Sunday, August 9, 2020

Race Report: 2020 Riley Trails Marathon

Deb and I just got back from a long weekend in Holland, Michigan.  While we were there, I ran the Riley Trails Marathon.  This was a trip we planned several months ago.  Deb wanted to visit Holland, and they had a marathon that fell on the weekend on our anniversary.
We booked this trip before the COVID-19 pandemic.  It’s not something we would have planned in the current environment, but Michigan isn’t currently a “hot spot.”  We were a little nervous about traveling, but we decided the risk was manageable.  There are lots of other places where we wouldn’t consider traveling right now.
We flew to Michigan Thursday morning.  The closest major airport is in Grand Rapids.  From there, the drive time to Holland is about 50 minutes.  It was the first time since early March that either of us had been on an airplane.  Air travel is quite a bit different than it used to be.  Without knowing what to expect, we arrived at the airport two hours before our flight.
Ordinarily, we would’ve taken a taxi, but we decided to drive to the airport instead.  Parking at the airport is expensive, but this way we didn’t have to get in a car that had been used by who knows how many other people.
Inside the airport terminal, masks are required.  The only time we took them off was at the TSA checkpoint, where they need to see your faces as they look at your photo IDs.  There wasn’t any line to check a bag, nor was there a line at the TSA checkpoint.  The only line was going through the scanners.
The airport terminal was far less crowded than it used to be, but not as quiet as I expected it to be.  About half of the shops and restaurants were open.
The airline isn’t doing their usual mid-flight food and beverage service.  Instead, everyone was given a plastic bag with hand sanitizer, snacks and a water bottle.  Masks were required during the flight, but it was a direct flight, and the flight time was only an hour and a half from gate to gate.
By the time we got to Grand Rapids and picked up our rental car, it was almost lunch time.  Before our trip, we did some research to identify restaurants that had outdoor seating.  We picked out a restaurant in Zeeland, which is on the way, but when we got there, all of the outside seating was taken.  Several large groups were seated about five minutes before we got there.  We found another restaurant in Zeeland that had plenty of outdoor seating.  After lunch, we continued to our hotel.
Holland, MI was settled by Dutch immigrants, and the town still reflects that heritage.  They have an authentic Dutch windmill that’s still operational.  When I read it was the only one in the United States, I was skeptical.  Two years ago, we saw an operational windmill in Pella, IA that was built in the Netherlands and then shipped to Pella, where it was assembled.  The windmill in Holland was actually used in the Netherlands for more than 200 years.  In 1964, it was disassembled and shipped to Michigan, where it was reassembled.
The windmill is located on an island at the east end of Lake Macatawa.   The island is also home to Windmill Island Gardens and Little Netherlands Village.
Next, we drove downtown.  We didn’t spend as much time window-shopping as we originally planned.  Neither of us slept well the night before, and Deb was feeling dehydrated, so we had an early dinner, stopped to buy groceries, and then returned to the hotel to relax.
Because of COVID-19, the restaurant at the hotel is closed.  That meant we couldn’t eat breakfast there.  That led us to discover Russ’ Restaurant, which has excellent breakfasts. Deb had their cinnamon bread French toast, and I had a Belgian waffle with pecans baked into it.
Many of the indoor attractions are closed, but we had no trouble finding things to do that were mostly outdoors.  After breakfast, we went to see a collection of Wizard of Oz statues outside the library.  L. Frank Baum, who wrote “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” had a cottage near Holland, and is believed to have written portions of the book while he was staying there.

While we were there, we walked across the street to see the gardens and fountain in Centennial Park.  In the spring, they have tulip gardens here.

Next, we went to Nelis’ Dutch Village.  This is a mock-up of a Dutch village, which also has souvenir shops and amusement park rides for children.  Ordinarily, they have demonstrations of how delftware and wooden shoes are made.  Those aren’t going on right now, but we still saw the exhibit areas and read about them.




We also saw the animal barn.

We were at Nelis’ Dutch Village for more than three hours.  While we were there, we had lunch in their café.
After spending so much time at the Nelis’ Dutch Village, Deb wanted to get off her feet, so she took a break at the hotel, while I went to Riley Trails Park to preview the trails I was going to run on during the marathon.
Because it was the day before the race, the course wasn’t marked yet.  There’s an extensive network of trails that crisscross the park.  Not knowing the course, I just ran trails at random for a few miles.  I didn’t know how much my route had in common with the marathon course, but I got a better idea of what to expect.  These trails weren’t unusually technical, but they seemed much more tiring than running on roads.  I also realized I should wear gaiters during the race.  I regretted not wearing them for my training run.
After I got back, Deb and I went to De Klomp Wooden Shoe and Delftware Factory.  This is the only factory in the United States that makes Dutch delftware.  Their shop is the only place it’s sold.  We saw lots of delftware in the shops at Nelis’ Dutch Village, but those were all made to be sold as souvenirs.  Here, we saw some that were made to be sold to local families.  You could buy complete table sets.  We also saw how it was made.  One woman working there was shaping clay, while another was hand painting the designs.
From there, we drove to the beach at Holland State Park.
We didn’t go there to swim.  The southern end of the beach is the best place to get a view of the “Big Red” lighthouse.
Our last stop of the afternoon was packet pickup at Riley Trails Park.  Then we went downtown to eat dinner.  We didn’t have reservations anywhere, so we had to inquire at several restaurants before finding one where we could get outdoor seating without waiting long.  We had dinner at an Irish Pub on 8th Street, before going back to the hotel to relax.
Saturday was race day.  Our hotel had a basket of grab-and-go breakfast snacks, so I was able to have a muffin and some tea before leaving for the race.
The race organizers had to make a few changes because of COVID-19.   Normally, the race would’ve started in town at Benjamin’s Hope, and each lap would’ve included a mile on streets getting to and from Riley Trails Park.  Instead, the entire race was held in the park.  The field was limited to 100 total runners for the marathon, half marathon, and 10K.  Finally, instead of having a group start, we were told we could start anytime after 8:00 AM.  The race was chip-timed, so our actual time on the course would be timed, regardless of when we started.  We had until 5:00 PM to finish.
Deb dropped me off a few minutes after 8:00.  Some runners had already started, but I saw several others milling about in the start area.  I wore a buff around my neck, which I could pull over my nose and mouth when I was near other runners.  Once I started running, I was mostly by myself, so I could pull the buff down around my neck.
The course was six laps of a trail loop that was roughly 4.4 miles.  There was only one aid station, so I had to carry a bottle.  I packed a fuel belt, but neglected to pack an empty bottle.  Deb had an empty 15 oz. bottle of mango juice that fit surprisingly well into my fuel belt.  Deb rinsed it out, and I used that.  After filling my bottle with Gatorade, I checked in with the timer.  As soon as the previous runner was clear of the starting line, the timer told me to start. 
It was 64 degrees at the start, but I expected it to get up to 80 by the time I finished.  According to the forecast, there was about a 50-50 chance of a morning thunderstorm.  Thankfully, that never materialized.
Shortly after I started running, I felt liquid splashing against my back.  Before long, the back of my shorts felt wet.  I reach back and felt the bottom of the holster of my fuel belt, and it was wet.  My bottle was leaking.  I stopped and drank about half of my bottle.  Then I continued running.  After that, I didn’t notice any more leakage.  Halfway through that lap, I drank the rest of my bottle.  My plan for the rest of the race was to drank half a bottle right after filling it at the start of each lap, and then drink the rest about halfway through the lap.
The trails we were running on were mostly mountain bike trails.  The surface was mostly dirt, but in some places, it was covered with pine needles.

Most of the course had good footing, but in some places, there were roots.  There were also numerous sections with loose dirt.
On my first lap, I was usually within sight of at least one other runner.  I could see the orange trail markers, but I had the luxury of just following the runners in front of me.  I ran somewhat cautiously, as I have a tendency to trip on roots.  They weren’t everywhere, but there were enough that I had to be careful.
We were sharing the trail with bikers and hikers.  The bikers were pretty good about announcing when they approached.  Everyone was good about moving over to make room for people who were passing.
In the last mile of my first lap, I moved ahead of another running, so I no longer had anyone to follow.  After that I had to pay more attention to the course markings.  Mostly, I looked for them when I came to a junction, so I would know which way to turn.  Between the junctions, watching for  markings wasn’t as impor3tant, but it’s always nice to see one, as reassurance that you haven’t missed a turn.
By the time I finished my first lap, I was already in need of a bathroom stop.  It must have been the two cups of tea I had before leaving the hotel.  As I reached the parking area, I saw an outhouse and a port-o-potty.  The outhouse was closer to the trail, so I used that.  That was a mistake.  It stunk.
I came into this race with a streak of 11 consecutive sub4 finishes, but by the time I finished by first lap, it was obvious I wouldn’t run that fast.  I was on pace for a time in the 4:30s, and if anything, I was going to slow down in subsequent laps.  My pace was much slower than my pace for road marathons, yet it still felt tiring.
I refilled my bottle with Gatorade, but immediately drank half of it.  My hope was that that would prevent any leakage through the cap as I ran.  As I began my second lap, I again felt drops hitting my back.  I pulled the bottle out to check.  The cap wasn’t on straight.  After I fixed the cap, I didn’t have any more problems.  In subsequent laps, I paid more attention to that.
About half a mile into my second lap, I tripped on something hard.  I didn’t fall, but my right quadricep absorbed a lot of shock as I fought to keep my balance.  I never saw what I tripped on but it felt like the stub of a root sticking straight up out of the dirt.  Right after that, I ran up a short hill in loose dirt.  I could feel the soreness in my quad.  I wasn’t sure if the sore quad would slow me down in subsequent laps, but I ran more tentatively after that.
Toward the end of that lap, I started to feel the sun shining through the trees.  I knew it would warm up, but if nothing else, I thought we would always have shade.  That reinforced the idea that I needed to forget about running for time, and just run at a pace that felt comfortable and sustainable.
In my third lap, I paid close attention when I reached the same spot where I stumbled before.  I tried to see what I tripped on.  I knew where it was, but for the life of me I couldn’t see what I tripped on.  Earlier, I assumed I was just careless.  Now I realized that wasn’t the case.  It was a bit scary that I could trip so badly on something that I couldn’t see, even when I was looking for it.  What other invisible trip hazards were lurking about?
I wasn’t half done yet, but I was already getting tired.  I always find trails more tiring than roads.  On a road course, the hills seem more manageable.  I may slow a little going uphill, but I can speed up going downhill.  The shorter, but more frequent hills on a trail course take me out of my rhythm.  I slow down going uphill, but I can’ t speed up on the downhill, for fear of tripping on a root.
I got through my third lap without incident, but I was getting tired.  It was also getting warmer.  I reached the halfway mark in roughly 2:20, but I expected the second half to be slower.
When I finished my third lap, I saw several runners in the start/finish area.  Those were half marathon and 10K runners who had already finished.  For the rest of the race, I would probably only see marathon runners.
Ordinarily, I feel more confident when I pass the halfway mark of a marathon.  Having three laps done, but three to go didn’t make me feel confident.  When I reached the 15 mile mark, I could tell myself I only had 11.2 miles to go.  The distance remaining was almost four miles shorter than what I had already completed, but even that didn’t inspire confidence.  I needed to finish my fourth lap.
So far, I had only seen one other runner in this lap.  There were 44 runners doing the marathon.  If we were spread out evenly around the loop, that would work out to 10 runners per mile.  Why wasn’t I seeing more of them?  Late in the loop, I finally started to see them.  I passed five or six more runners by the end of that lap.
With less than a mile to go in my fourth lap, I tripped on something.  This time I fell, but it was a soft landing.  I landed in soft sandy dirt and rolled.  I got up quickly.  I wasn’t hurt, but it shook my confidence.  I looked back to see what I tripped on.  I didn’t see any roots.  I saw a few small pine cones scattered across the trail.  Did I really trip on a pine cone?
Within a minute, I saw a runner in front of me fall.  He got up quickly and didn’t appear to be hurt.  Where he tripped, there were some big roots.  What was my excuse?
Before the end of that lap, I tripped and fell again.  This time, there was no doubt my foot had caught a root.  I was going downhill, which made it scary.  Fortunately, I had another soft landing in soft sandy dirt.  I had to pause briefly to brush the dirt off my legs.
I expected to feel more confident with four laps done and only two to go, but now I was concerned about having more falls.  I made it through three laps without any falls.  Then I had two in my fourth lap.  Because of the fatigue in my legs, I wasn’t picking up my feet as much.  Because of my mental fatigue, I was more prone to lapses in concentration.  I had less than nine miles to go, but now I was worried about getting through the rest of the race without tripping again.
I was no longer thinking about pace or distance.  I just wanted to get through the remaining two laps without more falls.  The next time my watch recorded a split, I didn’t bother looking at my time.  I just celebrated getting through a mile without falling again.  I hoped to do that each time I finished another mile.  That didn’t last long.  Halfway through my 19th mile, I fell again.  It was my third fall in a span of two miles.  For the third time, I had a soft landing, but it took time to brush the sand off my legs.
Right in front of me, I could see a shiny knob of a root, just barely protruding through the sand.  That wasn’t the one that tripped me though.  I looked back and couldn’t see any other roots.  It occurred to me that it wasn’t a coincidence that I kept falling on the sections with loose dirt.  It’s never the big roots that trip you up.  Those ones you can see.  The ones that trip you are the ones you can’t see.  I suspect I kept tripping on roots that were hidden by the loose dirt.  The dirt gives way under your feet, but the roots don’t.
Late in my 5th lap, I felt a small rock inside one of my shoes.  Why didn’t my gaiters keep that out?  Looking down, I could see that the back of that gaiter had ridden up above the back of my shoe.  The other one had done the same thing.  That must have happened one of the times I fell and rolled in the dirt.  There wasn’t much I could do about it now.  It would feel uncomfortable for the rest of the race.  Fortunately, I had less than six miles to go.
As I entered the last mile of that lap, I was aware that I had fallen twice in this same mile during my previous lap.  I looked for the section with the pine cones, but never recognized it.  Maybe I’m so focused on immovable hazards like roots that I don’t notice the movable ones like pine cones.
With half a mile left in my 5th lap, I felt my left shoe drag over the top of a root as I was running downhill in loose dirt, but I was able to keep my balance.  I’m pretty sure this was the same hill where I fell on the previous lap.  It’s possible it was the same root.
I made it through the last mile of that lap and began my last lap.  Usually, on a multiple loop course, this is where I would pick up the pace.  I typically measure out how much energy I have left and figure out how fast I can run the last lap.  That wasn’t going to happen in this race.  First, I didn’t have any energy left.  Secondly, I was afraid I would get careless and have another fall.  I just wanted to get through my last lap safely.  At least I was I was able to rejoice in knowing that I was passing everything for the last time.
I was particularly wary in the first mile.  Once I got past the place where I had tripped before, I felt slightly more confident.  I didn’t speed up in that lap, but I also didn’t slow down.  By now, I recognized every turn and hill on the course.  I knew which line I wanted to take to avoid roots or to get the best traction.  I also knew where a few of the “invisible” trip hazards were.
With each lap, I was noticing more sections with loose footing.  They were tiring, and they gradually wore me down.  Earlier, I was relieved that we didn’t get rain.  Now, I realized that was a mixed blessing.  The soft trails were the result of dry conditions.  It seemed like it had been several days since these trails last saw any rain.  A little rain would firm them up.
With two miles to go, I felt like I was almost there.  With one mile to go, I knew there were hazards, but I was confident I could avoid them.  I got through the entire lap without incident and finished in 4:48:36.
The finisher medal depicts Riley Trails Park.  The squiggly blue line is actually a map of the loop that we ran six times.
Because of COVID-19, there wasn’t a post-race party.  Finisher T-shirts will be mailed.  Races are different now, but it’s no less satisfying to finish one.
While I was running, Deb was shopping.  First, she went to the farmer’s market on 8th Street.  After that, she went blueberry picking.  When I finished the race, I saw a message from Deb saying she was already on her way to pick me up.  She got there about 10 minutes after I finished.
I was covered with sand, and I had a skinned knee from one of my falls.  When we got back to the hotel, I washed off the dirt and cleaned up my knee.  Deb noticed that I also had a smaller scrape on one of my elbows.  After rinsing the sand out of the bottom of the bathtub, I took a hot bath to sooth my sore muscles.  When I was ready to go out again, we had an early dinner at the New Holland Pub on 8th.  Deb had a salad with strawberries, goat cheese, and toasted walnuts.  I had their “pickle pizza” with bacon, cheese curds, and dill pickles.  I also had a flight of four versions of New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk stout.
It wasn’t until during the night that I realized I had a sore spot on my right hip.  There’s no visible bruising, but it’s a little bit sensitive to pressure.  The next morning, I also felt some pain in my right knee the first time I bent down to pick something up.  I don’t think either my knee or my hip is anything serious.  They’ll probably both feel fine in a day or two.  I’m more worried about my left Achilles tendon.  It was starting to feel tight during the race, and it feels even tighter today.  That was a trouble spot earlier in the year.  I thought it was completely healed, but the uneven footing on trails can be really hard on Achilles tendons.


Race Statistics
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 4:48:36
Average Pace: 11:00
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 404
Michigan Marathons: 4

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Marathons for Every Letter of the Alphabet


When I finished the Xenia Avenue Marathon, I finally completed a goal that I started pursuing in 2012.  I came close to completing this goal in 2014, but since then, I’ve been stuck.  What was this elusive goal?  I wanted to run marathons or ultras for every letter of the alphabet.
Here's how it works.  It’s based on the first letter of the name of the race, not the city where the race is held.  Sponsor’s names are ignored.  For example, the New York City Marathon would count for “N.”  It wouldn’t be “T” for TCS New York City Marathon.  Sponsors come and go.  Before they started calling it the TCS New York City Marathon, they called it the ING New York City Marathon.  Originally, it was simply the New York City Marathon.
An exception to this rule about sponsors is if the entire name of the race is the name of the sponsor.  Grandma’s Marathon, for example, was originally named after Grandma’s Saloon & Grill, which organized the marathon to promote the restaurant.
I’m going to highlight one race I’ve done for each letter of the alphabet.  In most cases, there are several races from which to choose.
Athens Classic Marathon
There’s no better to place to begin than with this race, which starts in Marathon and finishes in Athens.
There’s a legend that after the Battle of Marathon, an Athenian messenger named Pheidippides ran all the way to Athens to deliver the news that Athens had defeated the Persians.  In some retellings, he’s said to have died right after delivering this message.
That story is part fact, part fiction.  What’s important is that it inspired the creation of a race called a marathon when the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896.  That first Olympic Marathon was 40 kilometers.  Later, 42.195 kilometers was adopted as the international standard distance for a marathon.
When the Olympics returned to Athens in 2004, they modified the route slightly to conform to the 42.195 kilometer standard.  The new route included all of the 1896 route, but added a loop around the Tomb of Marathon, where Athenian soldiers who died in the battle are buried.
I ran the Athens Classic Marathon in 2010, when they were celebrating the 2,500 year anniversary of the Battle of Marathon.  As part of the festivities, they relit the Olympic cauldron, which is near the starting line of the marathon.

The route for our race was the same route used for 2004 Olympic Marathon.  It included the entire route of the 1896 Olympic Marathon, which was an approximation of the route that would’ve been taken by an Athenian messenger in 490 BC.
You can’t find a race anywhere which encapsulates more of the history of the marathon.
Boston Marathon
I’ve done a number of marathons that start with B, but the Boston Marathon is my favorite.  It’s the only marathon that I do every year.  It’s also the oldest annual marathon in the world.
In 1896, the United States Olympic team that went to Athens included several members of the Boston Athletic Association.  They were so inspired by the marathon that they decided to create their own.  The first Boston Marathon was held in 1897, and it’s been an annual event ever since.
Long before any of the other major marathons was established, the Boston Marathon was the race where the world’s best distance runners came to compete with each other.
Besides its long history, another part of the alure of the Boston Marathon is the challenge of qualifying for it.  There are other ways to gain entry, but most runners get in by running a qualifying time.  You don’t need to be an elite runner to qualify.  I believe a runner of average ability can do it if they train hard enough.  That said, you have to really commit to the training.  Most people consider qualifying for Boston to be a standard of excellence.
Comrades Marathon
The Comrades Marathon is actually an ultramarathon.  It’s a point-to-point road race between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, in South Africa.
The first Comrades Marathon was held in 1921, to honor fallen comrades, who perished during World War I.  It’s been an annual event ever since.
Comrades is a huge event for an ultramarathon.  It annually draws 20,000 runners, which is comparable to some of the largest marathons.  By contrast, the largest ultramarathon in the United States is limited to about 1,000 runners.
For South African runners, Comrades is a rite of passage.  You’re not considered to be a real runner until you’ve finished Comrades.
They alternate directions each year.  When the race finishes in the highland city of Pietermaritzburg, it’s called an “up” race.  When it finishes in the coastal city of Durban, it’s called a “down” race.  I ran Comrades in back-to-back years, so I could experience the course in both directions.

Dublin Marathon
The largest D race I’ve done is the Dublin Marathon, which draws more than 20,000 runners.  I ran the Dublin Marathon in 2014.  It’s a single-loop course.  It starts in downtown Dublin, goes through Phoenix Park and past some of the historic sights, continues through some of the surrounding communities, and then returns to downtown Dublin.  After the race, you have to celebrate at a pub with a pint or two of Guinness.
Extra Terrestrial Full Moon Midnight Marathon and 51K
I’ve done larger E races, but this one is the most unique.  It’s held on a remote highway in Nevada that’s hours away from the nearest large city.  The highway in question is Nevada State Route 375, which is better known as the Extra-Terrestrial Highway.  It got that name from the large number of UFO reports over the years.

Highway 375 is near the eastern boundary of a vast top secret government installation, which has come to be known as “Area 51.”  Because of its large size and remote location, Area 51, is an ideal location for testing experimental aircraft.  That probably explains all the UFO sightings.
There’s a marathon and a 51K race.  I’ve done them both.  Both of these races start at midnight.  There aren’t many lights, so these races are always held on the weekend in August that’s closest to the full moon.  All runners are required to wear reflective vests.  There aren’t a lot of cars, but there are some, and you want them to see you.  Flashlights or headlamps are also recommended.
The races finish in the small town of Rachel, NV, and post-race breakfast is served at a café called Little A'Le'Inn.
FANS 6/12/24-Hour Race
The FANS 24-Hour Race was my first ultramarathon, back in 1998.  Over the years, I’ve done the 24-hour race nine times, the 12-hour race twice, and the 6-hour race once.

I’ve set some significant PRs in this race, including 124.81 miles in the 24-hour run and 101 miles in the 24-hour walk.
This race is a fundraiser for a local program that works with inner-city students.  I’m there almost every year.  When I’m not running or walking, I’m crewing or volunteering.
Gansett Marathon
This is a small race in Narragansett, RI.  What makes it unique is the requirement to run a qualifying time.  Other races -- most notably the Boston Marathon – have qualifying standards, but there are usually other ways to get into the race.  The organizers of the Gansett Marathon took pride in the fact that you could only get into their race by running a qualifying time.  Just to underline that point, they made their qualifying standards five minutes faster than Boston’s.
For me, the appeal of this race was the fact that it used to be held on the same weekend as the Boston Marathon.  That made it convenient to run the Gansett Marathon on Saturday, drive to Boston on Sunday, and run the Boston Marathon on Monday.  It’s only 80 miles from Narragansett to Boston.  I did that in both 2012 and 2013.
Honolulu Marathon
The Honolulu Marathon is the fifth largest marathon in the United States, drawing more than 20,000 participants.  One reason it’s so large is because of huge number of runners from Japan.
Japan Airlines is a major sponsor, and runners traveling from Japan can get discounted airfares if they’re doing the race.  Whole families from Japan will do the race together, often walking the whole way, as part of a Hawaii vacation.
If you plan to run the whole way, you need to line up near the front, as most people walk the whole way.
Istanbul Marathon
The city of Istanbul spans both sides of the Strait of Bosporus, which is the boundary between the European and Asian parts of Turkey.  The race starts on the Asian side of the strait.  After crossing the Bosporus Bridge, you’re in Europe for the remainder of the race.  As far as I know, this is the only marathon in the world that starts and finishes on different continents.

Jackson Hole Marathon
The Jackson Hole Marathon is the only J race I’ve done, but that wasn’t my only motivation to do this race.  At the time, it was the only marathon in Wyoming that had a certified course, so it was the only place I could get an official Boston qualifier in Wyoming.
Running a fast time on this course wasn’t easy.  The elevation is 6,300 feet, and the last 15 miles are slightly uphill.  I was rewarded for my effort with frequent views of Grand Teton.
Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon
The Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon is held one week before the Kentucky Derby.  The highlight of the course is running through Churchill Downs.  Sometimes you’ll see horses on training runs.
I’ve had good results in this race, despite a hilly section in the middle.  The two times I ran it, I qualified for Boston.  The time I race-walked it, I set my walking PR.
London Marathon
The London Marathon is one of the World Marathon Majors.  It’s very difficult to get into this race, unless you’re a British resident who can run a “Good for Age” qualifying time.  I was able to get into the race by traveling with a tour group, but even those spots are difficult to obtain.
I ran this race in 2011, when I saw a rare opportunity to race in Paris and London on back-to-back weekends.  That 11-day trip was the first time Deb and I traveled overseas together.  It’s still my all-time favorite trip, although Deb would disagree.  Her favorite was Venice.
Marine Corps Marathon
This race is the fourth largest marathon in the United States, but you won’t see many elite athletes there, because they don’t offer prize money.  Instead, it’s a marathon for the average runner.
The course starts and finishes in Arlington Cemetery, near the Marine Corps War Memorial.  The majority of the course, however, is in the District of Columba, where you run past several of the best-known federal buildings and monuments, including the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial.

New York City Marathon
This the largest marathon in the world.  I ran it in 1989, 2011, and 2018.  I was also scheduled to run it in 2012, when it was cancelled because of Hurricane Sandy and this year, when it was cancelled because of COVID-19.
The first time I ran this race, there were roughly 25,000 runners.  Since then, it’s grown to more than 50,000.  It has the largest crowds of any race I’ve run, and the course takes you through all five boroughs of New York City.
Olander Park 24-Hour Race
I ran this race in 1998, when it was the USATF National Championship for 24 hours.  That year, I ran 118.97 miles, which placed me among the top 10 men.  I was also on the ALARC Minnesota team, which took second in the team championship.
The most memorable thing able this race was sharing the course with some of the best ultrarunners in the country.
Paris Marathon
Of all the marathons I’ve done, this one has my favorite course.
I’m a long-time follower of Le Tour de France.  The final stage of that race always concludes with several laps of a circuit that includes riding the full length of Champs-Elysée in both directions.
The Paris Marathon starts with 40,000 runners all lined up on Champs-Elysée and running toward Place de la Concorde.  That alone was enough to get me excited about the course.

The rest of the route is a single loop that takes you past many famous sights, along one bank of the Seine, and through two large city parks before finishing within walking distance of where you started.  It’s a wonderful tour of a wonderful city.
Quad Cities Marathon
It’s not hard to find a race that starts with Q.  I can think of three of them in North America, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more.
I chose the Quad Cities Marathon, because it’s close enough to home that I could drive there.  The Quad Cities refer to Moline, IL, Bettendorf, IA, Davenport, IA, and Rock Island, IL.  The marathon route goes through all four cities, crossing the Mississippi River twice.
When I ran this race in 2014, it gave me 25 letters of the alphabet.  Since then, I’ve just needed X.
Reggae Marathon
The Reggae Marathon is in Negril, Jamaica, which is home to Seven Mile Beach.  Several things about this race made an impression on me.
First, they have the best pre-race pasta dinner I’ve ever seen.  There are several tables of pastas dishes, salads, and local favorites.
The race starts before dawn, so you can run close to half of the race before having to endure the heat of the sun.  To provide light in the start area, dozens of teenage boys lined both sides of the road holding torches.
Heat and humidity make the race difficult, but your spirits are lifted by Reggae music all along the course.
Finally, the race finishes at a beach park, where you can go straight to the beach party after refreshing with coconut milk and Red Stripe.
Singapore Marathon
Singapore is a fantastic destination.  It’s like a melting pot for Asian culture, with heavy Chinese, Indian and Malay influences.  The marathon route gives you a good tour of the city, so in a way it’s like getting a tour of Asia in one race.
This race aspires to be the next addition to the World Marathon Majors.  Whether or not it attains that status, it’s a great destination race.
Twin Cities Marathon
The Twin Cities Marathon isn’t the largest or best-known T race that I’ve done, but it’s one of my favorites.  It was my first marathon in 1983, and it’s the one I’ve run the most times.
The “Twin Cities” refer to Minneapolis and St. Paul.  The race starts in downtown Minneapolis, outside the football stadium.  It finishes in downtown St. Paul, in front of the Minnesota State Capitol.  In between, it’s entirely along tree-lined parkways, around lakes, alongside rivers, and past mansions and churches.

University of Okoboji Marathon
This race has an unusual name.  There isn’t actually a University of Okoboji.  Okoboji is a lake resort area in northern Iowa.  There’s an athletic store in a neighboring town that sponsors a number of athletic events, including the marathon.  They created their own line of athletic gear that incorporates the logo of a fictitious university.
I’ve run this race four times.  It’s in July, when there aren’t many races in the Upper Midwest.  More often than not, it’s hot as hell.
Venice Marathon
What could capture the imagination more than running a marathon through a city without streets?
Here’s how it works.  The first 20 miles are on the Italian mainland.  The next few miles are on the bridge out to Venice.  Only the last few miles in actually in the city.
There are footbridges over the smaller canals.  Running up and down all the steps would be impractical, so they put long wooden ramps over the steps to transform the bridges into hills.  It’s intense.  You run over 13 of them in the last two miles of the race.
They also temporarily erect a pontoon bridge over the Grand Canal.  The year I ran it, it was rainy and windy.

Wyoming Marathon
I was tempted to list the Walt Disney World Marathon, but I don’t want to quibble over whether that counts as W for Walt or D for Disney.  The Wyoming Marathon isn’t as large, but I’ve done it twice, and it’s among the more challenging races I’ve done.
The Wyoming Marathon is a no-frills race on dirt roads in the Laramie Mountains.  The elevation ranges from 8,000 to 8,800 feet.  There are three long uphill sections and three long downhill sections.
When I ran it in 2004, I gave it my best effort, but I ran out of gas on the difficult climb in the last four miles.  I finished in 4:05.  That was good for fifth place overall, which tells you something about the difficulty of this race.
Xenia Avenue Marathon
For almost six years, I just needed an X race to finish this goal.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many.  I considered the Xiamen International Marathon in China, but Xiamen isn’t a tourist destination.  In all likelihood, I’d have to travel there by myself without knowing the local dialect.
There’s a cross-country race in Florida called the X-Country Marathon.  While technically an X race, that name seemed kind of cheesy to me.  Besides that, it always fell on the same weekend of another race that was more important to me.
There’s a marathon in Xenia, OH, and the finisher medal features a big “X” but it’s called the Ohio River Road Runners Club Marathon.  Since it’s the name and not the city that counts, that’s an O race, not an X race.
The Xenia Avenue Marathon was the obvious choice.  Since it’s in Minnesota, I would’ve wanted to do this race even if it didn’t start with X.  As an added bonus, it was a rare opportunity to run a marathon during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yakima River Canyon Marathon
I’ve run the Yakima River Canyon Marathon twice.  It’s a scenic race that winds through the valley of the Yakima River.
For many years, this race was directed by Lenore Dolphin, who also ran the 100 Marathon Club North America.  The club’s annual meeting was always held at this race.
Sadly, Lenore passed away earlier this year.  The race may continue, but it won’t be the same without Lenore.
Zoom! Yah! Yah! Indoor Marathon
This is an indoor marathon on the campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN.  It was organized by the track coaches of St. Olaf College and Carlton College, which is also in Northfield.  One of them was trying to run marathons for every letter of the alphabet, but was having trouble finding a race that started with Z.  The name, “Zoom! Yah! Yah!” is based on “Um! Yah! Yah!” which is from the St. Olaf College fight song.
To complete a marathon, you need to run 150 laps around the track.  Laps are counted manually by members of the St. Olaf women’s track team.  Each runner has their own personal lap counter, who doubles as their personal cheerleader.
In an indoor race, you see all the other runners throughout the race, regardless of how fast they’re going.  Either you’re passing them, or they’re passing you.  That makes this race a social event.
I’ve run this race three times.  It was after hearing the history of this race that I wondered how many letters of the alphabet I was missing.  As I recall, it was about six.  I gradually chipped away at them until I only needed X.  Then I got stuck.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Race Report: 2020 Xenia Avenue Marathon


On July 19th, I ran the Xenia Avenue Marathon in Champlin, MN.  Not counting virtual races, this was my first marathon since March 1st.  This was a local race, so I didn’t have the additional complications of air travel or staying in a hotel.  Champlin is only 35 miles away from home.
This was an inaugural race.  I first learned about it in March.  My friend Sandy brought it to my attention, because she knew I was looking for a race that had a name starting with the letter X.  At the time, I had a conflict.  July 19th was the same day I was scheduled to fly to Juneau for a series of marathons in Alaska.  Since then, the Alaska Series was cancelled, making it possible for me to run this one instead.
Outdoor events in Minnesota are currently limited to a maximum of 250 participants.  This event was much smaller than that.  There was a marathon and a half marathon, but the two races had only 44 total participants.  That made “social distancing” easier.
There were several safety protocols to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19.  There were temperature checks before the race.  There was a staggered start.  Runners were required to wear masks in the start area, and for the first quarter mile.  Finally, the aid stations had 16 oz. bottles of water and Gatorade that you could grab off a table, instead of having volunteers hand out cups.
About a week before the race, we were each asked to provide an estimated finish time.  I estimated 4:20, because that’s how long it took me to run a virtual marathon two weeks ago.  I didn’t know exactly what the weather would be, but I assumed it would be similar.
The course was a 2.2 mile loop that we ran once, followed by a 4.8 mile loop that we ran five times.  On Monday, I ran both loops by myself, to familiarize myself with the course.  Even with no course markings, I didn’t have any trouble finding all the turns.  As advertised, the course was flat.
After surveying the course, I took the opportunity to stop at Rocky Rococo for lunch.  Rocky Rococo is a Wisconsin-based pizza chain, but they also have a restaurant in Brooklyn Park, MN.  I like their pizza, but I don’t get to Brooklyn Park very often.  As it happens, it’s just south of Champlin, so picking up my race packet put me in the same area.  Rocky Rococo is a fast food pizzeria.  They serve pan-style pizza by the slice, and they have a drive through window.
I could’ve picked up my race packet Sunday morning, but I drove to Champlin on Saturday afternoon instead.  There were two advantages in doing that.  First, I didn’t have to arrive as early on race day, so I could sleep a little later.  Second, it gave me a chance to stop at Rocky Rococo again.
We were assigned bib numbers in order of our expected finish times, and we were instructed to line up according to our bib numbers.  In addition to our race bibs and T-shirts, we each got masks, paper towels and bottles of hand sanitizer.  The paper towels and hand sanitizer were so we could clean up after ourselves if we had to use a port-o-potty during the race.
Sunday morning, I drove back to Champlin and parked at Champlin Park High School, which is across the street from Orchard Trail Park.  I checked in at the start area and then waited in my car until it was almost time to line up for the race.

I was surprised how many of the other runners I knew.  There were several local runners, who do most of the Minnesota marathons.  In addition, I saw several friends who traveled from other states to do this race.  They’re all frequent marathoners, and like me, they were eager for any opportunity to do a real race.
We really dodged a bullet on the weather.  On Saturday, the high was in the 90s, and it was so humid that the heat index got up to 108 degrees.  Overnight, a thunderstorm moved through the area, bringing cooler temperatures and much lower humidity.
Behind the starting line, two sets of numbers were written on the sidewalk in chalk.  The bib numbers for the marathon were written on the left side of the path, spaced six feet apart.  The bib numbers for the half marathon were written on the right side of the path.  Before the race, we each stood on our bib numbers to await the start.

This race was a fundraiser for the Champlin Park High School girls’ cross-country team.  As part of the pre-race announcements, the race director announced that we raised more than $5,000 for the team.
When the gun went off, the lead runner in each race started running.  The rest of us started walking forward until the next pair of runners reached the starting line.  Then they started running.  We continued this process until everyone was across the starting line.  The whole process probably took less than a minute.
As I started running, I followed the runner ahead of me.  The pace felt too slow, so after a minute or so, I moved around him and found my own pace.  I kept my mask on until I could see that I had run more than a quarter mile.  Then I took it off.  There was a trash bin where we could discard our masks, but I put mine in a baggie and tucked it into my fanny pack, in case I wanted to wear it again after finishing.
Shortly after leaving Orchard park, we turned onto the Rush Creek Regional Trail.  On our first lap, we were only on this trail briefly before turning onto a spur that led into a residential neighborhood.  We went south on York Avenue and then came back on Xenia Avenue.  We were only on Xenia Avenue for about two blocks.  Why was the race named after Xenia Avenue?  The race director knew that there are eccentric runners like me who want to run marathons for every letter of the alphabet.  X is the letter that’s hardest to find.

I rarely wear a GPS watch for races.  Most of the time, I wear a regular stopwatch and check my time at each mile marker.  Since this was a multiple loop course, the individual miles weren’t marked.  I wanted to know my pace, so I wore a GPS watch.  That made me aware of my splits for each mile, but I rarely paid attention to my total time.
My first two miles were both under nine minutes.  That was about a minute per mile faster than I expected to start.  The pace felt surprising easy, so I didn’t worry too much about it at first.  The temperature at the start was 70 degrees.  That’s the same as the virtual marathon that I ran two weeks ago, but the humidity was much lower.  I was more comfortable than I’ve been on any of my recent training runs.
After the initial 2.2 mile loop, we did five laps of a 4.8 mile loop.  As I left Orchard Park to begin the first of these laps, I had to make a decision about my pace.  I was starting the race on pace to break four hours.  That didn’t seem realistic for a summer day, but I decided to stick with it as long as it felt comfortable.
One of the aid stations was in Orchard Trail Park, next to the starting line.  I grabbed a bottle of Gatorade, drank half, and took the rest with me.  I wore a fuel belt, so I would have a place to tuck the bottle as I ran.

After leaving Orchard Trail Park, we again turned right onto the Rush Creek Regional Trail.  Running west on this trail, I felt a strong breeze.  It kept me nice and comfortable. This time we followed the trail through a bridge under Douglas Drive, which was the only busy street we would cross.

As I ran through the tunnel, I drank the rest of my Gatorade.  After the tunnel, we ran through Oak Grove Park.  There were lots of bends in the trail, so I was tempted to run the tangents on the turns.  Rush Creek Regional Trail is a popular route for cyclists, so I often had to move to the right when a bike was approaching.

We ran all the way through the park and then did a short out-and back on the west side of the park.  Just before the turnaround point, I saw my split for the 4th mile.  I inadvertently sped up to 8:38 in that mile.  I told myself to relax.  After that, I averaged nine minutes per mile for the next several miles.
After returning to the park, we turned onto another trail that took us south, past the pavilion and playground.

The second aid station was in Oak Grove Park, near the playground.  I discarded my empty bottle, picked up a new bottle, and drank half.  After leaving the south end of the park, we ran a short loop that took us around this meadow.

Finally, we returned to the park and passed the same aid station again.  Just before I got to the aid station, I emptied my second bottle and recycled it, but I didn’t grab a new one.  By now, I realized I would pass aid stations three times during each lap.  That’s an aid station every 1.6 miles.  Drinking a bottle of Gatorade for every aid station would’ve been excessive.  Instead I started picking up a new bottle at every other aid station.  That was still a lot of Gatorade, but as long as I could drink that much without needing to pee, I figured I would stick with it.
After going through this aid station for a second time, I made a right turn onto Rush Creek Regional Trail and retraced my route back to Orchard Trail Park.  As I approached a sharp turn, I heard a bike zoom around the corner from the other direction.  The sun was in my eyes, so I never saw the bike coming.  Fortunately, I was keeping to the right side of the trail.  If I had moved left to take the shortest path around the turn, I could easily have collided with the bike.  After that, I was diligent about keeping right at all times when I was on this trail.
I kept a consistent pace through my second lap of the 4.8 mile loop.  As I began my third lap, I started to speed up.  I ran two consecutive miles in the 8:30s.  I didn’t intend to speed up, but I think I was getting excited as I anticipated hitting the halfway point during my third lap.
I reached the halfway mark in 1:56:08.  That surprised me.  I knew I was on pace to break four hours, but I didn’t expect to be almost four minutes ahead of that pace.  Now, I was confident I could break four hours.  I still felt good, and I actually had room to slow down.
The rest of my miles were all faster than nine minutes.  I started running some of them as fast as 8:30.  As I finished the next lap, I just had 9.6 miles to go.
I’ve run several marathons that were multiple loops.  The distance of this loop was similar to the loop I was running for the Savage Seven races last December.  That gave me a good feel for how my pace should feel during each lap.  With two laps to go, I knew I could easily sustain my pace.
In my 4th lap, I was consistently clocking mile splits in the vicinity of 8:30.  I could afford to slow down, but I was actually speeding up.
Only one part of the loop felt difficult.  After finishing the loop around the meadow, we always had to turn into the wind as we returned to Oak Grove Park.  This trail was more wind-exposed than the main trail, so running into the wind here felt tiring.  I always reminded myself that the wind was also keeping me from overheating.  The wind was my friend.
The last mile of that lap took 8:16.  That was my fastest mile so far, and I carried that pace into the last lap.  The first three full miles of that lap all took between 8:15 and 8:20.  I wasn’t going all-out, but I was gradually picking up my effort.
I always felt like I was taking too long to drink at the aid stations.  In my last lap, I worked hard to make sure I got back to my previous pace after slowing to a walk while I drank.
When I went past the aid station in Oak Grove Park for the last time, I knew I was drinking Gatorade for the last time.  No more walking breaks.  Shortly after getting back onto the main trail, I hit the 24 mile mark.  I was pleased to see that I sped up to 8:10 in that mile.  That was my fastest mile so far.  I was confident I could break eight minutes in my last full mile if I poured it on.  I knew I must be going significantly faster in that mile, because I got cheers from all the volunteers.
At this point, I need to point out how impressed I am with how well organized this race was.  There was a pair of volunteers at every major turn or junction.  I learned after the race that the volunteers were all members of the Champlin Park High School cross-country team or their parents.
The race was chip-timed, the course was certified, and we had aid stations every 1.6 miles, on average.  That’s more than I expected for such a small race.
I knew my 25th mile would be faster, but I was still surprised when I saw my time.  It was 7:11.  Now I was running out of gas, but I just had to get back to the finish at Orchard Trail Park.  I held on as best as I could, and I finished in 3:46:00.  That was good for third place overall.


I saved my mask from the start, but that turned out to be unnecessary.  After finishing, I was given a clean mask to wear in the finish area.
By the time I finished, the temperature had climbed to 77 degrees.  That’s certainly warm for a marathon, but it didn’t bother me.  Most of my recent training has been in warmer temperatures, with higher humidity.  Today felt nice by comparison.
After finishing, I dropped a few things off at my car and returned to the finish area to watch other runners finish.  Later, I joined two friends for lunch at Rocky Rococo.
It felt good to race again.  Training runs just don’t feel the same.  I’ve really missed this feeling.  I can’t remember when I’ve been this excited about a race that was this small.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  3:46:00
Average Pace:  8:36
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  403
Minnesota Marathons/Ultras:  58
Consecutive sub4 marathons:  11