“Beat Bekele!” Sam, a member of my online running group, Run the Year, wrote me just before race start (check out my live start-line broadcast). Sam was referring to Kenenisa Bekele, the elite Ethopian runner  who was making a very public attempt at the World Record – 2:02:57 – at the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon. I laughed, knowing I wouldn’t yet be at the 21k split, the race’s half-way point, in 2:02. It never occurred to me that, when the race was over, I actually would have beaten Bekele.

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10,000 runners ready at the 6:30am start.

The Marathon course is an out and back. Runners exit the start and make a left onto Al Sufouh road and after approximately 5k, turn around and run back the way they came to 26k, and turn back around again. That means I would have two chances to see Bekele running at me as he made his epic run at history.

The lead men’s pack first passed when I was around 2.5 miles, already a full three miles ahead. Elite runners, effortlessly moving together at a sub-five minute pace, are breathtaking. And, while I couldn’t pick Bekele out of the pack, I looked forward to seeing him again in another 10 miles, where I hoped he would be leading.

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The men’s elite field just beyond their five-mile mark. I have a clear photo, but this one more accurately expresses the feeling of watching them pass. Runners on my side of the street, three miles behind the elites, actually stopped our races, standing on the grassy median to watch what most of us hoped would be history in the making.

In fact, Bekele never led. When the race’s eventual winner, Tamirat Tola, came by me at my 10.65 mile mark with, as it turned out, just 19-minutes left to go, I didn’t know who he was. I just knew he wasn’t Bekele.

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The lone lead runner, Tamirat Tola, with approximately 20 minutes left to go in his race. He would go on to set both a personal record and a course record at 2:04:11.

I wouldn’t learn until my race was over that Bekele actually dropped out around 21k. I watched the video of him falling at the start, where he’d gotten tangled up in the other runners, hurting his elbow and calf. In that fall is the intersection between elite, professional runners like Bekele and the rest of us. How many times do we make big race plans for ourselves, and at what point do we give them up?

My Dubai race plan was simple – have fun and don’t worry about the clock. After three consecutive days of racing in Walt Disney World, I’d almost hit a marathon PR myself on day number four, and that was just twelve days ago. Like Disney, Dubai was not an “A race” for me. Rather, it was a training run along the way to the Black Canyon 100k, just one month away. I expected to finish in 4:30-4:45, an “easy” pace with photo stops.

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The first turn around near the 5k point.

I have been running long enough now to be able to accurately estimate my speed and adjust accordingly without looking at my Garmin (although I wear it), a feat facilitated by the fact that there were kilometer markers on the course, but no time clocks. So while I knew I was running faster than a 4:30 pace (10:20 per mile), I also expected to naturally slow some as the race wore on. Early-race excitement is a trap for inexperienced marathoners – those that think they feel good at 10k or the half and continue to push, only to have the wheels fall off at 18 or 20 because they’d been running too fast the whole time.

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The light played tricks during the sun’s first appearance above the horizon. It would disappear behind cloud-cover for nearly another hour, before appearing for good, high in the sky, raising the temperatures to around 75 degrees Fahrenheit (23 degrees C)

I knew this “excited” feeling well, and told myself, not for the last time, to slow down.

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Runners pass by one of the city’s architectural landmarks, the Burj al-Arab, the fourth tallest hotel in the world.

I looked at my watch for the first time at the 21k split, the half-way point, and did some quick math. I had been running faster than intended and was on PR pace, but barely. To actually finish with a record, I couldn’t slow down at all for the next 13.1 miles, an incredibly difficult task in the marathon. I was not optimistic, nor did I particularly want to turn this “fun run” into a race.

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One of many mosques passed along the route, most with groups of men or women in traditional dress politely clapping for marathoners outside. For such a public course, there was little crowd support, and much of it from foreigners cheering on family members. In the background, the downtown Dubai cityscape, including the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, immediately to the right, standing at 2,722 feet (829 meters).

Rather, I continued to run at a pace that “felt good,” telling myself that I would check again at 32k, the 20-mile marker. In the meantime, I began picking out and picking off runners – finding someone in the distance who looked as though they were running slower than me, and then passing them, a mind game many runners play to entertain themselves during races.

At 32k, the place where many marathoners will tell you the race actually begins, I checked my Garmin again. My legs hurt. I was tired, having been in Dubai less than 48-hours and my body still believing itself back in Seattle where it was approaching 10:00pm, well passed my bedtime. If I sped up, not an unreasonable amount this late in the race, but enough, I could set a personal record. On the 7th race day, I thought in my head, triumphantly, I set a marathon PR. I sped up.

After the race, Bekele said of his DNF (Did Not Finish, an official race designation), “I like to think of many scenarios, but [falling at the start] was definitely not one of them! See you in London in April!” Or, in layman’s parlance, “It is my job to come out here and win races. It’s not smart to continue to push, risking further injury, when there is no longer a clear up-side. I have a bigger agenda.”

At 37k, mile 23, I abandoned my short-lived PR quest. I’d not sped up enough over the preceding 3 miles, and now needed to run my fastest 3 miles of the day to finish with a record. Still not completely out of reach, but certainly not in alignment with my bigger agenda – doing well at Black Canyon next month.

I finished Dubai in 4:18:31, slower than my PR BY 4 minutes and 52 seconds, 1:37 behind my Disney time and my third-fastest marathon ever. Well ahead of “plan.”

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Race #7 finished, and in front of Kenenisa Bekele.

I see a tired runner in this photo; missing the spark and some of the post-race high. But I also see a runner who is fit to race another day which, with 33 races left in 2017, is the bigger agenda.

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Bib #6 – Magnuson Series 15k

Damn, I thought, as he flew passed me on the right during one of the trail’s brief straightaways. What is it, like four and a half miles? I looked down at my Garmin: 4.68. I got lapped.

I’ve run the race series at Magnuson Park in Seattle several times. A 3.1 mile (5k) loop course, runners can sign up for the 5k, 10k or 15k distance. I have a course PR from last March — a personal record in the 15k against which I can measure every run there. It’s a way, objectively, to tracks my progress or how I’m feeling on any given day, whether or not I want to.

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Just one mile into my commute to race start, the day was promising to be a beautiful one.

Saturday’s race was meant to be one part of a 15-mile training run, which I fulfilled by run-walking the six miles from my house to the race start. I am into the final four weeks of training for the Black Canyon 100k on February 18, one of two “big” races I have planned for the first half of 2017. Just six days off of a near-PR at the Walt Disney World Marathon, the fourth in four consecutive days of racing, my legs were fatigued. But running on tired legs is a key component of ultra training so, all things considered, I was fine with taking the 15k at Magnuson slow and easy. (Check out my live, start-line broadcast).

Until I got lapped by the eventual men’s winner at just 4.68 miles. And the second place finisher just shy of 6 miles. I’ve run this race four times previously and never been lapped by anyone, never mind two people in the same race.

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On a clear day like Saturday, you can see Mt. Rainier across Lake Washington from the start/finish line at Magnuson Park.

I finished the race more than 9 minutes slower than my personal record, approximately 1 minute per mile. I faltered when a very nice man and his daughter, rested after their own 15k finish, asked me how I did. Upon realizing far too many words were coming out of my mouth to answer such a simple question, I defaulted to, “but it’s a beautiful day. How was your run?” They had a great race, they said. “Awesome,” I responded, and I meant it. I accomplished exactly what I set out to accomplish. Getting lapped didn’t change my race, it only made it more memorable.

A huge part of my 40 bibs challenge is supporting 40 other runners in their finish line quests and, much to my delight, several of them have agreed to let me share their journey here.

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Here is Terri and a friend, ready to go on the very wet race course.

 

Meet Terri! Just one day after my 4th race, the Walt Disney World Half Marathon, was cancelled due to severe thunder storms, Terri braved similar weather to run the Hot Chocolate 15k in San Francisco. Here are a few more of her great photos from the race!

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Runners ready to traverse the course inside of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Congratulations to Terri, and all the Hot Chocolate runners!

The marathon is fickle. Some days, it’s in love with you. It caresses you mile after mile; whispering sweetly in your ear and sending shivers of pleasure down your spine. These are the days that linger in your mind on the other days, when the marathon is abusive. On the days when it kicks you squarely in your soul, crushes your confidence, and draws tears. And prepare as you might to ensure it will treat you in the former manner and not the latter, you can never guarantee it. The marathon will always behave as it wants. 

I went out cautiously, having just shed the cheap teal, velour blanket I’d held wrapped around my my waist since departing the warmth of my car for my start corral, thirty minutes prior. At below 40 degrees, the air threatened to seize my already fragile legs. This was my fourth race in four days, sixth race in nine days, and the culmination of a 67-mile training week. The marathon’s patience with me already seemed thin.

I bided my time through 10k, maintaining a comfortable pace, even stopping to use the bathroom. See, I showed it, this race doesn’t matter to me. I’m not trying to do anything here

So too through the half, when on other days I would have begun imposing my will on it. I didn’t trust that the marathon wasn’t just lulling me into a false sense of security. It’s dominance was already becoming evident around me, as those who were compliant gave in quickly to its ire and began walking, while others grimaced in their refusal to succumb, now with 8 miles remaining.  

At 20 miles, I remained docile, my October Chicago Marathon still fresh in my mind. I’d lost minutes in miles 20 through 23 when the marathon decided, with just a 10k left to go, that it would let me break my own personal record, but not by as much as I’d wanted to.

It was 24 miles by the time I trusted it enough to push. What can you possibly do to me in 2.2 miles? I asked it, rhetorically. 
The marathon didn’t answer. 

I crossed the finish line just 3 minutes and 15 seconds off my personal record, a “second-best” time by four minutes. 

Could I have found the 3 minutes and 15 seconds over 26.2 miles to give me a personal record? I don’t know. I don’t think the marathon loved me yesterday, I think it just wanted to pay me a complement. 

Medals for the Walt Disney World 5k, 10k, half marathon (which was officially cancelled due to weather, but that some, including myself, ran anyway), marathon, Goofy Challenge (half and full marathons), and Dopey Challenge (5k, 10k, half and full).

By 10:00pm Friday night, the Walt Disney World Half Marathon hashtag was trending on Twitter, right behind a Fort Lauderdale airport shooting that claimed five lives.

It took a single social media post to dash the hopes of more than 20,000 Walt Disney World runners on Friday night.

“In an abundance of caution,” the announcement read, “the Walt Disney World Resort has canceled all running events on Saturday, January 7, 2017 due to weather conditions. This includes the Walt Disney World Half Marathon and the runDisney kids races.”

For more than 20,000 registered half marathon runners, this meant months of training and sacrifice for not. For nearly 10,000 registered for Goofy’s Race and a Half (half marathon and full marathon) and the Dopey Challenge (5k, 10k, half and full), it meant a challenge unfulfilled. While nearly all understood safety being paramount (especially once most of us were awoken by cracks of thunder around the time we otherwise would have been on our way to the start line), it was still hard to accept. Disney offered up our medals, but who wants a medal for a race you didn’t run?

Running is perhaps the simplest form of exercise. Despite an obsession with the latest gear and gadgets, the truth is you only need your sneakers. And if you only need your sneakers to run, how much more, really, do you need to run a race?

The answer, it turned out, was a handful of people who felt the same way. (Check out my live, mid-race broadcast!)

Thumbs up from Jason, a Dopey Challenge runner.

Once the last of the storms cleared around 8:30am, three hours after the official race would have started, bibbed and costumed runners began dotting the paths and walkways snaking through the Disney resort areas.

Disney’s “Boardwalk,” part of the official Half Marathon race Route.

By 10am there were hundreds, cheered on by spectators and non-running visitors.

Located a the convergence of two running paths, these women were a source of encouragement (and cowbell!) for hours.

“Aid stations” and cheer zones appeared.

One of Friday’s 10k runners and her husband offering water and granola bars, one of several pop-up “aid stations.”

And, one by one, two by two and in groups, runners completed their 13.1 miles.

Team Fox, Michael J. Fox’s foundation for Parkinson’s research, recreated their official race cheer zone on the unofficial half course.

I am honored to be among that group, having boldly run in a T-shirt announcing, “WE RUN THE WORLD.” Hyperbole, perhaps, but for a brief time today, we runners did run Disney– on our own terms.

“So,” I’ve been asked. “Does this count as one of your 40 bibs?” To the extent that a race has a definite starting and ending point, and some kind of official clock so we can all track exactly how long it took to run the prescribed distance, no, I don’t think this counts. But to the extent that the purpose of my 40bibs journey is to, as my friend Julie Hinson would say, “grow and become;” to the extent that the journey is about seeing what I’m made of; and to the extent that it’s about supporting other racers, the answer is, yes. And I cannot think of a race that would count for more.

There were spectators on the course today. On the Boardwalk specifically, a looped area made to look like an old fashioned, summertime coastal Atlantic City. Spectators.

Non-runners assume spectators line every course, because that’s what they’ve seen on television during the Olympics or the New York City Marathon (if someone has forced them to watch such tedium). But the truth is, the sidewalks of most courses are empty.

So to have spectators on the course of a 5:30am race in 50 degree weather is something special.

It’s bad enough that we racers drag ourselves out of bed before sun-up in the heat, the cold, the wind and the rain; we’ve paid to subject ourselves to these rituals. The friends and family members that tag along, not so much. They wait, sometimes for hours, for a glimpse of a loved one. A brief wave or, if their runners is particularly laissez faire, a hug and a photo. The sacrifice/benefit scale is decidedly tipped in the runner’s favor.

On behalf of the runners, espcically those of us who run knowing there is no one looking for us on the course or the finish line – I thank you. I thank you for your cheers, your high fives, and the occasional Great Job Stranger! sign. I am grateful for the sacrifices you are making to give me a few seconds of encouragement in what can be a very lonely sport if we let it.

I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow.

In the blackness, hundreds of finish line spectators on painfully frigid metal bleacher seating. The sun won’t rise for another 40 minutes. Check out my live, start-line broadcast here.

EIghty-six percent of Grand Canyon visitors never set foot into the canyon itself. That’s 4.3 million people who travel from all over the world every year to stand at the edge of a parking lot. 

The vast majority of these visitors are unable to stray too far from their vehicles because of age, or infirm, or physical incapability that they may or may not control. And so they are content to see one of the world’s great wonders from the same vantage point as if they were sitting comfortably in front of the high-quality, big-screen television in their living rooms.

That is not me. 

Even more than running far, I am enamored with the idea that I can go places that I’m not supposed to; I can see things that other people can’t see because I’m on foot or, better yet, I can take advantage of sanctioned race road closures. 

On the Sausalito side of the Golden Gate Bridge, having run the nearly two miles from San Francisco, and poised to run back.


I have run on the Great Wall of China, across the Golden Gate Bridge and down the center of the Las Vegas strip at night. I have viewed Downtown Los Angeles from behind the famed Hollywood sign. And, during a four-mile morning run through a stormy Washington, DC, found myself, not only alone at the Lincoln Memorial, but alone on the Mall, a 146 acre expanse of land that has held as many as 1.8 million people at moments that have shaped our nation

Standing at Abe’s feet, we look out together on the Mall, contemplating what the day might hold. Years later, this photo and the feeling it evokes in me still brings tears to my eyes.


No one has ever traveled to Walt Disney World to stand at the edge of the parking lot. But most visitors’ experiences involve logistics and lines, punctuated by the short-lived delight of photos with a favorite character, or the wonders of Splash Mountain. 

This is what Dorothy must have felt like when she first saw the Emerald City from across the field of poppies.


My Disney experience is different. From inside the gates, I know what the park looks like during that pre-dawn time when the sky is turning from black to blue, my favorite time of day in any location. I know that the glow of Epcot up close can take your breath away. 

I won’t ever really understand the people content to stand at the edge of the parking lot. To be honest, I don’t really want to. I much prefer to travel unencumbered by traffic signs, or pavement, or my own perceived abilities.

Bib #1: Sporty Diva 19.6

The first thing you notice about Rosie Rose Coates is her laugh. I could say that it’s “jovial” or “infectious,” but the truth is that it’s just loud. Loud in a way that would annoy you, but only if you didn’t have a soul. She starts her races (yes, Rosie Rose Coates has her own races) with the chant:

Wah! Wah! Hootie hootie! Time to go now work that bootie!

And with that, my quest for 40 races in 2017 was under way. (Check out my live, start-line broadcast!)

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Me and the Sporty Diva herself, Rosie Rose Coates.

I feel like anything you do on January 1 has some weight to it. Or, at least we try to make it have some weight. We make resolutions. We vow to be kinder, gentler, more zenned-out versions of ourselves. Like a snake shedding its skin, we decide we are done with our last year’s selves, in favor of what is new (read: better) at our cores.

Or maybe that’s just the vision I’ve created for myself.

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In another popular New Year’s tradition involving the symbolic stripping away of the past – a Polar Bear plunge on the race route. I kept running after snapping this photo, unsure of when participants would actually jump. Approximately 90 seconds letter, one young woman in a bikini, hugging herself against the 35-degree air, remained on the dock. “A far more terrible position than actually being in the water right now,” I thought. “She’ll either need to jump in by herself now (mortifying), or skulk back to shore, metaphorical tail between her legs (mortifying).”  There is a lesson there…

I’m not A Resolution Person. I don’t need to exercise more, or spend more time with my friends, or pay off decades-old school loans. I could probably stand to dial back the soy cappuccinos and the Manhattans but won’t. And I won’t entertain a discussion about my shoe budget.

But, as Rosie Rose Coates reminds me, I can laugh louder. I can draw attention to myself with my positive spirit. And I can high-five more runners, as I practiced today on the 2.8 mile loop course around Greenlake in Seattle when, faced with increasing civilian crowds on the public course and staling scenery, some participants chose to run the loop in the reverse direction.

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The sun made its welcomed first appearance around my Mile 5 at approximately 9:50am. Racers were still running in the gravel path alongside the pavement at this point, avoiding the hazardous black ice the sun had yet to melt.

When I finished my seventh lap, the only race participant signed up for the odd, 19.6-mile distance (remaining runners would complete a full 26.2), I received a Sporty Diva dog tag and hug from Rosie Rose. The volunteers and I chatted briefly about the weather in Orlando, where several of us are traveling in a matter of hours to run the Walt Disney World Dopey Challenge. And I got into my car for the 10-minute drive home.

Race 1 of 40 is complete. 2017 is officially under way. I may not be any more zenned-out than I was yesterday, but I am smiling. Really, what more can you ask from a year less than 24-hours old?

Why do you run so many races?

“Why do you run so many races?” Asks Chloe, a 26-year-old, former NCAA Division I middle-distance runner and trainer at Elite Fitness Training. I could tell she’d been dying to ask me this for a while, though she’d been unable to work all the judgment out of her voice in the time it took her to work up the nerve. “Wouldn’t you rather run a few races a year and run them well?”

I shrugged, as well as one can with a weighted barbell across her shoulders. “I do only run a few races a year that I care about. The rest are just training runs.”

“Yeah, but all those times are out there. I wouldn’t want those bad times associated with my name.” Says the woman who has a profile page on her University’s athletic department website.

“When was the last time you Googled me to study my race times?” I asked her.

“Well, never,” she admitted, sheepishly. “But still. Those times are out there.”

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I finished first of one in my age group at the Swan Lake Marathon in South Dakota last June. There were 40 entrants, it was 88 degrees, and I walked a few miles because it was just too hot not to. Yep; those results are out there.

 

Indeed they are, I thought. But here’s the thing — for the small handful of people that will, in fact, Google my race times (you need something better to do), I expect one of three reactions: (1) wow, she’s slow; (2) wow, she’s fast; or (3) wow, we run practically the same pace. Such is life. You can’t wait until you’re the best at something to do it; and you can’t only do those things that you are the best at. There will always be someone better than you. And there will always be someone who is not impressed by whatever amazing feat you are accomplishing. I’ve learned not to get spun up about it; I’m going to do whatever makes me happy. With 40 races on the calendar in 2017, there are bound to be some slow times, but I don’t think there will be any “bad times.”

Why do I run so many races? Because I can. Because there is no more magical place on Earth than the start line of a race. And because I know the courage it to put myself out there will make me better in the long run.

 

 

Welcome to 40 bibs!

The anticipation of the best experience ever. That’s what it feels like to stand at the start line of a race. Sometimes the anticipation is tranquil; like the the sun rising over the horizon. Other times it’s electric and, for a moment, you think you can actually see lighting pinging among the sea of competitors.

This year I will run 40 races to celebrate my 40th birthday, and I will support 40 other racers in stepping up to a start line of their own. My journey, and theirs, will be chronicled through this blog. I hope you’ll join me!

See you at the finish line.