With many different story lines unfolding in the week leading up to my 4th Bayshore Marathon, there were a couple different openers that I was considering to lead off with for this entry. After much thoughtful/beer-fueled deliberation, I am no closer to making a decision, and so here are the potential opening lines I was looking at (in no particular order of preference):
- “As I laid face-down on the chiropractor’s table on Wednesday, writhing in pain just 72 hours before I was supposed to run a marathon, my prospects of running the Bayshore on Saturday looked grim.”
- “You don’t know real terror until you see a giant deer airborne on the highway directly in front of you, 10 feet off the ground after being struck by a minivan at 80 MPH, and knowing that you declined the additional insurance coverage on your rental car.”
- “It was around Mile 4, as I listened to the woman in front of me loudly talking with her friend about her two-timing affair IN FRONT OF STRANGERS, that I realized this would be no ordinary race”; or
- “As I huffed and puffed through Mile 22, I looked down at my watch and contemplated the unthinkable — could I really break 4 hours?”
Just loads of stuff going on here, and the conversation about the affair really happened — if you decide to read nothing else, please skip down to the “Miles 3-5” section of the recap. Now that that’s all out of the way, let’s get into it!
I have a somewhat lengthy and mixed history with the Bayshore Marathon; despite living in Chicago ever since I graduated college, this was to be my 4th Bayshore Marathon in 6 years. Back in 2007, despite having never run any race distance longer than an 8K, I ran the Bayshore with 3 of my college friends. I was overweight and out-of-shape when I registered, but I thought that this would be the perfect motivator to get me exercising…yeah, that didn’t happen. I toed the starting line without having done any training run longer than 5 miles (I KNOW, I know, I know), and I trudged my way to a final time of 5:42:59….it was foolish and excruciating, but I finished. I returned in 2008, twenty pounds lighter and determined to redeem myself, and I improved by nearly a full hour en route to running a 4:46:53. In 2011, I ran my 3rd Bayshore in 4:34:54 as part of my whole “28 races in a year before turning 28” mission, and I assumed that would be the end of my relationship with the Bayshore. It’s a charming race, but I didn’t see myself running it again.
…And then my friend Chris mentioned last November that he would be running the Bayshore in 2012. I had run the Marine Corps Marathon in October 2011 with Chris and his friend Ben, and both of those 2 would be registering for the Bayshore full as soon as registration opened. Chris’s mom lives in Traverse City, so we would all have a place to stay that would be free of charge. And to be honest….I kind of wanted another crack at the Bayshore. So while the Bayshore sold out its 2,500 marathon entry spots within days of registration opening, all 3 of us were successful in registering. Chris and Ben would be using the Bayshore as a potential Boston qualifier, and I would be aiming for a new PR.
Yep, that was the plan.
Streak Day #52 — The day my back failed me (5/17/2012)
And then, one by one, all 3 of us were stricken down.
As I once mentioned in an abandoned blog that I used to maintain, I am an otherwise healthy individual in my late-20s who happens to have the back of a 60-year-old man. I have at least 3 herniated discs in my lower back (as of my 2010 MRI), resulting from a combination of a deteriorating back condition and an impact rugby injury. While the long-term prognosis is not good (The word “wheelchair” has been used in multiple consults), I’ve so far been able to avoid surgery, though I’ve had the occasional set-back. My last injury relapse was in July 2011, and I’ve been mostly okay since then…that is, until May 17th, 2012. Getting up off the sofa to walk to my kitchen, I felt a tweak, and within hours I couldn’t even walk. I spent an entire weekend tethered to my apartment, getting slightly better but mostly just feeling sorry for myself. I stuck to my streak, though, grunting through my daily mile(s) at a considerably slower pace. I saw a chiropractor twice in the week leading up to the Bayshore, and while that treatment helped immensely, I privately confided in my friend Dan Solera (a recurring character in this blog) that I felt my chances of finishing the Bayshore were no better than 60/40. My condition had improved the point where I decided I would at least try to run, but even 24 hours before the start of the marathon, I didn’t know if I would hold up.
Chris, meanwhile, and been felled by a bad hamstring injury just days after I re-injured my back. While I would at least be able to line up for the race, the extent of Chris’s injury meant he had no such delusions of grandeur — the principle organizer of our trip had ruled himself out. And Ben? Ben had apparently been working in Afghanistan for the last month or two (!?), and he hadn’t done a lick of training while over there. While Ben may have been able to complete the full marathon, he felt his training wasn’t up to par, and so he decided to drop down to the 10K distance.
In the span of one gruesome week, I had somehow become our group’s only chance of receiving a marathon finisher’s medal…and I still couldn’t walk all that great.Streak Day #60 — The day we got deer blood on the windshield (5/25/2012)
Chris flew into Chicago Thursday night from Washington, DC (where he lives), and we drove up from Chicago together the Friday morning before the race. The 5-1/2 hour drive was going smooth through 3+ hours of driving, and we were somewhere north of Grand Rapids on US-131 when I took a work call from a co-worker who was covering my desk back at the office. As I filled him in on some banal work details, I noticed an IMMENSE deer run out from the woods and toward the highway about 100 yards in front of my rental car. The deer ran out too far ahead of our Chevy Malibu to be of any concern to us…at least, that’s what I thought until the minivan in front drove smack into it. The minivan struck the deer with such force that the deer flew up and OVER the van, landing on the road directly in front of me. It wasn’t until I braked hard and swerved that Chris realized what was happening– he later said that the first sign he had that something was amiss didn’t come until he saw the deer suspended 10 feet in the air over the van in front of us.
While still on my work call, I calmly (I think) swerved over into the unoccupied right lane next to me, avoiding the deer and any damage to the rental. It wasn’t really until a second or two later, when I looked in my rear-view mirror at the decimated hood and windshield of the van that was now behind us (which had safely pulled off to the side of the road), that the gravity of the situation hit me. Chris and I both started cursing a blue streak (example: “HOLY SHIT, DID THAT FUCKING DEER REALLY JUST FUCKING HAPPEN??!?”), while the whole time I still had my co-worker on the other end of the phone. I hurriedly finished saying what it was that I needed to say to him, and then I got the hell off the phone, realizing now just how close to a bad accident we had been. After we’d calmed down, I noticed that we had some deer blood splatter on the windshield of the ‘Bu, which indicated just how squarely the minivan had impacted the deer — in an instant, the deer had basically exploded. Have you ever been driving behind someone on the highway, and you can tell that they’re cleaning off their windshield with wiper fluid because a little bit of that spray goes up-and-over their car and gets on your windshield? Kind of like it’s raining? Well, it was like that, but with deer blood. Gross, I know, but IT HAPPENED.
After safely arriving in Traverse City an hour and a half later, we did the normal boring pre-race things like pick up our packets from the “expo” (the race is small enough that packet pick-up is still held at Traverse City Central High School) and head to the grocery store were I could buy my standard pre-race food items. We then met up with Ben and his family/friends for a pre-race dinner at The Olive Garden (how local and exotic, I know, but it did the trick), and then returned to Chris’s mother’s house so that I could rest up.
While at the grocery store buying supplies, I made Chris promise me that he would meet me on the course with a beer some time after Mile 8, as I assumed that I would be in physical agony by that point. He agreed to wake up early enough to do that, and so I went to bed with dreams of marathon medals and Labatt Blue Lights dancing in my head.
Streak Day #61 — THE BAYSHORE MARATHON
In the days leading up to the Bayshore, I had been unusually relaxed: instead of worrying about my back, it felt like I was playing with house money. I didn’t even know if I would finish, I simply wanted to see how far I could make it before breaking down. 6 miles? 10 miles? 20? My condition has instilled in me a kind of high tolerance for pain, so I knew that as long as I could walk, then I would finish eventually. And if at some point I couldn’t walk…well, there’s really no working around that one, so why worry about it? For the first time since the 2011 Chicago Marathon (which I’d decided to run just 2 days before the race), I was putting no pressure on myself.
That being said, I didn’t want to completely dog the race, so I decided to just run in the low-9s (a 4:00:00 marathon pace) for as long as I could until the inevitable breaking point. After the race started at 7am, for the first two miles, that’s exactly what I did. Until…
“So, he’s going through a divorce, but he’s such a great guy, and he said he wants to be with me. And he spent the night once last week…I just didn’t know how to tell Phil**.”
…Wait, what the hell?
MILES 3-5 — THE MOST DRAMATIC MILES OF ANY RACE I’VE EVER RUN
That’s not normal race talk.
I’d been running in the low-9s for the first 2 miles, and it was right at the Mile 2 marker where I was passed ever-so-slightly by two women in their late-20s/early-30s, one of whom was talking rather loudly about an affair that she was having. During the marathon. Within earshot of MANY other people. I’m not one to eavesdrop by nature, but I was very aware that I was only about 20 minutes into what would be an extremely long and grueling race, and I really needed some entertainment. These girls were running at an almost exact 09:00/mile pace — it wouldn’t take much extra effort to match my pace with theirs, I thought. And so, only slightly ashamed with myself, I matched my pace and lingered in the background and off to the side of their conversation.
Two miles into the race, and I had pacers! And holy shit, was this fascinating.
“Tina”** (**I’m assigning these people random names, it’ll be easier to keep it straight that way) is a rather fetching woman in her late-20s/early-30s, and she had just started sleeping with a married man who was going through a divorce. However, Tina was in a long-term committed relationship herself with a guy named “Phil”, and Tina was cheating on Phil with this new guy who was still married. Tina was running the Bayshore with her friend “Stacy” (who was happily married with children), and this sounded like the first time Stacy had heard any of this. Over the course of 3 miles, I listened as Tina opened up about how the improper relationship began, about how Phil wasn’t emotionally available, and how Phil’s shortcomings drove her into the arms of another man. “I still want kids,” Tina bemoaned, “and I don’t know if I want them with Phil.” Stacy listened with a sympathetic ear, occasionally offering input, but she mostly just listened. The climax of the story came when Tina described her confession to Phil over the phone that she had spent the night with this other man, and how Phil had told her that he had collapsed to the floor, motionless, “crippled both physically and emotionally.” Stacy advised Tina that she was still young enough where she needed to make sure that she was happy in a relationship, and 5 feet behind them, I nodded silently in agreement. Again, I was learning all of this about Tina while running a marathon.…I can’t over-emphasize that point.
Listening to this episode unfold really helped the miles fly by. When Tina and Stacy breezed through the aid station at Mile 4.5 without stopping, I didn’t stop either, even though I kind of wanted to. I had to know how this one ended.
My favorite line of Tina’s came when, explaining her rationale for considering ending things with Phil, she had the gumption to say, “…and if he doesn’t trust me, then I don’t know how we can make it work.” BITCH, YOU ADMITTED THAT YOU CHEATED ON HIM A WEEK AGO! I quickly glanced around with mouth agape, and was amused to see that at least 2 other runners were listening as intently as I was. I was 80% sympathetic toward Tina, and the other 20% of me loathed her. Dammit, just break up with Phil! You only get one shot at life, Tina, and you need to be happy. Don’t ruin two lives by staying with him.
It was at the Mile 5 marker that I was discovered — Tina and Stacy changed the subject to talking about how their cycles were starting to match up (I get that this is a thing, but gross), and Stacy said, “Wow, listen to us talking about our cycles, I bet we’re providing a LOT of entertainment to people around us!” As she said that, I shook my head and laughed….if only you knew, Stacy, if only you knew how entertained that I’d been. Well, they looked at me just as I was laughing, and our eyes met. Uncomfortably, I might add. I had to say something…
“Meh, I’ve heard worse,” I allowed, and the two of them burst out laughing. I decided to take a chance with my next comment. “And you, on the left,” I continued, “I don’t know you or anything about your situation, but I think you need to let that first guy go. It doesn’t sound like either of you are happy in that relationship, and you only get one go-round on this earth.” Stunned silence, followed by the desired reaction: deep, hearty, can’t-keep-from-doubling-over belly laughs.
“Wait, so you’ve been listening the WHOLE time??” Tina asked.
“Yeah, pretty much. I hope you’re not offended, but I’m running this race all by myself, and you girls happen to be running the exact pace I’m aiming for.”
“Well, that’s kind of hilarious. What’s your story? Come run with us!”
MILES 6-12 — THE GROUP GROWS, AND I DRINK A FULL BEER MID-RUN
Moral ambiguity aside, Tina and Stacy were great running companions — they were both extremely chatty and talkative, which kept my mind off of everything else I was going through. They would talk, I would jump in with a joke, we’d all laugh, and we were running in the 08:50/mile range with no discomfort. Around Mile 7, I turned around and noticed that a strangely dense pocket of runners had settled in behind the three of us; I jokingly asked one of them where they all came from, and a woman in the back piped up with, “You guys just sound like you’re having fun!” I wasn’t expecting a serious answer to that question, but it was a Forrest Gump moment if I’ve ever had one.
And, is that….is that who I think it is?!
It was! Chris said that he’d be waiting for me with a beer sometime after Mile 8, and as we ran through the Mile 9 aid station (temporarily leaving behind our fan club), there he was with the cooler. My plan before the race was to stop for a minute or two and drink the beer next to him, but I was feeling great at Mile 9 — my previous mile splits with Tina/Stacy had been 08:52, 08:55, and 08:49. As Chris reached out to give me my can of Labatt Blue Light, I told him that I was still feeling good and that I’d take it with me for the road, and he clapped me on my shoulder and wished me luck as I sped away. I cracked the beer moments later and took a good, long pull, as runners on either side of me looked at me with equal parts confusion and jealousy. I drank that beer over the course of the next mile, and I had completely finished it by Mile 10. I laughed as I reflected that by 8:30am, I had already completed my mileage/beer requirement for the day, and…wait, had I already run 10 miles?
At Mile 12, a minor disaster struck when Tina cramped up and had to stop to stretch. Stacy stopped with her, and I was caught between two minds– do I wait for my talkative running companions, who had gotten me through 10 of the last 12 miles, or do I risk it and go alone? Still feeling good, I warily decided to carry on alone. The last 14 miles would be me against the world (or so I thought), and I hit the halfway point at 1:57:29.0.
MILE 13.1 — A QUICK WORD ABOUT THE COURSE
So there was a lot of shit that went down in the first half of the race, and to this point I’ve completely neglected to share any the details about the course. In a word, it’s gorgeous. The Bayshore course is very flat and runs up and down the peninsula, extending out into the Grand Traverse Bay. Runners are provided views of the bay on one side, with cherry trees and local residences on the other side of the road. The crowd support is scattered, but awesomely unique — you’re not going to find crowds the size of Chicago or New York (or even that of a mid-size race, for that matter), but the course is dotted with families and vacationers out in front of their homes with lawn chairs and boom boxes, offering lemonade, oranges, and cold towels to runners between aid stations. There are a few designated areas where throngs of spectators will gather (and I feel the 2012 turnout was much better than 2007, 2008, or 2011), but for the most part the race has a small-time feel that belies the 7,500 runners that are running the 10K, half-marathon, or full-marathon distances.
Sandwiched between a hot Friday and a hot Sunday, we had what I felt were perfect conditions for the marathon on Saturday morning, as the temperature never rose about 66 degrees. We were supposed to get hammered by T-storms, but those never materialized. The sun shone early, but juuuust as it rose above the treeline, the sky became wonderfully overcast; not cloudy to the point where it was a crummy day, but just cloudy enough to keep the sun from beating down on the runners.
Given that this was a late-may race, the weather could not have been more perfect.
MILES 14-19 — I MAKE NEW FRIENDS, AND NATURE CALLS
Shortly after the turnaround at Mile 13 (the Bayshore is an out-and-back course), at around Mile 14 I caught up with a young guy-girl pairing after an aid station, who were both remarking on the great weather. I commented that I agreed with them, and told them that I had never had disagreeable weather at a Bayshore before. After hearing that I’d run this race multiple times, the two of them divulged that it was the first marathon that either of them had run, and they asked if I had any advice…a new fellowship was forged.
My new friends were named Kelly and Brad, and those are actually their real names. Kelly had graduated from Michigan State around the same that time I had, and I’m not sure that I ever got Brad’s back-story. To this day I don’t know if they were friends, family, or in a relationship– I never asked, and they never offered. Brad looked younger, but that could have been explained by his adult braces; in truth he was a giant for a runner, nearly 6’6″ and stout. The two of them had never even run a chip-timed race before, and here they were on pace to break 4 hours in a marathon….however, I could tell they were nervous. I assumed the role that Tina & Stacy had played for me in the first half, talking up a storm while Brad & Kelly jumped in with the jokes. I was happy to be taking their mind off of the run, and it was helping keep my mind occupied as well. They were pushing the pace a little faster, and I didn’t mind– we ran 08:43 splits for both Miles 14 & 15.
At Mile 17, though, I felt a little rumble in my stomach — the late dinner from the night before had suddenly come into play. Shortly after Mile 18, I couldn’t hold it in anymore, and I excused myself from the group to stop off at the Port-o-John….and noticed myself followed in line by Kelly, as Brad took a walk break. Turns out, she had to go as bad as I did, and Brad said he needed a walk break or he was going to lose it. And so after the quickest mid-race bathroom break I’ve taken, I logged my slowest mile of the race in Mile 19 — 10:10. With 7 miles and change to go, I was still feeling great.
At the Mile 19 marker, I said goodbye to Kelly and Brad once more; only this time, it was because I wanted to go faster.
MILES 20-22 — AN UNEXPECTED SURGE
Generally speaking, Mile 20 is where The Wall becomes a real concern for even experienced marathoners. Though I’d completed marathons before, I’d never run more than 18 miles at a time without breaking down. Never…that is, until the 2012 Bayshore. With a bad back. While I did technically rest for about a minute during my bathroom break, I wasn’t counting that, and so I was stunned to pass through 19 miles with no outward signs of fatigue. My next 3 mile splits:
Mile 20 — 08:43
Mile 21 — 08:13 (!!)
Mile 22 — 08:25
I wasn’t getting slower, I was getting faster.
MILES 23-26.2 — WELL, THAT WAS FUN, NOW IT’S TIME TO PAY FOR THAT
I may have flown too close to the sun there…following mile split times:
Mile 23 — 09:01
Mile 24 — 09:16
Mile 25 — 09:15
My walk breaks had grown longer, and Kelly and Brad had reeled me in by Mile 24. With Brad looking to be in rough shape when I left them at Mile 19, I hadn’t expected to see them again, but Kelly told me, “We saw you take off, but we told each other that we couldn’t let you out of our sight.” Naturally, I take full credit for their achievement, then. At Mile 25, I had to say goodbye to my new friends that had pushed me for the second half of the race, as this time it was I that couldn’t keep up anymore.
I finally hit The Wall at Mile 25.5, when my legs just wouldn’t turn over any more. I was temporarily bummed that I couldn’t finish without taking a walk break (yes, you could say that my expectations had changed slightly throughout the race), when I took a look at my watch — 3:49:30!! If i could cover the last 0.7 miles in 10 minutes, then I would break 4 hours!! The four-hour barrier had been my white whale…this was my 8th marathon in 5 years, and the closest I’d come was 4:22:25 in the 2011 Marine Corps Marathon. So you can imagine my FUCKING ELATION when I picked up my pace for that last 1/4-mile, kicking into the chute for an official time of 3:55:20.1. A new PR by 27+ minutes!
I can’t begin to explain the feelings that were running through my head as I crossed that finish line — pride, relief, accomplishment, exhaustion, confusion. How had I just done this?? After having never averaged an overall pace better than a 10-minute mile in 7 previous marathons, I bettered that average pace by a full minute per mile at the Bayshore. A 5-year quest had come to fruition in the most unexpected of circumstances.
After receiving my medal, I made my way to the finisher’s area to grab some post-race Moomer’s ice cream (THE BEST) and to call Dan to tell him what I’d just done. I was too tired at the time to recall now how that conversation went, but I’m pretty sure that I was smug as fuck and Dan was happy for me. I texted roughly 2,432,658 people to share my finishing time, and then I sat and waited for Chris to come pick me up. I’d told him before the race not to wait for me at the finish line, because he could have been there for hours waiting for me…neither of us had expected this.
Looking back, I don’t know if I’ll ever have another race that comes together so perfectly — I had unseasonably cool/great weather, fascinating running partners the whole way through, and a day where I just felt fast, despite an injury. One day earlier, I had been swerving at 80+ MPH to dodge flying deer on the road to Traverse City, and now here I was, shaking my head in realization that I’d just knocked out one of my major lifetime bucket-list goals: The Sub-4-Hour Marathon.
TIME TO DRINK
I had even more to say about the race, but we’re at 4,000 words so let’s move on. After a long nap and some awesome pizza, Chris and I went out on the town for some drinks — I wore my medal out (yeah, I’m that guy) and received numerous fist-bumps and pats on the back, but sadly no free beers. My friend Michelle was up north for the weekend visiting her grandparents’ cabin on Torch Lake, and she drove down from Torch to come bar-hopping with us. We all enjoyed regional Michigan Beers such as Bell’s Oberon and Two Hearted Ale (both amazing), as well as some more local beers like a Harvest Moon Oatmeal Stout by Mackinaw Brewing Company. Folks, let me tell you how easy it is to accidentally get hammered on a relatively small amount of beers after running a full marathon…it’s very easy.
The following morning’s run was fairly miserable, but I slogged through it knowing that I would be rewarded later in the day with a boat trip out on Torch Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in all the U. S. of A. I went out on the boat with Michelle, her brother Michael, and some of his friends, arriving just in time for a nice little sunset booze cruise:
We saw a pretty sweet sunset, too:
When Monday came around, the last thing I wanted to do was head back to Chicago, but head back to Chicago I must.
I’m still not sure how my 3:55:20 came to be, but all I know is that it happened and I’m elated; I don’t think I could ever again have lower expectations matched with a greater result as long as I live. Running sub-4 has been a goal of mine ever since I registered for my first marathon back in December 2006, and it’s such a relief to have accomplished that before my fall marathon slate of Chicago and NYC. The Bayshore Marathon really is a fantastic race that I would heartily recommend, as the race is well-run and Northern Michigan is beautiful this time of year, but I think I may put some time between now and my next attempt at the Bayshore; while I thought that 4 out of 6 years was aggressive, I’m not sure if I can imagine running 5 out of 7 years (and making that 5-1/2 hour drive each way again).
This is one of those results that will have me scratching my head for some time to come, and it’s a day that I will never forget. After a long and somewhat strange relationship with the Bayshore, I’m pleased to say that this story now has a very happy ending.