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.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.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.
“I had you down for a 7:40 start, but it’s closer to 7:45, so I’m changing it.” Dena sat at the picnic table, while Rose pointed toward the paved trail.
“Go left, and when you get to the end of the pavement in a half mile, turn around and come back. It will be obvious. Then go until you reach the snack station and come back. That’s one lap; 13 miles.”There were more than 17,000 racers in the Disney marathon I completed in January. I had to get up at 3:30 am to be to the park around 4:00; to be in my start corral by 5:00am, to begin the race at 5:30am. Sharp.
There were less than 30 people in this Sporty Diva half, full and 50k. It was scheduled to start at 9am, but with temperatures forecast in the 90s, I got an email from Rose, the Race Director, letting me know I could start at 7:30am if I wanted to. It was 7:45am by the time I actually got onto the course.Despite the small crowd and the flat course, races like this are slow. There’s a lot of chit chat on the course. You learn people’s names. There is no pretense. If someone is having a rough day, they will say so. No one cares about their pace or where they are placing. I slow, turning into the picnic area serving as the start/finish. Rose and Dena are there, along with 4 other half-marathon finishers who started well before me. I read my finish time off my Garmin and Dena records it on her legal pad. There is no official race clock.
This was not a race. It was a training run with free food and friends. And a medal at the end.
The phrase “elevation profile” is meaningful to most trail runners. It refers to the rise and fall of a race course over the distance of that course. The elevation profile represents, in layman’s terms, how hilly the course is.
The Boston Marathon, with its famous “Newton hills” and infamous “Heartbreak Hill,” has 783 feet of gain over 26.2 miles. New York City, with its five bridge crossings, has 885 feet of gain. The Toro Trail Run is 3,750… in the half marathon.
It’s a rather hilly course.
Though cool in the shade at the start line, I made the last minute decision to ditch my long sleeved pullover behind a bush for safe keeping at Toro Park in Salinas, California, approximately 30 minutes east of Carmel. Everyone in the start area was in tank tops, and I thought maybe they knew something that I didn’t. Sure enough, I felt the sun bouncing off my sunscreen-free cheeks and nose inside of the first mile, and I would have heat rash where my sweat-soaked shorts rubbed against my legs by the time the race was over.
Did I mention this was a hilly course? When I posted this photo on Facebook, I got two responses.
The friend on the left is a road runner. On the right, a trail runner.
Just past the five mile mark, I was passed by the first and second place runners in the 30k race. These were men who’d started with me but, after a nearly 6-mile detour, we were now back on the same trail for the remainder of the race.
And the hills kept coming.
I crossed the finish line in the back third of the field, ten seconds behind the second place woman in the 30k (yes, a woman who completed 6 more miles than I did). Nonetheless, it was a good day, and I will remember it as the first race I completed as a forty year old.
And the hills.
September 29, 2007. The Buckhead Sizzler 10k in Atlanta, Georgia. My first race in my 30s. (30 years, one month and six days, actually). I finished in 54:08.
I have no photos of this race (it was deep in the Blackberry era and pre-social media), but I remember the thick, cloying smell of Dunkin Donuts as we passed by the Brookhaven store, traveling south on Peachtree Road towards Buckhead. I’d taken the MARTA train one stop north on the gold line to get to the start of the point to point race, so I could walk from the finish line at Buckhead loop back to my apartment behind the Target. My divorce was two weeks final.
August 5, 2017. The Orting Summerfest Half Marathon in Orting, Washington. My last race in my 30s. (39 years, 11 months and 13 days, actually). I finished in 2:04.
And took a selfie.
I can’t remember what I wore to the Buckhead Sizzler, but it wasn’t a pink tank top emblazoned with the names of female marathoners. (I didn’t know any female marathoners when I ran in Buckhead). I wasn’t a marathoner 23 times over when I ran in Buckhead. I also didn’t have the small, triangle tattoo on the inside of my right elbow. I got that, the logo of the Umstead 100 Mile endurance run, after completing the race at the age of 38.
I didn’t have the story about that time I threw up at the bottom of Mount Washington after racing 6288 feet to the top at 31 (my new boyfriend married me anyway, albeit five years later) and the 10k PR of 49:17 I earned three weeks later. I hadn’t set a half marathon PR by 5 minutes at the age of 35 (only to break it again on the same course two years later), and I hadn’t earned my Marathon Maniacs Iridium level membership by running marathons on Saturday and on Sunday in Utah and Wyoming at the age of 38.
When I raced in Buckhead, just weeks into my 30th year, I didn’t know I would go on to race in Washington, DC and Las Vegas; in Chicago and in San Francisco; in the UK and in Dubai and on the Great Wall of China.
But in the nine years (11 months and 13 days) between the Buckhead Sizzler and the Orting Summerfest, I have done all of these things. And more.
August 26, 2017. The Toro Trail 13.1 in Salinas, California. My first race at the age of 40. (40 years and 3 days, actually). Who knows what will come of it.
5:00:21 was the time to beat; set in 2016 by a woman who was exhausted in every fiber of her being. Just returned from a 6-week work stint in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where she ate Amy’s frozen rice bowls for lunch and pasta for dinner; politely accepting the chocolate covered potato chips and deep fried Oreos she was offered as “local delicacies.” Despite finishing a 19.5 mile trail run on her first weekend back in Seattle, she just didn’t feel well.
That woman stuck around until October when, deep friend Oreos nearly forgotten, she crossed the finish line of the Chicago Marathon with a 7-minute PR.
Back on Cougar Mountain one year later, I had something to prove. I’d followed up that Chicago PR with three near misses between January and April, a 100k run good enough to qualify for the 2017 Western States Lottery, and my fastest 10k in eight years. Still, I couldn’t be certain that woman was gone until I looked for her on Cougar Mountain, where the course climbs 3700 feet over 19.5 miles.
For four hours, thirty four minutes and forty six seconds, I searched for her.
When the race was over I collected my commemorative Cougar Mountain Race Series rocks glass, filled it with keg beer, and sat on the grass.
Now I was sure; that woman was gone.
I visualized the course at Mile 8, when the other half-marathoners and I would make a right turn away from Lake Washington, cutting west into Seattle’s Rainier Vista neighborhood, while the marathoners continued south along Lake Washington Boulevard into Seward Park. When that moment came on Sunday morning I knew I would be overcome with the jealous urge to shout at the marathoners’ backs running away from me, Wait! Wait! Don’t leave me! I’m one of you!
After picking up my half marathon bib, I made my way to the Expo’s Guest Services line, the place racers go to solve their problems, and I solved mine: “I’d like to switch to the full please.”
20,000 runners descended on Seattle for the Alaska Airlines Rock & Roll Marathon and Half Marathon for the race’s first ever “stadium to stadium” tour of the city. Beginning at the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium and ending at Centurylink Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks and Sounders, the race marked not only number 27 in my quest to run 40 races in 2017 for my 40th birthday, but also my 30th marathon and ultra-marathon in just 3 years. I commemorated this milestone with a congratulatory note to myself on the Expo’s graffiti wall, a map of Seattle, precisely at the spot where I live.
I had nothing to prove in this race; my training plan still believed I was running the half. But I wound my way comfortably through my hometown, stopping at the Mile 4 “Selfie Station” and mugging for the cameras.
I completed the race without fan fair. Despite racing in my hometown, my husband was traveling, and I’d had only one friend on the course to cheer me on when I passed through her neighborhood within the first 5k.
I crossed the finish line in a forgettable time, collected my Rock & Roll Marathon Finisher’s jacket, and walked the 1 mile from the finish line to a favorite brunch spot for a breakfast and cocktail worthy of 30 marathons and ultras. The race upgrade was worth it.
The clocked ticks to 24:22 as I approach the 5k split, the half-way point in my 10k race. A decade ago, back when I ran 5ks regularly, I used to count anything that started with “24” as a solid race effort. But I don’t race 5ks anymore.
Forty-nine minutes. I did the math quickly. 24:22 times two is 48:44; round up to 49:00. My 10k PR is 49:17. It was 2009 and I was 31. In 13 subsequent 10ks, I’ve not seen 49 minutes since. I can’t slow down if I want to see it again here.
At the split I am passed by a young woman in a bright, salmon-colored t-shirt and striped socks. She’s fast. And fluid. If I can keep her in my sights, I might be able to to hold this pace. But if I lose her, I will fall apart.
I pass her near the 6 mile mark. I would later learn her name is Joan.
I squint as I approach the finish chute. My eyesight is good, but I’m bouncing and winded, and my eyes are a little watery from pollen in the air, or maybe the exertion. I can see 49. 49:48. Thirty-one seconds from a PR. But still, my fastest 10k time in 8 years.
A solid race effort.
The race was nearly 72 hours old when I joined on Sunday morning.
Like the person who shows up for the end of a team project and then takes credit for the whole thing, I lined up for the Pigtails Challenge 50k start in Renton, 11 miles southeast of Seattle. This race was kind of a lark for me, having registered just four weeks ago from the back of an Uber when my friend, Sporty Diva Rose Coates, put out a call on Facebook. (This is also when I learned that my credit card is on file with ultrasignup, meaning I can 1-click my way to ultra race registrations; a discovery I anticipate may lead to future poor decisions, particularly after wine and smack talk on Twitter).
Four weeks post-81 miles at Badwater Salton Sea, I wasn’t exactly trained for a 50k. I’d taken three weeks “off,” logging slow and easy run/walks of up to 16 miles before commencing with training for the Suncadia Multisport Festival at the beginning of August. I’d replaced the 13 mile “steady long run 10% slower than marathon pace” on day 7 of my training plan with this 50k.
I was here to see the 200 milers.
I’d read about 200 mile races and, quite frankly, they didn’t get the butterflies and pixie dust swirling for me like 100-milers. Still, when I learned the Pigtails Challenge included a 200 mile race, beginning on Thursday morning, 150 miles on Friday, 100 miles and 100k on Saturday, and 50k on Sunday, the prospect of being the fresh-face on a 10-mile loop course with people who’d been running for days was intriguing.
As with many ultras, particularly those without a great deal of scenery, my own race memory is spotty. I remember encountering Joanne at my mile 1.5 — her 98.5 — on her way to being the first female finisher in the 100 mile in 24:44:32. I remember spending two miles run/walking with Mark, a retiree from Alabama and two-time 50 stater, now embarked on a mission to run an ultra in all 50 states. And I remember Karl, the 67 year old 100-mile finisher who, in the final mile of his race and me with 9 to go in mine, leaned in conspiratorially and said, I think you’re the third woman; stay focused.
Did I say this was supposed to be a lark? In shorter races, going out slow for too long can lead to a time deficit that is impossible to close. In ultras, however, going out slow leaves enough in the tank to be moving well when others are breaking down. I passed the second place woman just one mile after being told I was in third. With Karl’s directive to stay focused, I completed my last, 10-mile lap 1 minute per mile faster than I’d completed the first lap, the second woman and fourth overall in the 50k.
I watched others finish as I sat in a camp chair, shaded by the aid station tent, and enjoying a veggie burger and a beer. Daro came in at 79:25:03, the second 200 miler and first male finisher. And April who, along with two pacers, stopped into the tent long enough for medical volunteers to cut the compression sleeves off of her calves and stuff bags of ice down her bra and shorts before she departed for her last lap. She would finish in 84:49:44, missing the 82 hour cutoff, but still finishing.
Now the butterflies and pixie dust are swirling.
Ever done a destination race? How about one that will take you so high, you can see three states and Canada from the top? Do you want to?
I’ve received so many messages from people inspired by my quest to run 40 races in 2017 for my 40th birthday, as well as my support for 40 other runners. One of those messages came from the Catamount Trail Association, inviting me to their Race to the Top of Vermont on August 27. As much as I would love to run what has been called “the race most worth traveling for in Vermont,” it is actually my 40th birthday weekend (yay!) and I can’t travel to Vermont (boo!) So we did the next best thing…
I am so excited to partner with CTA to offer 10 bibs for the Race to the Top of Vermont!
The 4.3 mile course climbs 2,564 vertical feet on the famous Mt. Mansfield Toll Road to the summit parking lot. Along the way, runners will have spectacular views of Smuggler’s Notch and the surrounding Green Mountains, over a steady incline averaging about 11 percent over the length of the course. The reward? A summit finish with one of the most beautiful views in New England overlooking three states and Canada. Check out the race video!
Sound like an amazing challenge? The CTA and I would love to make it a reality! If you would like to participate in the Race to the Top of Vermont, please contact me, and let me know you’d like to participate in this amazing experience.
Sharon gets into the car, black technical race t-shirt, leggings and neon Asics, holding her iPhone armband in her hand. She reminds me of a younger version of me, had I been a runner when I was her age.
“Good morning,” she says. Her Indian accent sounds like chimes.
In the drive from the Marriott to Magnuson Park, I point out the University of Washington and Mount Rainier. I describe the race course. She tells me about the 10ks she and her boyfriend run in Bangalore, where she works for Tanya who works for Bindu who works for Nancy who works for me.
It doesn’t occur to me until we near the 1 mile marker that she has no idea how far one mile is, and I explain the 10k course we are running is 6.2 miles long. My explanation is complicated, as this is a 5k-10k-15k loop course with mile markers in bunches of three: 7-4-1; 8-5-2; 9-6-3. We settle on the fact that the 10k is two loops.
We drink water and eat bananas after we cross the finish line, commenting on the unseasonable heat.
“Would you take our picture?” I ask a spectator standing near the finisher banner. “With my phone too?” Sharon asks.
We pose together. Me, on race #24 in my quest to run 40 races this year. And Sharon, in her first trip to the United States. Racing with me was on her “to do.” Not for the first time during this challenge, I am humbled.