Anyone that knows me suspected this would happen. That I would not only meet my quest of running 40 races in 2017 for my 40th birthday, but that, upon doing so, I was unlikely to take a rest. In fact, as I approached 40 races on October 22, there seemed only one real answer to the question, what’s next? That answer is 52.

Bib 41-1 (October 29)

For just a moment, the sun breaks through the fog at mile 7 of the Cougar Mountain trail 19.5 mile race on October 28.

Race 41 was at Cougar Mountain in Newcastle, Washington, the same course I ran on July 8th for race 28, when I’d finished that race nearly 25 minutes faster than I’d run it the year before. On October 28, however, I shaved another 11 minutes off my time.

Still, it’s four hours on the race course with nearly 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Yet multi-hour races seem only to drive me to want to do more multi-hour races.

I ran the following weekend’s In Unity We Run marathon in Kent for no other reason than it made me a 33-time marathoner. And, just one week later and 800 miles south, I ran the Mt. Tam 30k in Stinson Beach, California.

Bib 43 (November 11)

The view from the top of Mt. Tamalpais, in Marin County, California.

Fifty-two is definitely within reach.

Athletes are superstitious. It is reported that Michael Jordan wore his University of North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform while leading the team to six national championships. So when I picked up my race bib for the Runner’s World Grand Slam — races 37-40 on the year — and found it was actually my birthday (I was born on August 23), I took it as an excellent omen.

Bib 40-1 (October 22)

After three races in two days, we are ready for race number four – the half marathon.

I gave myself the calendar year to complete this challenge. My birthday was in Week 35, which meant I would have to have raced more than once a week to meet 40 races by that date. I was afraid that such an aggressive racing schedule would turn the challenge from something fun to something tedious. While, in hindsight, I could have hit 40 by August 23, completing the challenge in Bethlehem, where I’ve raced in every Runner’s World Half since the race’s inception 6 years ago, was an obvious finishing point. A northeast race also meant that my east coast girlfriends and family could take part with me.

Bib 40-3 (October 22)

Mom, Dad and I post-race.

I crossed the finish line to posters and t-shirts, a new feeling after so many races on my own. And the question: What’s next? The answer is, of course: More races. I still have runners to sponsor, and 11 more weeks in the year. I’m only 40, but 52 feels good. 🙂

Bib 40-2 (October 22)

 

Six years ago tonight, I sat in this same hotel, in a bed just like this one. I ordered  spaghetti with grilled chicken, red pepper flakes and olive oil from room service, seeking to recreate the pre-run meal I’d grown accustomed to at home. It wasn’t on the menu, but the kitchen obliged. When it arrived, however, something in the chicken smelled like bleach. I ate cautiously, only until I felt like I had enough calories in me, and tossed the rest in the garbage. And, before bed, I successfully convinced the gentleman that delivered my room service to steal real half and half from the staff break room for me, lest I have to drink my coffee with the powdered cream offered in the room on race morning. I would not let anything, real or perceived, come between me and the personal record I’d spent 12 weeks training for.

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Me and Runner’s World Editor and 1968 Boston Marathon winner, Amby Burfoot, after completing my first Runner’s World Half Marathon in 2012.

I crossed the finish line of the 2012 Runner’s World with a five-minute PR, and the 2013 Hat Trick — a 5k, 10k and Half Marathon over two days — in my sites. I would complete that too, along with the Half Marathon in 2014 (another PR), and the 10k and Half Marathon in 2015 and 2016.

Tonight, I sit in front of the television watching a movie. I went out earlier for a proper dinner. Tomorrow will be race #40 on the year. I am not the same person that I was in 2012, when a half marathon was a daunting endeavor. In the last six years, I’ve run days through the Rocky Mountains; I’ve run marathons on three continents; I’ve run 100 miles without sleep. But I’ve always come back to where I feel like it all began. I’ve always come back to Bethlehem.

 

The 5k is the entry-level distance. The race that gets people off the couch. The race a friend talks you into over a third drink and it seems like a good idea. For those like me who prefer longer distances, the 5k hardly provides time to warm up before it’s over. For others, it’s the perfect distance to push for the entirety.

Bib 38-4 (October 21).jpg

1500 runners gathered at the start of the Runner’s World 5k.

The 27 year old winner of this morning’s Runner’s World Grand Slam 5k crossed the finish line in 15:56. Before the clock ticked to 40:00 minutes, my 70 year old mother also crossed the finish line, first in her age group, my aunt and mother-in-law, just minutes behind her.

Bib 38-5 (October 21)

My mother-in-law and aunt, weary, but pleased with their finish times.

For some, the 5k is a challenge. An occasional reminder they are capable of difficult things; the burning lungs and quads quickly forgotten. And the reward, be it T-shirt or pint glass or medal, is always sweet; made sweeter by family.

Bib 38-3 (October 21)

My mother-in-law, mom and aunt, celebrating their finish.

 

Four races. Three Days. 26.2 total miles. A journey will culminate in Bethlehem. 

South Mountain Park, pre-race.

My girlfriends and I are just a few of the several hundred people gathered on a Friday afternoon for 3.8 trail miles in Bethelhem’s South Mountain Park. We will all complete the Grand Slam –  3.8 mile trail race, a 5k, a 10k and a half marathon over three days. 

The gravel and single track trail undulates, with nearly 600 feet of climb.


It’s over quickly; I’ve rarely run anything shorter than a half marathon all year. 3.8 miles feels like a warm-up. In a way, it is. Because just 16 hours after finishing the trail race, I will line up at the start of race #38. 

The journey culminates in Bethelehem. 

The GirlSquad, descended on Bethlehem from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Washington State.

Bib #36 – Defiance 50k

I entered Nicole’s house through the garage  at 7:11am, 11 minutes after I’d planned to arrive, but with 19 minutes to spare on our 7:30am departure. Plenty of time, I knew, to use her bathroom; I’d change into my running sneakers on the way to Defiance Point, ten minutes away. 

The sun rises, casting a golden light on Defiance Point in Tacoma, Washington.

As I pinned my bib onto my right thigh, I watched Nicole roll her calves on an acupressure ball. On the couch, Nicole’s friend Jessie appeared completely ready for this, her first 50k.

I am calm to the point of near disorganization on my penultimate race weekend. Races #37-40 will come over three days at next weekend’s Runner’s World Grand Slam in Bethelehem, Pennsylvania. 

Nicole snaps a photo of Jessie and I from behind. I carry out my duties as Pacer In Chief; Nicole plays paparazzi.


To get here, I’ve completed 5 ultra-marathons, including the Defiance 50k: 3 50ks, 1 100k and 1 81 miler. Along with 7 full marathons; 3 races between 15 and 20 miles; a dozen half marathons; 7 10 and 15ks, a 10.8 miler, and a lone 5k in January. 

Jessie at mile 26.21, celebrating the moment she’s run farther than ever before.


I imagine this is how a veteran comedian feels. There are still nerves before the curtain goes up, but I know exactly what I’m supposed to do when it does.  


I cross the finish line, and wonder whether this will be my last ultra of 2017. For now, my mind is pointed towards Bethlehem, and towards 37, 38, 39 and 40.

Nicole, Jessie and I at the finish. Next stop, Bethlehem.

“Mirabelle! Mirabelle!” I shouted and waved my arms, willing her to see me from the other side the street where she was closing in on her final half-marathon miles, at a strong, 7:21 per mile pace.

Bib 35-5 (October 8)

Saturday morning I board a float plane in Seattle, bound for Victoria, British Columbia, just 30 minutes away.

She grinned, confirming that she’d seen me. It would be hours before I reached the spot where she now was on the out-and-back course, as I was going twice the distance, and at a slower pace.

As the marathoners began to approach, I watch first for pace groups — groups of runners led by the Super Pacers, with their star placards announcing the group’s marathon finish time. 3:40. 3:50. 3:55. I began studying oncoming runners in earnest. Cathy had a 3:55 marathon PR, and she was trying for another one in Victoria.

Then, the blond pigtails I recognized, high on her head. “Cathy!” “Jenna!” “Cathy!” “Jenna!” We high fived over the double yellow lines in the center of the street, squeezing one another’s gloved hand before letting go to continue on our way. Cathy would finish in 3:53, a personal record.

Bib 35-6 (October 8)

With race-time weather forecast at 51 degrees and sunny on the waterfront course, I make the decision to trade in my half marathon bib for a full marathon bib at the expo.

“Jenna! Jenna!” They shouted from the right side of the finisher’s chute, just yards from the finish line. I cut sharply to the right to grab their hands. “Don’t stop,” they laughed, waving me on. “Just finish!” I too, laughed. “I don’t care!” (About my finish time.)

Mirabelle and Cathy were the only reason I was even at this race; the beautiful race weather the only reason I was running the full marathon, rather than the half I’d signed up for. And, with a 50k just six days away, I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything significant in Victoria.

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Cathy, Mirabelle and I, with four other amazing women, at trail running camp in Colorado over the summer. We met here, and have stayed close through social media, and encouragement for our individual athletic endeavors.

Post-race brunch is filled with catching up (we’d not seen one another since we’d departed trail running camp in July), french fries and croque-madame, before I board the float plane for the 30 minute flight back to Seattle. Mirabelle and I promise to make plans to get together, as only 3 driving hours separate our Seattle and Vancouver homes. Cathy, I will see in December, where she will travel from Mississippi to pace me at the Kiawah Island Marathon, as I am training for a sub-4:00 finish, a 13-minute PR.

Some friends, I realize, plan shopping excursions as a reason to see one another. Mine plan race excursions.

Bib 35-4 (October 8)

Bib #34 – Magnuson Series 10k

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Thirty-four races, and it’s just another Saturday. Just another 10k, and I run, not drive, to and from Magnuson Park in Seattle, turning the morning into 18 miles. There is nothing remarkable about Race 34, on a course I’ve run before. Except perhaps, the sky.

DNS. Did. Not. Start. Trail runners fear its dirty cousin, the DNF: Did. Not. Finish. But people rarely talk about the DNS which is, to me, the worse of the two by far. The DNF says, “I tried; I really tried and I fell short.” The DNS says, “I never even tried.” Put that way, it seems as though one would need a really, really good reason to DNS.

Mine was commute related. On Friday night, just 12 hours from the start of the Cle Elum Ridge 25k, I realized I was also registered for the Run/Walk for the Poor trail 13.1 mile in Lakewood, Washington. Two races, 103 miles apart, starting on the same day at the same time. Cle Elum, I knew, would be tough. Billed at nearly a 30k (despite the official “25k” listing) with 3700 feet of gain. The Run/Walk for the Poor would not only be 5 miles shorter, but I expected it would be nearly flat. In the end, it wasn’t the course difficulty that steered me away from Cle Elum and towards a DNS, though; it was the fact the race was further from my house.

 

Bib 33-3 (September 23) I don’t know what I missed in Cle Elum. At Fort Steilacoom Park in Lakewood, the clouds burned off early, and the trail stretched like my personal yellow brick road for just over 13 miles. What the race lacked in participants, it made up for in tranquility.

Bib 33-6 (September 23)

The Cle Elum results list me as a DNS. I never even tried. But in Lakewood, I finished 13 miles without regret. 33 races down, and I feel like I haven’t missed a thing.

Bib #32: Beat the Blerch 13.1

One person’s fun run is another person’s race.

I signed up for the Beat the Blerch half marathon because someone in my 24,000 person online running group asked me if I was running it. Really, that’s all it took. I didn’t even know they’d be chocolate and bacon dipped marshmallows at the start. Or Doritos.

Bib 32-2 (September 16)

The Blerch incarnate, with his bad of marshmallows and Doritos at the ready.

The Blerch is the brainchild of comic artist and author, the Oatmeal. According to the Oatmeal, the Blerch is a “fat little cherub that follows me when I run.” It’s a creative manifestation of what runners know as “the wall,” that time late in a long race when your mind tricks you into thinking that you can’t go any further.

I don’t typically have a half marathon wall; not since I began running full marathons three years ago, and ultra-marathons the year after that. Thirteen miles is a fun run, a training run on any given day. But one person’s fun run is another person’s race.

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Just a little old Sunday run.

I crossed the finish line 11 minutes faster than last week’s half marathon, but still many minutes slower than a person record. In other words, just a fun run. Seconds after a volunteer placed a half-marathon medal around my neck, another runner approached me from behind. I recognized him as the person who’d run beside and behind me for the better part of the last 10 miles of the course.

“Thank you for being my pace bunny,” he said, referring to someone in the race that sets the pace for those around them. “This was my first half marathon. And this is much faster than I’ve ever run before. Thank you.”

That guy, I thought, had one hell of a race.