On November 18, 2008, I was hobbling around the Chamber’s business expo at the Grand Traverse Resort near Traverse City, Michigan. I was 3 months removed from the Pikes Peak marathon but could not shake a nagging injury that was literally and figuratively a pain in my ass. I had pulled something in the left butt cheek and it was radiating down my leg worse than ever. It was all I could do to stand up and visit with people.
Of course, like the idiot I had professed never to become, I was still running about 100 miles per month. Back at my desk on the 18th, I was resigned to backing off and trying to get over this problem. I also started stretching every day for the first time in my running career. I know. I am an idiot.
Luckily, things began to slowly improve. In January, I felt like I was up for the next challenge. Running partner Kevin Krause hatched the idea of 3 marathons in 63 days. Pikes Peak in August of 2008 had been our only marathon that year. We both felt that we needed to be more aggressive in 2009 in our quest for 50 marathons in 50 states. So, with my lingering injuries from Pikes Peak mostly behind me, I agreed, 3 in 63, no problem. A 13 week schedule leading up to marathon number 1, the Kentucky Derby marathon in Louisville, Kentucky on April 25, 2009 was started on the last weekend of January.
We recruited fellow runner Dean Bott for at least the first marathon. The fourth member of our group, Jim Carpenter, had qualified for Boston in October so he would join in on the training as well but opt out of the group trip to run some race simply referred to as “Boston” the week before our Kentucky date.
Training for a late April marathon meant running through a Michigan winter. This was not the best option but one that could not be avoided. I may be an idiot but I would not be the only one. On one run, we had to go single file taking turns in the lead to block the wind and blowing snow for a few miles. That was a cake walk compared to a later 17 mile run with temps near zero. I had on 2 pairs of pants, 3 shirts, 1 wind jacket, 1 pair of mittens and a full face mask. I was never so cold in my life but we finished. I did “cheat” several times during shorter mid-week runs by using the treadmill in my basement. The winter seemed colder and longer than those of recent memory but we made it through to the warmer weather of spring.
The last April long run before Louisville was an 8 mile course from Kevin’s house in Kingsley, Michigan. I was feeling good having survived the winter and in near peak condition. We started out fast and in mile 2 or so, I felt a twinge in my left hamstring. I ignored it and continued on the run with a bit of concern creeping in. I decided to run just one slow 3 mile run the rest of the week and see how it felt in the marathon.
Kevin, Dean and I took off in a rental car after work on Thursday, April 23rd. We were all in a good mood, anxious for a break from the everyday routine and eager for the race. After a few hours on the road, we passed an exit sign for Climax, Michigan (on I-69 even). Well, that started a round of juvenile locker room humor that would last the rest of the evening and into the next day. Three grown men wondering aloud if there was a “Hot N Now”, “Bush Gardens”, a bar called “The Wet Spot” and several other similar sounding attractions in a town named Climax. It was crude and to say I am not proud of some of the quips would be a lie. Laughter is great stress reliever and we were repeatedly laughing out loud. It felt good to be 13 years old again even for a short time.
After spending a night in Ohio, we arrived in Louisville before lunch. I had set up a tour of Nolin REC in Elizabethtown, Kentucky 40 miles to the south with a friend, Operations Manager Vince Heuser. So, after lunch, we spent the afternoon touring his cooperative and the Fort Knox military base served by the cooperative. It was particularly interesting to Dean whose son would be graduating from West Point in May.
Going by the new human resources building for all Army personnel, I joked with Dean that the building would probably hold the key to the real man who fathered his son as we have continually joked that he certainly could not have sired a West Point graduate! It had to be the mail man, UPS driver or maybe the Schwan ice cream guy. “True friends”, we were never going to give Dean the credit.
Eventually, we made it to our hotel in downtown Louisville. With 3 of us splitting the costs, we had opted for a nice Marriott Hotel near the start and finish. As we were unloading our gear in the room, I spotted a used condom on the floor near the corner of one of the beds. Well, grown men talk tough but nobody was volunteering to pick it up.
Kevin calmly got on the phone and politely explained the situation to the desk clerk. The clerk apologized all over the place and said he would move us to another room free of charge. We were amazed to find that he gave us a complete suite and the entire night’s charges would be free. King bed, wet bar, fold out couch plus room for a roll-away bed, we had hit the skinflint jackpot. Instead of drawing for straws and somebody sleeping on the floor, we had a spacious room, off the floor accommodations for each runner and a late check out so we had time for a shower after the race.
Temperatures were in the high 60s when we got up in the morning. The weatherman was predicting high 80s for the finish of the race. After a winter of training in the snow and cold of northern Michigan, we knew the heat would now be a factor as we waited at the starting line.
When we took off, Dean went out ahead. Kevin and I planned to stay together as long as possible while shooting for a 4 hour finish. The course had lots of twists and turns with some long hills in spots. At mile 8 or so, we were treated to a lap around the infield at Churchhill Downs. Speakers were playing the race announcer’s call from previous races. I felt a nice surge when I heard him exclaim, “AND down the stretch they come!” Looking into the empty grandstands and catching a glimpse of a few horses working out on the dirt track, I thought how I would watch the derby the following weekend with a new appreciation for the location and magnitude of the event.
All too quickly it was over and back into the city we went. Louisville is the 16th largest city in the United States. The race was a good tour of the sites, downtown, city parks, stately brownstones and neighborhoods with 100 year old homes. The tree lined streets were a godsend on such a hot day.
At mile 12, we lost the 10,000+ half marathon runners. Kevin and I were still together at the half way point and just under our 2 hour goal. My hamstring had been tight all day but it was holding up. Then around mile 17, it got too difficult for me to keep up and I let Kevin go. Mental problems were then added to my physical ones. I was at the wall and needed to fight my way through.
I crossed over the bridge into Indiana at mile 23 and was surprised to catch Kevin at that point for a short time. The hill climb back into Kentucky was a cruel and unusual punishment for a runner in my condition at mile 24 of a hot marathon. Kevin disappeared from site once again.
I crossed the finish line at 4:32:15. I was generally satisfied with that effort due to the heat and only having the use of a hamstring and a half. Dean finished in 3:56 and Kevin in 4:27. I was 47th of 97 men in the 45-49 age group, 339 of 681 male finishers and 466 of 1035 overall finishers. Some 900+ runners had not started, dropped out or opted to run the half instead of the full marathon, probably due to the heat.
Back at home, I suspected that my hamstring had caused a change in my stride. I developed some sort of sciatic problem in my right hip, butt and lower back. This was going to affect my training for West Virginia. I would get up limping from my desk, leaving those watching and myself to wonder how I was going to run another marathon in 5 weeks. However, once I got up and going, it seemed to be okay so I figured I had a shot.
Work took me to Washington, DC in early May. I got in a very slow 10 mile run on the mall beyond the Lincoln Memorial and back. Memorial Day weekend, I was in Timber Lake, South Dakota with family for a niece’s wedding. I managed a flat 15 miles at 10:36 pace. In between those two locations, I ran some shorter routes at home, rode my bike a couple times, swam laps a few times and used the elliptical machine in our fitness room at work. The last long run with Kevin from his house in Kingsley, Michigan on May 31st was 14 miles at a 10:08 pace. I got the workouts in but they were much slower than anything I had done in the past. While I had improved somewhat, West Virginia would be about survival not time.
Kevin’s son Mathew joined Kevin and I for the trip to West Virginia on June 4th. It was like taking a young, old man along because he had his ipod in most of the time. Every time we talked to him, we would get the proverbial, “What did you say?” Then there was the farting and teenage laughter when he knew the smell was discovered. I introduced him to the word “flatulence” and challenged him a time or two with some natural gas of my own. Once again, I was 13 and this time I was “battling” with a real 13 year old. The marathon drive had sunken into another juvenile escapade of sorts.
After another night in an Ohio hotel during which I impressed Mathew with my snoring (I was dead tired from stressful days at work and battling the injuries while trying to train), we arrived in West Virginia. Winding back roads and a one lane bridge on the edge of town took us to Cairo, the closest town to North Bend State Park. I use the word “town” very loosely as it could not have a population much over 200. It did have two places for lunch, a hardware store, post office and a combination grocery/bait shop/bike rental store. We had lunch at a quaint 50s style diner called “The Scoop” on main street Cairo.
We checked into our room at the park lodge unsuccessful in garnering a late check out. While it is off the beaten path, the park was booked solid and unwilling to let us stretch out our stay. We would have to be on schedule and not spend too much time at the finish. I decided to take the optional 6 am start. Kevin decided to go out at 7 am so he would be in contention for a medal. He figured with a total of 89 registered runners he might have a shot. I was simply hoping to survive to run another day.
We took in the spaghetti supper at the lodge restaurant. After, we sat in on the race meeting. The race director/state park employee told us to look out for copperhead snakes and to beware of the dog near the end of the railroad trail. The course would not be closed (never had been in the passed, missed that on the brochure!) and we should be careful of oncoming traffic particularly on the blind curves. I felt very reassured when he said it wasn’t that bad except for mile 16 where he was too scared to even mark the road! Water stations would be on a self service basis. We were also told to be careful for horse crap in the three tunnels. The meeting ended with a comment that they had more bigfoot sightings than bear sightings. Kevin and I smiled as we left what had to be one of the more bizarre (yet friendly) pre-race meetings.
Standing in the dark with a group of early starters, I stood off to the side and enjoyed the pre-dawn quiet listening to the chatter. West Virginia only has 3 marathons across the state and many of the runners were here to check off the state on their personal list of 50 state marathons. I joined in the conversation when I saw an individual with a Bayshore Marathon shirt from Traverse City. He lived in South Carolina and was also working on a marathon in each state. Coincidently, he was also going to Seattle at the end of the month. (Can you hear the music? “It’s a small world after all!)
With little fanfare, we were sent off in the fog and mist of the early morning. It was a great day for a run. It was overcast with an intermittent mist yet occasional bouts of sun. The countryside was green, peaceful and seemingly undisturbed. No big city throngs of people and no cheering crowds. It was as if we rolled out of bed and went for a run with a bunch of friends who were just happy to be alive.
We followed the road towards Cairo and took a left on Highway 31. Rolling hills (many, many hills) and rural scenery were the order of the day. We passed through the town of Harrisville and Ellenborough. Traffic turned out to be minimal but there were many blind corners which required “going wide” with traffic at your back. The course was well marked and easy to follow.
Somewhere near mile 14, I was passed by a ponytailed, greyhound of a runner who would be the eventual winner. He had started an hour behind me yet took only 14 miles to catch me. I have yet to calculate how fast he must have run and likely will leave that to later generations who read this story. His hair was two feet longer and my waist was two feet thicker. It wasn’t a fair fight so I just let it go.
Around mile 18, I was tempted to stop at McDonald’s for ice cream but I resisted. Instead, I left the pavement for the rail trail that years ago had been home to engines of the B&O railroad. I thought of the hundreds of Monopoly games I had played over the years and now here I was on the B&O line.
I passed through 3 tunnels on the rail trail. Each was more than 300 feet long and the glow sticks were dimming by the time I got there. Each time I walked and wondered how in the heck I could avoid horse crap in the darkness. I almost fell in one tunnel due to the pitch black darkness.
Somewhere on the rail trail, I felt something very odd or more correctly I didn’t feel something. Somehow, my hip/back/sciatic issues had disappeared. My legs were tired from less than stellar preparation so it didn’t help my time. I honestly can’t explain what it was but I felt better than I had in more than a month.
True to the race director’s word, the pit bull was on his chain at the end of the rail trail. Looking around, there was no runner I could beat if he got loose. So, I simply decided I would curl up in a ball and accept my fate if he got off his chain.
Mile 24 to 25 was a very cruel uphill climb followed by a quad busting downhill PAST the lodge. I don’t know what was more depressing looking at the downhill or considering the fact I might have to hobble back up the hill to get a shower.
Five minutes from the finish, I was caught by Kevin. He had a great run with a young lady he had met near the start. He finished second in his age group at 4:15. This was probably the only race that gave out trophies to just first place. Kevin would go home with good memories but no hardware. I accomplished my goal. I had survived the race no worse for wear in 5:20.
Luckily, there was a shuttle van taking runners back up to the lodge. The seats were full so I rolled myself into the back. Up front, there was an older gentleman who commented on the smell emanating from all the sweaty runners. He exclaimed, “Smells like my old girlfriend in here!” After the laughter died down, I replied, “Tell me you didn’t marry her!” His reply was, “NO, but I sure wanted to!”
After a quick shower, we headed home. The trip home is always more quiet but this was a bit different. I just felt good, like my “mojo” had returned somewhere on the trail. I had the normal aches and pains that follow 26 miles of running. The back/hip/sciatic issues had disappeared for the time being. The tired, semi-burned out feeling from the stresses of work had disappeared as well. I hit the Ohio border with West Virginia in the rearview mirror wondering what exactly was in the water back there.
With just 21 days before the next marathon, I focused on recovering while trying to maintain some sort of conditioning base. I didn’t make it to the pool but did manage one bike ride and a couple sessions on the elliptical machine. Back and hamstring issues returned slightly around June 18th. I was not pleased but not surprised either. I think it was just my body saying, “HEY, idiot, enough already!” A total of 4 shorts runs were arranged around a 12 mile run on June 14th and a 10 mile run on June 20th.
After wrapping up another business trip to Washington DC, I got a 4 am cab ride on June 25th to Washington D.C.’s Reagan airport for about 8 hours of flying to Seattle. Switching planes in Minneapolis, I found myself in an exit row (lots of leg room!) at the back of the plane surrounded by 49 Team-In-Training (TNT) runners from the Minneapolis area. TNT is a cancer fundraiser that involves volunteer runners from around the country who agree to raise money in return for getting all or a portion of their trip paid for. This particular group had raised $180,000. As we took off after some runway mechanical issues, there was a buzz in the air. I was with others of “my kind” and you could cut the excitement with a knife.
Once in my Seattle hotel, I called Ken “Buddy” Paul, a 1961 graduate from my hometown of Timber Lake, South Dakota. We had been in contact via email while I was working on a story for the Timber Lake 2010 centennial history book. He picked me up for dinner at his Auburn, Washington home in a TL Panthers t-shirt. I spent the evening with Buddy and his wife Lavonne visiting about Timber Lake, National Finals Rodeo, family and his grandkids. They have a home full of antiques, many of which have a connection to Timber Lake. While we graduated 19 years apart, live some 2,000 miles on opposite ends of the country and had never met before, I had a great evening talking about a small, dusty western South Dakota town and its cast of colorful characters.
I lost my dad in 1963 and here I was in Washington State sitting next to a man who had actually known him. Buddy told me a brief tale of how he had gotten in my dad’s car one evening to go to a neighboring town for a night out. They had no more than pulled onto the main street and the local cop waved them down. Policeman Ernest Cudmore, a relative of the best man in my wedding decades later, leaned into the window and looked them both in the eye. He simply said, “I don’t want any trouble from you two tonight!” It seems he knew my dad’s vehicle and my father’s reputation apparently deserved the warning. I came to run and instead had found another piece to the puzzle of a man I never met.
Friday, I caught up to Kevin and his friend, Letty Mansfield, who had arrived late on Wednesday. We arrived at the expo a bit early so decided to find someplace in downtown Seattle to have breakfast. This turned into a bit of an adventure because apparently breakfast is not a big thing in Seattle. After walking several blocks, we gave up and hit a McDonald’s on the wharf (strike 1 against Seattle’s downtown).
The expo at Quest Field, home of the NFL Seahawks, was one of the better and larger running expos I have been around. Granted, I didn’t buy anything but I did do the Sam’s Club sampler thing, taking in tastes of various liquids and power bars. I wore my Pike’s Peak finisher’s shirt which drew a few compliments. I simply nodded my thanks and thought to myself, “If they only knew!”
With my race number in hand, we hit the streets of downtown Seattle in search of the famous Pike’s Place fish market. Over the years, I had heard about the great customer service attitude of the fish mongers as they tossed fish around so this was a must see attraction on my list. When we arrived there was a crowd of people standing around. There was every piece of fish imaginable on ice and awaiting the next order. Orders were few and far between and the general feeling of the crowd was, “Here we are, is this all there is?” While the surrounding farmer’s market was impressive, the whole fish market experience was certainly not (strike 2 against Seattle’s downtown).
Next up was the famous space needle. I told Kevin and Letty that I was more than happy to wait for them but I had no intention of going up. We arrived after a walk of several blocks. There were kids playing in a large fountain in an adjacent park with loudspeakers playing the music of the recently deceased Michael Jackson. Letty and Kevin looked at the lines that wrapped around for more than two stories and decided they didn’t need to wait that long (strike 3 against Seattle’s downtown).
We took a tram then a bus rather than walk back across town to the wharf. Buddy Paul had suggested we take a ferry ride to Bainbridge Island and that was next on our one day list of attractions to see. The ferry provided a great view of the Seattle skyline, a glimpse of Mt. Rainier surrounded by clouds and a smooth ride to the island.
Once on the island, I felt like we were home in Traverse City. There were small shops and it generally felt relaxed like a vacation getaway within sight yet completely removed from the congestion of Seattle. We located a great ice cream store. I got a large cup which ended up being something like a quart of ice cream. Hey, it was delicious, I was on vacation, I would be running a few miles in the morning and who says spaghetti is the only way to load up on carbohydrates (homerun for Bainbridge’s downtown).
Saturday morning saw the sun come up on another perfect day for a run. There was no rain in sight, plenty of sunshine and just enough breeze to cool you off at times. Letty dropped us off at the starting line in Tukwila which was south of the downtown Seattle finish line around 6 am. Kevin and I were in corral 12 of about 40 starting corrals. Sold out at 25,000 half marathon and marathon runners, the organizers were prepared for the throngs and sent each corral off in orderly fashion. It took us almost 20 minutes to reach the starting line after the initial gun went off. Other runners would take more than an hour. I learned later that this was the largest field in the history of such events in the Pacific Northwest.
The course was a far cry from the solitude of rural West Virginia. There was several cheer squads scattered from the start to finish. Live bands were playing every mile or two. Some runners stopped to do a quick dance early in the race. Later in the day, nobody was in a dancing mood. Generally, it was a very well organized race with decent crowd support and great volunteers at each water station.
Four miles down the course found us running on the shores of Lake Washington. The next 7 miles had a water view and again I felt like I was home running on Old Mission Peninsula. About mile 10, I realized what I had forgotten to do in the morning. Yes, my nipples were beginning to sting. Runners will smile when they read this. Non-runners will wonder what kind of saggy old man I am. All I can say is that I am 47 years old and sagging in more places than I ever want to write about. This sag combined with the bounce due to running leads to friction of tender skin on the inside of one’s shirt. As luck would have it, a course medic on a bike came by and I got a couple band-aids to save my shirt and salvage my day.
With the first of three out and back portions behind us, the next couple miles took us into downtown Seattle. We ran past the space needle between mile 16 and 17. Here is where I lost Kevin. The challenging course was primarily concrete with some long, tough hills and the pounding had taken its toll. Past injuries and intermittent training had caught up to my body. My knees hurt, my hips were tight, my left hamstring was reminding me it hadn’t totally healed and my lower back was trying to pull them all together. I would see Kevin on the next two out and back portions but mentally I checked out when I let him go.
I felt like I had been doing well for the first 18 miles. I was 2:07 at the half way point and about 3:06 at mile 18. While I struggled through the next 8.2 miles, it truly was a beautiful day. I entertained the thought of simply walking all the way and enjoy being alive but I had enough pride left to continue the zombie shuffle with a few walking breaks tossed in.
I wore my favorite Captain America bike jersey because the back pocket has a great place to store the shot blocks I was eating. The shirt was a hit on the entire route as it drew many comments and questions on where to buy one. I forgave all those who shouted, “Way to go Texas”. I felt pity for those too young to remember buying a good Marvel comic for 25 cents. They also probably only know the 1970s from the TV show! It seemed like whenever things got really tough those last few miles I would get a boost from a Captain America fan.
I wanted to cry at mile 24 when I saw how much it went downhill. It was the last out and back. Going down wasn’t the problem. It was the inhumane uphill at mile 25 that made me consider the fetal position. But, would Captain America ever be found curled up asking for his mother? I think not. So, on I trudged and shuffled to the finish line.
With little fanfare, I finished and gladly accepted the inaugural finisher’s medal and a bottle of water. My aching knees seemingly attracted me to the nearest bag of ice and I spent the next 15 minutes sitting with ice on my knees. After that, I laid out a tinfoil sheet given to runners at the finish to ward off the post run chills on the ground under the letter “A” in the family reunion area and waited for Kevin and Letty to find me.
Once reunited, I felt strong enough to get that “free” MGD 64 beer that everyone had promised at the last few water stops. I found the beer corral and stepped up to the entrance. I was greeted by a pleasant young lady who politely asked me for my identification. I said, “Look at me. I am an old man who has just ran a marathon (I thought about lifting my shirt to show her my taped up nipples as proof of my age but I was also afraid she would get sick on my good shoes!). All I want is the one free beer owed to me for my $120 marathon registration fee!” Her reply was, “I am sorry. It’s the law.” Well, I gave her my best roll of the eyes and “what the *&^%$” look. Too tired to argue, I walked away. We found a great little bar within walking distance and paid for the meal with the sweaty twenties Kevin and I had carried on the run. One beer and a hot meal later, life was all good once again.
I finished the inaugural Seattle Rock N Roll Marathon in 4:56:23 about 45 minutes behind Kevin. There were 5,602 marathon finishers (7500 had started) and I crossed the line at 3,560. Of the 2,543 men that finished, I was number 1,906. In my age division, 309 crossed the line with me at 229. I had dropped off my typical middle of the pack finish. I am honestly torn between whether or not I am happy with that. I am happy with completing 3 marathons in 63 days. I am unhappy with my health and inability to get in the weight room to prepare better.
What next? First, there will be a July of biking and slow recovery runs. In August, somebody will come up with the next destination and date. I hope to run the next marathon with two good hamstrings, get in the weight room and lose 10 pounds (I know the quarts of ice cream HAVE to go). Whatever happens, I know I will survive. I also know finishing is more important than my time.
In Louisville, I found a condom and discovered how 4 guys could “score” off one prophylactic device! In the backwoods and hills of West Virginia, I regained my “mojo” and relit my running fire. Seattle’s treasure was in a nugget of a story that will help fill a small portion of a deep, dark hole. The next time somebody asks me why I travel the country on this 50 marathon quest, I will reply, “Because I can’t predict what I will find and I can’t find it if I don’t get out there.”