "GREAT JOB! YAY OAR! You look GREAT!" and if I had had the energy, I would've stuck my foot out and tripped her.

11. I bet running through Chinatown is really cool when you're not too delirious to appreciate it. I vaguely remember some Chinese-looking buildings. And some dragons. But it's entirely possible I hallucinated these things.

12. The shoes I wore for the marathon are covered in all these nasty bits of white stuff. What is this stuff? It almost looks like little paper spit-wads. Were spectators shooting spit-wads at me??? Why would they do this?

13. I have already been researching marathons for my next 26.2. I can't decide if I want to do another one soon, or wait a year. If I do one soon, maybe I can get that sub-5:00 goal out of the way quickly and move on to other (shorter) things. If I wait a year, maybe I'll get faster so that sub-5:00 is that much easier to achieve. Or maybe I should just sit on my butt and eat cookies.

14. The Chicago Marathon medal and the official race t-shirt both leave a lot to be desired. I have half-marathon medals that are way cooler looking. And they cost way less money and time to earn. It's like the Chicago Marathon is the Gucci of marathons - even though their gear is kinda ugly, people pay a lot of money for it because it says Chicago Marathon on it. Incidentally, the medal I got from OAR was cooler (in my opinion) than the actual marathon medal.

Chicago Marathon medal - meh

OAR Medal - cool ribbon!

15. I'd like to run a race in every state. Not a marathon in every state, because that's a LOT of marathons. But a race of some distance. Preferably races with state-related themes. I wonder if there's like a Spud 7-Miler in Idaho... Or maybe a Hula Half-Marathon in Hawaii.... or perhaps a Tornado 10k in Kansas.

16. Along the marathon course, they were handing out water-soaked sponges. These sponges had been sitting in water-filled kiddie pools. I'd be lying if I said it didn't cross my mind to skip the sponges completely and just dive right into the kiddie pools.

17. I can't believe how quickly I've forgotten the pain of Chicago. Already I want to run another marathon? Am I completely insane? (That's a rhetorical question - no need to be so enthusiastic about answering it, people.)

18. OMG, so I'm sitting here Googling marathons (yes, this is how I spend my recovery time) and I think I found my next marathon! Check it out! It's the Icebreaker Indoor Marathon. That's right folks, an indoor marathon. 95 laps around an indoor track. Oh, you laugh now because it sounds ridiculous, but when you read all the awesome reviews, you'll want to run it too. Come on, you know you want to!

19. Well, I'd love to sit here and think up more random thoughts, but I gotta go figure out my training plan for my next marathon. See ya!

Peace. Love. Train.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Chicago Marathon: More evidence that Mother Nature hates me

Why is it that every time I run a marathon, the weather sucks? For the Walt Disney World Marathon, it was 2000° and 136% humidity. For the Flying Pig, it was pouring rain. And for the Chicago Marathon, it was unbearably hot and sunny. Oh, it was a lovely day for sitting around and doing nothing. The sun was shining, birds were singing, blah blah blah. But from a marathoning perspective, it may as well been Death Valley.

But before I discuss all the millions of things that conspired against me in the actual race, let me back up to the pre-race events. No marathon race report would be complete without a rundown of the race expo. And Chicago certainly did not disappoint. The convention center was decked out in banners and posters and such all displaying the 10-10-10 logo.

Me under one of the many 10-10-10 banners

When we (my husband and I) entered the expo space, we were blown away by the size and scale of it. This picture does it no justice. It goes on for miles beyond what you can see here. Nike had by far the most impressive "booth". And when I say "booth", I mean small department store set up in the middle of the convention hall. They had hundreds and hundreds of items sporting Chicago Marathon designs. Naturally, we bought a whole bunch of them. My husband commented "Well, I guess I have to finish the marathon now that I've bought all this stuff!" Darn right you do!

A very small part of the expo

A brief side note about my husband.... About a month ago, he decided he was going to "do" Chicago. Now, mind you, he hasn't been training for a marathon and he's never run one before in his life. But he got the opportunity to use an injured runner's race entry that was otherwise going to go to waste, so he took it. Chicago is supposed to be a great marathon for first-timers, right? What could possibly go wrong? Ha. Hahahahaha. Just you wait, boys and girls. Just you wait.

Anyway, getting back to the expo... there was just so much to see, and so much to buy. In addition to my Nike purchases, I got two more pairs of my favorite toe socks. Hubby got a snazzy new race belt thingy that holds gels and a cell phone and a 6-pack of Coke and a 15" laptop. They were even selling Volkswagens at the expo! A Volkswagen would've come in real handy about Mile 22 of the race, but I digress...

Me and a giant shoe with eyeballs.

Hubby and I spent way too much time wandering around the expo. After we met the very nice lady in charge of OAR (Organization for Autism Research - the charity I was running for), we decided that we really needed to get off our feet and hydrate. We headed over to our hotel, got checked in and spent the next few hours relaxing. We took a cab to The Italian Village for a nice carby pasta dinner, and got back our room nice and early so we could do all of our race-prep and get to bed at an early hour.

The alarm went off dark and early at 5:00am and we forced down some food. It's hard to eat much when you're nervous, but you just have to do it. We headed down to the race start with our friends, Niki and Jeff, and the walk seemed endless. We needed to get to Charity Village - the special area reserved for charity runners with private gear check and private "bathrooms" (they're still port-a-potties, but at least there weren't lines).

Charity Village

After we checked our gear at the OAR tent, we made our way to the start line. That walk seemed endless too. I'm pretty sure we walked a good 1.5 miles before the race even started. We got the start area just before they were going to close the gates and squeezed ourselves in to the first place we were able. It just so happened that we had squeezed in among the 8:00 min/mile pace area. Whoops.

We were so close to the start line, we could actually SEE it!

We took a few last-minute pictures to show that at least we started the race looking happy and feeling good.

This is what happens when my ridiculously tall husband takes a picture of us.

This is what happens when ridiculously tall people scrunch down to my level to take a picture.

And before we knew it, we were off. It took us only 10 minutes to cross the starting line. People were passing us left and right because, well, we were surrounded by 3:30 marathoners, and we can barely run at that pace for 5k, let alone a whole marathon. Niki and Matt, who both suffer from various long-distance running ailments (ie, IT band syndrome), were implementing a run-walk strategy, so I didn't actually run with them. They started out ahead of me, but soon I overtook them and was on my own for the long haul.

I felt pretty good in the early miles. It was warm, but the tall buildings provided nice shade. I realized pretty early on that GPS and tall buildings don't mix well. My Garmin was all over the place in terms of pace and distance, and I had no clue how fast I was actually running. I could do a rough calculation at each mile marker, but this was poor feedback. And I knew that as the mileage increased, my ability to do math would decrease as defined by the Inverse Law of Distance and Computational Ability: For every mile run, one's ability to perform complex mental calculations decreases exponentially. True story. And just to show you all how messed up my Garmin was, allow me to show you a close-up of the run map from the downtown part of the course.

What the heck is this??? I swear I wasn't drunk during these miles.

The course starts out in skyscraper-land, where there are thousands upon thousands of cheering, enthusiastic spectators. It was so intensely motivating. When I got to the first water stop, I saw my good friend and fellow FASTie/Stashie, Cathy, handing out cups of water. She was just turning around to grab some more cups off the table when I ran up to her yelling "Cathy! Cathy!" and then I pulled her into a big hug and she promptly spilled two cups of water on me. It was my own fault, of course. I had forgotten Rule #145 of racing: Never sneak-attack the volunteers.

After the course left the downtown area, things got a lot quieter. For a little while at least. We ran through beautiful Lincoln Park, with lots of trees to provide shade. Then it was on to Wrigleyville and Boystown. I think this was one of the most enjoyable parts of the course. There was so much excitement from the spectators here, and the gay community really knows how to put on a show for the runners! I saw a very pretty drag queen, a bunch of gay men twirling rifles around, and a dancing superhero with a very... um... accentuated crotch area.

When I run through really enjoyable parts of a race, I tend to run faster. You would think that if I was enjoying it so much, I would slow down so I could enjoy it longer. But no. My brain says "Oh this is exciting, let's go FASTER!" I felt fine at the time. A little warm. My heart rate was a bit higher than I would've liked it to be. But I was doing fine with my fueling and hydration strategy, so I thought it was no big deal. I was wrong, and I would pay later.

As I approached the halfway point of the marathon, two significant things happened. First, my ponytail holder snapped and broke and all of the sudden, my huge mane of hair was hanging free around my head, on my shoulders and in my face. Naturally, I did not have a spare ponytail holder (believe me, that won't happen again). I seriously contemplated running into a CVS to buy some elastics (I had a $20 bill stashed in my bra, just in case). But in the end, I decided to just tough it out. I managed to tuck my hair under and around my headband to at least get it out of my face.

The second significant thing that happened was the course alert level was raised from Green to Yellow. This meant that the running conditions were now "moderate" due to the rising temperature. I was definitely starting to feel the heat. My heart rate was now consistently about 170, which was much higher than it should've been for the pace I was running. As the course turned to head west into Greektown, we left the shade of the tall buildings behind. I reached the halfway point in 2:24, which put me right on target for a sub-5:00 marathon. I still thought I had a chance at that point.

But things would change very soon. As the sun beat down on me and my heart rate soared, I kept trying to tell myself that it was all mental. That I just needed to tough it out. That it was supposed to be uncomfortable. I got to Mile 16 in under 3 hours and with the little bit of mental computational ability I had left, I figured out that I could run 12:00 min/mile for the rest of the race and still finish in 5:00. I still had hope.

Then things got ugly in a hurry. The course officials were calling out on loudspeakers that the alert level had been raised to red, or "High", which is code for "Imminent Death". They advised us to slow down, and to seek medical attention if we were feeling nauseous or dizzy. Things were getting serious now. I continued to run but my stomach felt unbelievably full. Every Sharkie I had eaten and every cup of water I had drunk felt like it was sitting like a rock in the bottom of my stomach, refusing to move. I couldn't eat or drink anymore. There was no more room in my gut. Apparently, my heart rate had been so high for so long that blood flow had been diverted away from my digestive system to help cool my extremities. A non-functioning digestive system was no good. No good at all.

I succumbed to the inevitable. I had to walk.

Evil warning flags of death.

I started out taking prolonged walk breaks through the aid stations. When my stomach would feel a little better, I would start running again. And when my stomach felt heavy again, I would walk. This went on for a few miles, but every time I walked, it got harder and harder to start running again. Around Mile 22, it got to the point where I would feel dizzy and lightheaded when I tried to run. It was then that I kissed my sub-5:00 goal goodbye. Self-preservation was the name of the game at that point. I didn't want to end up being carted off in an ambulance - I wanted to finish what I started. So I walked. And walked. And walked. My heart rate was still in the low 160's - much too high for a walking pace. The sun was relentless and there was no shade. The final miles of the Chicago Marathon are truly awful. There isn't much to see and a lot of the course runs alongside the expressway, so it's nothing but concrete for miles. They try to give you a mental boost with things like the Nike+ Power Song Zone at Mile 24, but when you're delirious with heat exhaustion, it doesn't really help that much. So I turned to the best source of entertainment at my disposal - my iPhone. I posted on Facebook and texted people. It helped a bit, as I got notes of encouragement from friends and family.

I tried to run here and there, but it was very intermittent. Being the super-awesome cool dork person that I am, every time I saw one of those blasted MarathonFoto photographers, I would start running and try to look all happy and peppy. In hindsight, I realize this was a mistake, because now there will be no photographic evidence of how utterly miserable I was. But maybe it's for the best. Maybe I'll look at my marathon pictures and think "Wow, I had such a great time. I can't wait to run another marathon!" *snort*

As I passed Mile 25, I told myself I had to finish strong. I gathered up every last ounce of energy I had and ran. And then I hit that final hill-that-isn't-really-a-hill and walked up it. But after I crested it, I ran again. And I ran all the way to the finish line. I finished strong. I gave Chicago everything I had.

I did not meet my sub-5:00 goal, and I definitely didn't meet my 4:45 super-goal. I was disappointed. But I did meet my goal to PR. I didn't PR by much (6 minutes), but it was something.After I picked up my medal and some post-race refreshments, I sat down on the curb to think. I had very mixed emotions. I so badly wanted to run under 5:00 and I knew I could do it. My official time was 5:08:56. I scolded myself for not pushing harder. But then I reminded myself that pushing harder probably would've ended with a trip to the hospital. I went through a million what-ifs. What if I had started slower? What if I had run with a pace group instead of relying on my wonky Garmin? What if I hadn't walked around at the expo so much the day before? What if... what if... what if?

And then I considered all the things that were out of my control. It was a record-setting high temperature in Chicago that day. It topped 84° as I was finishing the race. It wasn't terribly humid, but I believe the heat index was near 90°. These were exceptionally difficult marathon conditions. Toward the end of the race, I was surrounded by hundreds of others who had been forced to walk. I saw so many people with pace group bibs on their backs for 4:15, 4:30 and 4:45 pace groups. So many people fell short of their goals. I was not alone in my struggles.

So I guess Mother Nature doesn't just hate me. She also hates the 38,000 other runners that showed up for the marathon too. Geesh, what a bitch!

Wonky Garmin data.

Eventually, I got my butt up off the curb (which took some doing!) and hobbled over to get my finisher's photo taken. They were pouring ice cold beer and at that moment nothing sounded better than a nice frosty one. I couldn't stomach the thought of a banana, but for some odd reason, beer sounded great. I had a few sips and it was strangely refreshing, but I could only take a little bit of it.

I hobbled my way to Charity Village (that was a long walk before the marathon... and after the marathon, it was like walking a whole other marathon), and was greeted by the wonderful OAR people. They presented me with a special OAR medal, which I was not expecting at all. What a pleasant surprise! I got my checked gear bag and then proceeded to sit. After sitting and staring blankly into space for about 10 minutes, I got up the energy to take off my shoes so I could switch to comfy flip flops. When I did that, I discovered that even my lucky socks had been pushed past the breaking point.

The luck of the lucky socks runs out... through the big toe, apparently.

I put on my flip flops and my feet actually sighed in relief. Then I anxiously awaited news of Matt's and Niki's progress in the race. I checked the online results and saw that they were not too far from finishing. I knew they would make it. Before too long, they were hobbling into Charity Village, looking in pretty bad shape, but upright and alive. I was finally able to relax. And so I did.

Not only that, but all of my other friends, fellow FASTies and fellow Stashies who ran Chicago also finished. Congratulations to each and every one of them. It was not an easy day for a marathon. It would have been all too easy to give up. But we did not. As one of my friends, Tony, said: "The Chicago Marathon did not beat me. I beat it." Yes, you did. We all did.

Peace. Love. Train.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Taper Week 3: The Madness In Pictures

"OMG Yay! The marathon is less than 4 days away! I love running marathons! I feel great! I could run forever!"

"I wonder if I'll PR. Or break 5 hours. Or break a world record! Maybe I'll get to meet Joan Benoit Samuelson. Or Dean Karnazes. Or the editors of Runner's World Magazine!!! That Mark Remy just cracks me up!"

"Huh. Did I say less than four days? That's really soon..."

"I think I feel a twinge in my hamstring. What if it doesn't go away in four days? And my hips feel really tight. And I can't seem to remember where I put my lucky socks. I need my lucky socks!"


"*sob sob* I can't run 26 miles four days from now! My hamstrings are falling off and I don't have any socks!"

*runs away cackling wildly in a quest for the lucky socks*

Peace. Love. Train.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Taper Week 2: The madness begins...

Ahhh.... taper sweet taper...

Finally, I have been given some reprieve in my training. The mileage has dropped. The intensity has decreased a little bit. Rest time between intervals has increased. Frankly, it feels wonderful.

The problem is that I have way too much time on my hands now. Instead of using this extra time for good, productive, useful things like tending the garden, or cleaning out the basement, or alphabetizing my canned goods, I've taken up less desirable pastimes such as buying way too many running shoes, and completely freaking out about my ability to run this marathon.

Yes, my friends, it has officially begun...

*begin echo-y voice* Taper Madness *end echo-y voice*

I know what you're thinking... Just how many shoes are we talking here?

Well, I've added two new pairs of running shoes to my arsenal in the last couple of weeks, including one pair of custom NikeID Lunarglides. These are the shoes I intend to wear for the marathon.

Aren't they beeeeeeeeautiful? For those not in the know, my friends call me Evily, thus the RUN EVILY personalization. There is, naturally, a long story behind that moniker, but we'll save that for another time and place. The point is, these shoes have marathon awesomeness written all over them. Not literally, of course, because "Marathon Awesomeness" doesn't fit within the 10 character maximum... but you know what I mean.

So how many pairs of running shoes does that make now, you ask? Um... a fair few... *looks sheepish*

*ahem* Please stop gaping, everyone.

In my defense, the pair in the back left corner was just retired from use last weekend, as it just hit 400 miles. Also in my defense, I got a really good sale price on several of these. And also in my defense, I tried on a pair of new Nike LunarEclipses yesterday and despite the fact that I loved them, I did not buy them. I do have some self-control, people! Geesh.

I think buying new shoes and taking inventory of my running shoe collection helps take my mind off of the more serious aspects of marathon tapering. Namely: the looming marathon. It's only nine days away now. NINE DAYS, PEOPLE!!! Do you have any idea what this means???

Um... well... it pretty much just means that the marathon is nine days away. But this is an extremely dire situation! I can't run a marathon in nine days! I haven't packed my gym bag yet! I haven't memorized the locations of the aid stations along the course! I haven't charged my Garmin! I haven't prepared my bag of Sharkies! I haven't polished the Nike swooshes on my shoes! I CANNOT POSSIBLY RUN 26.2 MILES NINE DAYS FROM NOW!!!

I don't think you all understand the gravity of the situation. Do you have any idea what 26.2 miles looks like? For those of you who do not, allow me to show you. This is the Chicago Marathon course in its entirety (you might want to sit down for this):

Now do you understand? I mean, sure, the video makes it look easy because it only takes 9 minutes from start to finish. It will take me roughly 33 times longer than that to run it!

Okay, let me get a show of hands: Who just got out their calculator and figured out how long that is?

Nerds. :-P

But I digress.... The point is, I have reached the point in Taper Madness where I spend a lot of time freaking out. I'm not sure I'll even remember how to run when I get to the starting line. I keep going through a million different "what if" scenarios in my mind. What if the weather stinks? What if it's really windy? What if I trip and fall? What if I have to stop and use the port-o-potties? What if I run out of Sharkies? What if my Garmin dies? What if I forget to set my alarm that morning? What if I show up on the wrong day? What if I forget to bring my oatmeal and banana? What if my Nike swooshes aren't shiny enough?

There are so many things to worry about. And now that I'm tapering, I have so much more time to worry about them! Nine more days of this could drive me to the brink of insanity. I'll be running 26.2 miles straight to the loony bin. I think there's only one thing that will help me through a crisis like this...

Who wants to go shopping for new running shoes with me???

Peace. Love. Train.