I signed up for the Fargo marathon in mid-December. Shortly thereafter, I received an email telling me about a You Tube video that detailed the entire course in less than 10 minutes. Well, I checked it out and just about got sick. There were so many left and right turns that when they were played at high speed, it made my stomach churn (tea cup rides make my stomach churn!). As I got up from my computer, I thought about what a metaphor turning all these corners could be. I would be turning one of those big birthday “corners” just 21 days prior to the marathon. On that cold December day, I was staring directly into a new year and my 50th birthday on April 28, 2012.
To this point, while I had talked about turning 50, I don’t think it really had set in. Once it did, I realized that I was actually okay with the idea of getting older. I had my health, family life was great and work was as challenging as ever. After all, I had just broken the 4-hour marathon barrier shortly before turning 49. Maybe, just maybe, my fifties had more to offer?
I mapped out my weekly running plan around the Hanson Brooks Distance Project recommendations that I had used in that sub-4 run in Boston less than 12 months earlier. I don’t know if the coaches on the real Hanson Brooks team have a motto but mine was simply “train harder, train smarter”. I was looking forward to the speed work, tempo runs and best of all, the Sunday long runs that never go over 16 miles.
Prior to Boston, I had run 20 and 22 mile long runs while preparing for marathons with no speed work during the week. I entered many a marathon feeling fit only to be disappointed when time after time the 4-hour group coasted past. Hanson Brooks had proven to me that I needed more quality miles and less junk miles. I thought often about a personal best in Fargo but deep inside told myself to not talk about it. I would just shut up, get the workouts in and see what marathon day provided.
In northern Michigan, when you put a spring marathon on your schedule, you know it means training in the winter. My first training run of the 16-week Hanson Brooks plan took place on January 30th on a 28 degree day after work. I had a good base from the previous year’s all time high mileage of more than 1700 miles and a November marathon in Oklahoma but running had not been consistent or focused for a couple months. I covered 6 miles in 58:33 for an average pace of 9:45 per mile. Decent, but it was certainly a long way from personal record pace.
The next day was the first Tuesday of what I began to call “treadmill games”. Due to the winter weather and my desire to get in quality speed work sessions, I dedicated each Tuesday to a treadmill run. I like the treadmill for speed work because of the control the machine provides. You can crank it up and down with no hills or weather worries. The first weeks of the plan involve 3×1 mile repeats. A slow quarter mile warm-up followed by a hard mile then a quarter mile recovery until you reach 4 miles. I finished that first 4-mile session in 33:07.
Each week of treadmill games, I tried to go faster by increasing the pace of the warm-up and recovery jogs as well as going up 1 level faster each of the 3 hard miles. My second Tuesday finished in 32:48. The next week it was 32:26 and in week 4, I whittled it down to 32:04. I broke the 32 minute barrier in week 5 with a 31:31. Week 6 was a mess due to a trip to San Diego for work during which we had a snowstorm back home with massive power outages. Between trying to get home, trying to sleep and finally getting back into the office amidst the chaos, I was not able to get in the weekly treadmill workout. With the lights back on and once again sleeping in my own bed, I lowered my time to 31:20 in week 7 but had a slight set back the next week when I finished the distance in 32:11.
The second half of my Tuesday treadmill games required a step up in the work out. Hanson Brooks cranked up the intensity with 2 x 3 mile repeats. They tossed in a 1-mile recovery jog in the middle of 2 very intense 3 mile sprints. Sticking with my plan to push myself in these workouts, I went up 1 level faster each mile as much as I could. The first week of this workout, I did my recovery jog at 9:30 pace and finished the 7 miles in 58:36. In the weeks to come, I would get the recovery jog to a sub-9 minute pace which helped lower the times but also made that second 3 miles a bit harder.
In week 10 of treadmill games, I squeezed under the 58-minute barrier for 7 miles. The next week was much better because I took almost a minute off the total time and finished in 56:54. The next two weeks were better as well with a 55:37 and 55:38. Soaked and tired at the end of each Tuesday workout, I could tell they were paying off. My regular “easy” runs on the other days of the week were becoming naturally faster. On the road once again for work, week 14 found me in a DC fitness club at 8 p.m. getting in my treadmill workout in a bit slower 55:54. Week 14 was the last session of treadmill games and it ended up to be the best when I pushed harder than ever to cover the 7 miles in a personal treadmill best of 53:40. I felt like I could run through a wall and knew full well that at some point in the marathon, I might actually have to.
The other staples of the Hanson Brooks 6 days of running per week plan are the tempo runs and long runs. Tempo runs at marathon pace typically took place on Thursdays while the long runs that were supposed to be 1 minute slower than marathon pace usually took place on Sundays. A 4-hour marathon requires an average pace of 9:10. I wanted to do better than that but didn’t yet have an idea how much faster I could go.
Sunday, February 5th was the first long run. In 29-degree weather, I finished at a respectable 9:36 average. In theory then, my marathon pace should be in the 8:36 neighborhood. “REALLY?”, I thought to myself. This would have me finishing the marathon in the neighborhood of 3 hours and 45 minutes. Could I really complete a marathon over the age of 50 more than 10 minutes faster than 20 other marathons? Again, I told myself to just shut up and do the work.
The next 2 Sundays, I managed a pace between 9:16 and 9:21. Then, I went out on a Thursday marathon pace run on February 23rd and did 6 miles at an average of 8:09. Yes, it was 20 miles short of my goal but it was also faster than I needed to run. I felt like I might be turning a corner in my training and creating what I began to call a “new normal”. On March 15 as the winter began to slip into my rearview under sunshine and 55 degrees, I hit a marathon tempo run of 8 miles at 8:24 per mile. I followed that up just 3 days later with a 15-mile long run at an average of 8:54. I was slowly lowering my 9:10 goal.
I got a scare on Saturday, March 24th. I really didn’t need to run hard but at this point, if I felt good I ran harder because after all I was creating a “new normal” and age 50 was creeping up ever so close. It was a nice 50+ degree morning and I ran 8 miles at an average of 8:31. After the run, I had blood in my urine. While this had happened in the past, it was usually in hotter weather. I felt great. “What now?”, I muttered to myself.
A couple years earlier, I had talked to my doctor about it and actually had some exploratory examinations that didn’t show anything. My doctor called it something like “endurance induced hematuria” or in my words, I didn’t have any water left in my kidneys so they sent out some blood. The very next day, I did 10 miles at an 8:33 pace and it happened for the second day in a row. This hadn’t ever happened before. This time I cussed under my breath, sat down with my Ipad and did some Internet research.
Why the Internet? I have a good doctor but I felt fine and while scary, I didn’t think it was serious. The online advice was to leave some liquid in my bladder before the run. The theory was that an empty bladder might allow the sides of the kidney to rub together during a hard workout. This rubbing would then cause bleeding within the bladder that would come out when I used the bathroom. So, I started draining my bladder 30 minutes prior to the start of a run and then sipping a little liquid before heading out. The blood never returned and I got a clean bill of health at my annual physical almost a month later. Crisis averted, medical corner turned. Time to attack that 50th birthday with a vengeance and no worries once more.
I completed the first of the three 16-mile long runs in the plan on April 1st in mist, fog and 36 degrees. Running partners Jim Carpenter and Dean Bott joined in on the run and were a big help in achieving an 8:59 average pace. Two weeks later, they helped with the second 16-mile run and we lowered the average to 8:42. I was now in the range I wanted. However, I was in DC once again for work for the final 16 miler. While there were runners everywhere on the trails in the DC area, my pace team was back home. It was just me and my watch on a muggy 70+ degree day. I managed a respectable 9:10 pace but I had to console myself with the thought that it wasn’t supposed to be at marathon pace. It didn’t help. I had celebrated my 50th birthday the day before. It wasn’t the quality I wanted on the first long run of my newest decade. Doubt crept in. Could I really turn this corner?
Back home, I attacked my Thursday marathon pace run of 10 miles and finished at 8:31 and 3 days later did another 10 at 8:37. I was now 13 days from the marathon. I was feeling strong physically and mentally. I still wasn’t talking about it but I was sure thinking about blowing that 3:58 in Boston out of the water. In the next minute, I would think about all the variables that can go wrong during a marathon and the self doubt would seep back in. I was at the corner and ready for the turn yet worried about what was lurking ahead. I tried to beat back the doubts on my last Sunday run by attacking the hilly course to finish 8 miles with an 8:31 average. I didn’t know what Fargo had in store but I knew there were no hills. It was time to hide the doubt and attack the corner.
Mary and I headed out after work on May 16th. I had rented a Chevy Cruze for the 900-mile trip and was looking forward to getting good gas mileage. We headed north over the Mackinac Bridge and onto Highway 2. Driving along the shores of Lake Michigan in the Upper Peninsula of the mitten state has to be one of the prettiest drives in the country. We left the lake after turning a right hand corner in Escanaba, Michigan and heading west. We stopped for the night in Iron Mountain, Michigan shortly before dark. We had time and felt no need to push the pace on the drive.
The drive the next day was very relaxing as well. We enjoyed good roads with little traffic and even saw a few bald eagles. The day before Lake Michigan had been on our left, now, in northern Michigan and Wisconsin, we had views of Lake Superior on our right. Passing through Duluth-Superior, we left the great lakes and highway 2 by dipping down into the rural highways of Minnesota. We were amazed by the massive size of many of the Minnesota “ponds” we drove by in the land of 10,000 lakes. So many trips have involved fighting traffic on busy interstates to get to various races. As I looked at yet another small town main street and church steeple, I promised myself to take more two-lane roads in the future. Part of this 50 state marathon quest should be discovering small town America. Accompanied by my best friend with little reason to be in a hurry, I can’t say enough how relaxing the rural roads to Fargo made me feel.
Mary and I have two nieces who live in Fargo. Sam Reinbold is a daughter to Mary’s brother Robert. She is a zoology and veterinary technician graduate from NDSU in Fargo. Nichole Nachatilo is a nurse practitioner and a daughter of Mary’s older sister Fran. Months before we had alerted both that we were coming into town and made arrangements to stay with Nichole and her husband Justin. Well, as luck would have it, Nichole wasn’t able to be at home as she was back in our hometown of Timber Lake, South Dakota taking care of her mother’s chronic back problems. This was a disappointment because we hadn’t spent any significant time with Nichole in years.
We arrived in Fargo late in the afternoon of Thursday, May 17th. Even though Nichole wasn’t home, she still offered her home to us during our visit. Her husband Justin was at the house so we called Sam and took them out to a nice dinner. We hadn’t had a lengthy visit with Sam for years either and never had really met Nichole’s husband. Sam was working as a retail clerk while looking for a job to make use of her education and Justin was a police officer for the city of Fargo. So, we had a great visit that night getting to know one for the first time and another for a second time.
The next morning I went out for an easy 2-mile jog around Justin and Nichole’s neighborhood. It was hot even early in the morning. The day before Fargo set a record high of 90+ degrees and the weatherman was predicting another such day for Friday. I knew I wouldn’t achieve my goal with temperatures in the 90s. The weatherman promised a cold front for Saturday. I so wanted to believe him and so hoped he would be right.
After a brief morning visit, Justin left us as he was heading out to South Dakota to spend the weekend with Nichole and her parents. We called up Sam for a little tour of the Fargo area. Being from Traverse City, Michigan where we have a great main street/shopping district the locals call “Front Street”, I always like to check out what other cities have to offer in this area. Sam took us down to Fargo’s Broadway district. While similar to TC, it definitely didn’t have the Front Street vibe, especially on a Friday afternoon. We did have a nice lunch at a local eatery and some good ice cream at a small store. While I put my feet up to rest and stay out of the heat back at the house, Mary and Sam went out to do a little shopping. We had pasta and pizza delivered to the house for dinner and spent the evening watching a movie with Sam. It was a peaceful day of relaxation that was so much better than what we would have had in a hotel. While gone, Justin and Nichole provided the perfect day before a marathon hospitality.
After a good microwave pancake breakfast, I drove myself to the Fargodome which is the home of the NDSU Bison football team. I wanted to continue the relaxation theme we had going and get there early. Mary and Sam would arrive later. It was the best starting area ever for a marathon. Indoors out of the weather, plenty of space and bathrooms with no lines. A 50 year old, well hydrated marathoner’s dream! The 10K went off at 7 a.m. and the half marathon at 7:30. This left the entire dome area open to the 1,824 marathon runners.
About 7:30, “team Oklahoma” my running partners at the Route 66 Marathon back in November, niece and nephew in-law, Theresa and Rich Stangle arrived. On their way from their home in Pipestone, Minnesota to clean up a rental house in Crookston, they had made plans to take in the race. I knew they were coming but when I saw them walking across the dome floor, Rich was holding a large piece of cardboard over his head that read: “We traveled 235 miles to watch Tony Anderson run the Fargo Marathon!” My eyes watered a bit but I blinked away the tears to recover before they could see what a softie the old man was. It felt great to share some time with even more family. A short time later, Mary and her tour guide, Sam, strolled in. I had worried about them getting through traffic but Sam turned out to be well versed in all of the short cuts and back roads Fargo had to offer.
Sitting around a table, laughing, talking and watching the 10K winners finish, Theresa asked the question I had been avoiding, “What time are you hoping for Uncle Tony?” Well, there was a long uncomfortable pause before a deep breath then I said what I had not wanted to say for 16 long, hard but good weeks of training, “3:45”. I tried to cover my tracks with a shrug of the shoulders and words to the effect of “it really doesn’t matter”.
Oh, it mattered on the inside. I was now past the age 50 corner. The weather had cooled into the low 60s. The course was flat. I had run an all time high of 1,700 miles in 2011 and more than 600 miles totally focused on Fargo in 2012. If I ever was going to turn a corner to a different level of marathon running, I knew I had a shot on this day. I held Mary’s hand as I walked with my “entourage” to the start line outside. Boy, did it matter. I wanted to bust this corner right off.
After a quick picture with my bride, I stepped into the waves of marathon runners at the start. To my left, as fate would have it, I saw a number on a stick making its way through the crowd. The number read: 3:45! I slipped, slithered and slid between bodies to get as close to it as I could. While the national anthem played, I told myself stay steady, stay strong and whatever you do, do NOT run past that sign. I felt ready to run out of my shoes (plus I really had to pee) but had enough experience to know that was the last thing I wanted to do early in the race (run too fast that is!).
The gun sounded and the masses were moving in a slow walk, a quick jog, a dead stop typical of a marathon start then across the line and onto the course. I passed my entourage just before the first mile marker, cardboard sign and all. Mile 1 and 2 were relatively straight then the turns started leading up to mile 3. The times were a steady 8:21, 8:32 and 8:32. I was in the pack of 10 to 15 runners following the lady with 3:45 on her stick.
Miles 4 and 5 were full of curves, corners and angles. Marathoners were still bunched up and each corner caused a minor traffic jam. It wasn’t hard but certainly more work than a straighter course would have been. Mile 4 was an 8:44 and I could actually feel the difference from the previous 3 miles. This was a new experience for me and may sound strange to the non-runner but all those training miles in the 8:31 neighborhood had left my body knowing what slower felt like. Weird I know. Mile 5 got back to a slightly faster pace of 8:35. Those of us close enough to hear learned that our pacer was named Tracie, from Illinois, an ultra marathon runner, mother of 3 and an experienced marathon pace group leader. She promised even splits and we were certainly getting them.
Miles 6, 7 and 8 were relatively straight. In the mile 6 area, I passed Mary and Sam while I smiled, waved and moved with the 3:45 pack. A bit later, I got another look at Rich’s cardboard sign. Again, the times were bunched close together, 8:25, 8:30 and 8:19.
The next 3 miles were full of corners as I went left, right, right, left, right and yet one more sharp left. It seemed like we were always turning a corner. Other runners in the group began to carry the stick. I was also becoming familiar with some of the “regulars” in the 3:45 group. There was a doctor from Grand Rapids, a man from Kalamazoo who had run Pikes Peak with his father in 2011, a lady who ran in the heat of Boston a month earlier, an over 60 veteran of more than 50 marathons, a older man with a gray ponytail, a 20 something “kid” who seemed to be barely running and a preacher from Minnesota. This group and other runners in the vicinity had one goal in mind. It was 3:45 or bust. We were moving as one mass of sweaty legs while posting times of 8:30, 8:31 and 8:40.
I was carrying a bottle strapped to my hand. All the sugar in Gatorade and Powerade gives me an upset stomach over the course of a marathon. So, I mix my own drink of a carb/protein powder called Succeed. I had to back off just a bit to get the powder into the bottle and stop at an aid station to quickly pour some water in while shaking it up on the run. I caught back up to the group and finished mile 12 in 8:28. Somewhere in there, I went by Mary, Sam, Rich and Theresa. I was still having fun and sticking with my plan to stay behind the stick. I took my second gel pack as well and passed mile 13 in an identical 8:28.
We were now past the halfway point and well into an out and back section of the course that would last until mile 22. While not a big fan of the out and back strategy as it doesn’t allow you to see as much of the city as you would otherwise, I did enjoy seeing the masses who were trying to catch us. I smiled a little on the inside as the 4:15 and 4:30 groups came at us like oncoming traffic. I had trailed them so many times in other marathons. If I could just keep moving, they would never catch me today. Could it really happen?
There were more lefts, rights and curves but the consistency remained as 8:38, 8:24 and 8:24 flashed on my watch. With 10 miles to go, I was below my average goal pace. When the North Dakota wind picked up, I used the group ahead to block it. I was looking for every angle I could to keep the pace up and conserve every ounce of energy. I knew it might be needed soon.
Race organizers advertised that the course had 60 bands. While there were a lot of bands and they provided a boost when running past, I wasn’t convinced there were 60. They did add some flair to the race as did the parade of runners in the back of the back. As the 3:45 group continued on, we passed Elvis, Captain America and Superman.
Mile 17 and 18 involved two different circles around residential neighborhoods. I guessed that this was done to gain some necessary length while staying as close to the out and back route as possible. I gave a high five to a young boy watching on a curb in a full Spiderman outfit. Mile 17 was an 8:35 while 18 ended at a pace of 8:45. I wasn’t smiling quite as much. I was getting tired and feeling the looming marathon wall. It was somewhere up ahead…..around a corner.
The mental game was on. Suddenly, I noticed that the close knit 3:45 group had dispersed. Doc from Grand Rapids was far ahead while Pikes Peak and others must have slipped behind. The 3:45 chick with the stick, young guy and preacher man were still together. Unfortunately, I could feel them slipping away. Miles 19, 20 and 21 were a series of zigzags followed by turns at the end of residential blocks that literally went left, right, left, left, right, right left. With a thumb up sign, I passed Mary and Sam for the last time but the smile was gone. I sucked down my last gel pack and finished off my last bottle of personal mix. I would now use water and a little aid station Powerade to finish. The watch showed 8:50 then 8:46 before I found a small surge on mile 21 to once again hit 8:31.
I was hanging on but just barely. Mile 22 was still good at 8:46 but the 3:45 stick was almost a block ahead. I surged again and managed 8:34 on the next mile as we went by the downtown Broadway district briefly. Then, I watched the stick disappear around a corner and when I made it there, they were not in sight. Mentally deflated, mile 24 ended in a 9:34. “Son of a bitch.”, I thought.
The wall was now completely upon me albeit not as bad as previous marathons. Many times before, I had hit mile splits in double digits such as 10, 12 or 15 minutes per mile that totally blew up an otherwise good effort. Like I had done in Boston the year before, I kept telling myself, “Keep moving, don’t you dare walk, keep moving, keep moving.” Mile 25 was 9:44, my worst of the day. My cloudy brain yelled, “Rub some dirt on it, only a few corners left…get your butt in gear man!” Mentally I had to get myself moving and luckily got some help from the knowledge that the Fargodome was just ahead. It worked a little as mile 26 ended up at a 9:11.
I now had a decision to make. I looked at my watch and through a foggy brain realized that I had a shot at 3:50 or better. This was huge. I could coast and still set a personal best or I could sprint and bust that corner off my all time record. Somehow, I found the energy to mange a sub 8 minute pace on the less than quarter mile sprint to the finish. The last corner turned was the best as I took the final left down the ramp into the stadium for a straightaway finish with my picture on the big screen for all to see.
I crossed the line with the clock reading 3:48:33. I clenched a fist and yelled, “YES!” I knew my official time would be faster as it had taken some time to get to the starting line. I gave a high five to Tracie, the chick with the 3:45 stick. She had waited for several of her “old” group to cross the line. Next, I found myself chatting it up with the doctor from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Then, I turned to find Mary and Sam hanging on the fence. I got a quick peck from Mary before wandering over to collect my finishers’ medal.
Outside the finishing chute, I easily found Mary and Sam. They informed me that Rich and Theresa had left the race course to get some supplies for their upcoming cleaning job. They would meet us for a post race meal later. While I felt strong, I still needed to sit down. Tired on the outside, I was bursting at the seams on the inside thinking about 3:48 over and over. I had shoved aside the self doubt, hit the wall, survived and cashed in all those tough miles of preparation to finish 10 minutes faster than ever before…..10 MINUTES!!
After a few minutes on the chair, I was ready to get going. Head held high, I climbed the stairs out of the dome while glancing at the over 4 hour marathoners streaming into the stadium. “You may be back there in the future, but not today”, I said to myself.
Showered and refreshed, the entourage got back together for a farewell meal. It was a great celebration. Sam was smiling, laughing and telling the tales of the day that involved getting from point A to point B. Theresa who was pregnant mused about running again after the “surprise” baby comes in October. Sipping a cold beer and smiling, I informed her and Rich that babies are only a “surprise” if one doesn’t know how they are made. I offered to draw a picture and clear up the “mystery” but all present agreed it likely wasn’t necessary. Then, in what seemed like an instant, we were hugging and saying our goodbyes.
Heading east with Mary driving and Fargo in the rearview, I reflected on how good I felt. There was some stiffness but it wasn’t like other hard efforts. In Georgia, I went over 4 hours by a few minutes and could barely walk afterwards. In New Jersey, I also barely missed 4 hours but ended up in a fetal position of misery in the car at the end. Riding home from Fargo, there was nothing remotely close to misery. I commented to Mary, “What was the difference this time? Preparation? Age? All of the above?”
I really didn’t care. Looking out the car window, it simply felt good to be thinking about running a 3:48 marathon. I trained for it but never really thought it would happen. On one day in time, at the age of 50, I had turned a huge marathon corner. I looked over at Mary who I have shared more than half of those years with and put my head back to relax……many corners lie ahead but for now, I was going to enjoy life on this block.
Official Numbers from the Fargo Marathon Website
3:48:00 official finishing time (8:43 pace) — 5K mark was 26:27 (8:31 pace) —– 10K mark was 53:09 (8:36 pace) —– 13.1 mile mark was 1:51:59 (8:33 pace) —- 20 mile mark was 2:51:27 (8:38 pace) —– 8:43 per mile average pace — age grade was 61% —- overall place was 488 out of 1824 —— Gender place was 372 of 1046 males —– Age group place was 45 out of 128 males in the 50-54 age group