Day #209 — The Des Moines Half Marathon, or A View From the Back of the Pack (Des Moines, IA — 10/21/2012)

It was sometime shortly after the Bayshore Marathon in Traverse City that my hubris became uncontrollable. And as the saying goes, when pigs get greedy, they get sent to slaughter.

My time of 3:55:20 that I ran back in May 2012 was respectable, but certainly not “fast” by marathoning standards. I was almost a full 2 hours slower than the established world record, I was 50+ minutes off the pace needed to qualify for Boston, and I didn’t even finish in the top half of my age group. Still, breaking 4 hours was a huge achievement for me, one of the first athletic bucket list items I’d been able to cross off in a long time. And so after this ONE marathon where things went better than expected, I started signing up for a bunch of ’em.

And so when my good friend Dan Solera (a recurring character in this blog) came to me over the summer with the intention of running the Des Moines half or full marathon, I puffed my chest out and said, “You can do the half if you like, but I’ll DEFINITELY be running the full.” Never mind that this would be only 2 weeks after the Chicago Marathon and just 2 weeks before the New York Marathon; I had finally broken four hours, and so in my mind I was invincible.

Invincible. We’ll come back to that in a second.

With the exception of my recent 2012 Chicago Marathon PR on October 7th (which was as close to an ideal race as I’ve ever run), I’ve always entered each marathon I’ve run in a less-than-ideal physical state. In order, I’d run 9 previous marathons while being Fat, Undertrained, Fat Again, Recovering From Injury, Hungover, Overtrained, Airline Lost My Luggage and Running Gear/Shoes, Recovering From Injury Again, and Under-acclimated/Undertrained. Then, everything went perfectly in Chicago, and I forgot about all the bad marathons. With no aspirations of running faster in Des Moines than in Chicago, I was looking forward to a relatively drama/worry-free 26.2 miles in Iowa.

That all changed when my right knee started aching on a Sunday afternoon 8-mile tempo run a week before the marathon. On Monday, it hurt a little more. On Tuesday, it hurt a little more than on Monday. By Thursday, I could not run for more than a few hundred yards at a stretch without taking walk breaks. While I felt no pain walking, going up or down stairs became a problem, and running was damn near impossible.

With no time to see a specialist before my scheduled marathon on Sunday (!!), I did the only thing I could think of on limited notice – I bought 3 knee braces and a roll of KT Tape online, and I tried to stay off my feet as much as possible. With no time to really field test the braces, I decided that I would run/walk the Des Moines race with a backpack, so that I could throw all the straps & braces in there and try them out as I ran to see what felt the best (yes, I am a fucking idiot). Lastly, I begrudgingly decided that it would be suicidal to try and run the full marathon, and so I dropped down to the half. Balls.

It wasn’t all bad news, though. While it was originally going to be just Dan and myself on a totally hetero bro-adtrip to the cornfields, our traveling party grew from 2 to 4 in the week leading up to the race, as our friends Paul and Ryan (not Paul Ryan, that dude’s an asshole) decided to come as well. Paul’s parents live in Iowa, Ryan is always up for a good road trip, and all four of us were intrigued by something called Zombie Burger in Des Moines. While Paul was going to visit his parents Saturday night and Sunday morning, Ryan had signed up to run the 5K on race day, which would be his “first competitive race of any kind since the Clinton administration.” Between Ryan, Dan, and myself, we represented all 3 chip-timed distances offered. It would be a good day.

Or would it?


I no longer want to throw my phone across the room when my alarm goes off before 5am; I’ve gone through enough mid-race bathroom breaks to realize that I need to be up early to get everything, uh, out of my system.

We left the Sheraton in West Des Moines around 6:15am in hopes of finding good parking, as the race was set to start at 8am. I think that Dan and I have become too paranoid by parking situations at larger races, because we were one of the first cars to take residence in an easily-accessible-from-the-highway parking lot that was only 5 or 6 blocks from the starting line. As we walked to the starting line, there was that palpable pre-race “buzz” in the air. My knee seemed to be doing okay on the slow walk — I had opted for a combination of KT Tape and a Mueller double-strap knee brace, with a couple patella strap options in my backpack in case the brace felt took bulky.

After we gear-checked our things and headed toward the starting line, I flagged down a spectator to take our picture. “Make sure you get the knee brace in there,” I instructed her:

Pre-race: Dan, myself, and Ryan. Note the knee brace

I bade Dan goodbye as he filed in with the swift, able-bodied people, and I hung my head as I trudged to the back of the start corral. While there are always, always slow walkers that line up at the front of every race queue, I was determined not to be one of those people. I sought out the final marathon pace leader holding a 5:25 pace sign, and entered the starting corral about a dozen rows of people behind him. I turned around, and there were maybe 100 people behind me. Would I have to worry about finishing last?

The gun went off, and my fellow back-of-the-packers and I slowly waddled toward the starting line. For the first time in my life, my pace did not quicken once I crossed the timing mat under the start line; instead, I ambled my way to the far right of the course, so that I could briefly jog to test out the bum wheel. That wasn’t so awful, I thought, but this still doesn’t feel totally right. The good news is that the brace I’d selected seemed to be helping out, but I was still reassured to have backup options in my backpack.

I hadn’t started a race this far back in a while

The opening mile of the race was pretty epic, as far as opening miles go. Before we even made a turn, the course led us down Locust Street toward the state capital building, which drew nearer with each step. I allowed myself a few more “jogging” strides, and was pleased and surprised to see my knee responding reasonably well. After walk-jogging for the first ½-mile of the race, I allowed myself to jog a bit more, hoping to maybe log just one mile under 12 minutes before walking the rest of the way. I wasn’t going fast at all (think 12:00-13:00/mile pace), but it felt great to be running a race, since having to walk the whole time was my biggest fear. I ran Mile 2 under 12:00, which counted as “running” for me, and so with 11 miles to go I felt like I was already playing with house money.

Capital building!

The turning point of the race for me came at Mile 3 or 3.5, when I linked up with 2 girls who would basically drag me across the finish line. I was just coming out of a stretch of walking when we passed an amusing spectator sign that featured a picture of Jason Voorhess, along with the caption, “RUN!! JASON IS COMING!!!” It was then that I overheard 2 girls (who apparently hadn’t seen the Friday the 13th movies) openly wondering if that was a sexual pun. Okay, I like them, I thought, and I noticed that they were running pretty near the pace I was trying to keep. Without really putting much thought into it, I matched their pace and lingered in the periphery as they conversed. Like a creep.

They must have noticed me, because shortly thereafter, the dynamic duo of Allison and Megan were introducing themselves to me and bringing me into their conversation. I had been expecting to be bored as hell while jog-walking this race by myself, but the miles seemed to melt away as we all swapped stories and ran. The half-marathon leaders passed us going the other way somewhere around Mile 4, and we all agreed that they were pretty fast.

Mile 4 became 5, 5 became 6, 6 became 7, and before I knew it we were over halfway done. We had exited the De Moines city streets around Mile 3 to run in a park near the river, where we would stay until somewhere past the 11-mile mark. We mostly jogged at around an 11:00-11:30/mile pace, though we made sure to take extended walk breaks at every aid station (Allison had a bit of a hip flexor issue, and I sure as shit wasn’t going to be yelling at anyone to speed up). We loudly applauded any musicians that were playing on the side of the course, we slowed down (further) to high-five spectators, we hammed it up for the race photographers, and Megan seemed to run into someone she knew every half-mile. I barely remember any of the topics of conversation, but more importantly, I kept forgetting that I was running.

Megan on the left, Allison on the right

In fact, my knee felt like it was growing stronger, not weaker. By Mile 10 I felt like I could run comfortably and at a faster pace, but I wasn’t about to leave behind the girls that had kept me entertained/motivated through the first 2 hours of the race. And besides….what was I going to gain by running the last 2-3 miles at a 10:00/mile pace rather, than the 11:00/mile pace we were maintaining? Was I really going to give a shit if I had a final time of instead of a 2:32? Was it worth the even remote chance of an injury setback? The answer was a resounding no on both counts. I pulled out my phone sometime after Mile 11 to call Ryan and let him know around what time I’d be finishing (yeah, I was that guy), and and then settled in for the final mile.

As we cruised past the Mile 12 sign and its accompanying balloon, Megan and Allison seemed to be on diverging paths. Megan’s confidence was burgeoning and her and pace quickened with each stride, but Allison’s bothersome hip flexor was giving her some problems. In the end, it was too much — Allison needed to take a quick walk break, while Megan felt she could finish strong. I decided to practice caution and stay with Allison while Megan surged forward. We waved Megan ahead, and she in turn promised to wait for us at the finish line.

Somewhere around the time that Allison started her walk break, we came across The Grim Reaper. No, really. And he had beer.

Grim Reaper be reaping

As a kind spectator handle me my phone back after taking our picture, I noticed that my boy Grim was tossing back a cold Coors Light (the mountains were blue!), which led to the following exchange:

“Hey, can I have one of those?” I asked him.

“Only if you promise to drink all of it,” came the reply, and so I reached into the cooler and pulled out a Silver Bullet. For my second half-marathon in a row, I would get a chug a beer down the homestretch, and I felt pretty good about this.

With about a 1/4-mile to go, the course took one final left turn, where the finish line appeared as an oasis in the distance and the crowd seemingly materialized out of nowhere. The good vibes I was feeling in my knee would be put to the test as Allison fed off the crowd support to speed up, but my leg responded well and we crossed the finish line at the same time, as I logged a PW of 2:31:11. After we received our medals, Megan was there waiting for us, true to her word

Myself, Allison, Megan

Brace, tape, beer, medal

QUICK THOUGHTS ABOUT THE RACE:  I can only speak for the half, but I thought it was pretty well done. They had Gatorade and water at each stop, and over the second half of the race, it felt like the aid stations came at every mile. They had GU at Miles 7 & 10, and a few of the aid stations had pretzels/food/candy in addition to water and Gatorade. I counted at least 6 on-course entertainment acts, and those were just the ones I could remember. The running path got a little narrow in the middle miles, but we were never unable to pass (or be passed, for that matter) on account of space. It may not be a race with enough draw to keep me coming back from far away, but it’s definitely a great option for runners in the area that I would heartily recommend.

Anyway, after eating some food and drinking a couple terrible generic beers after the race (Michelob Ultra and Bud Light Lime, but hey, they were free), all that was left to do was meet up with Ryan and wait for Dan to cross the finish line. Dan was hoping to run a 3:35 marathon, which meant he would cross the finish line a little after 11:35am. I posted up against the fence near the finish line and yelled my head off at the finishers streaming in, leaving my post only to get more beer. There was a guy dressed in a full Batman costume (hood and all) who crossed the line at 11:03am on the clock, which was good enough for a Boston qualifier. Some people are a little too athletic.

At 11:25am, figuring that Dan would be finishing sometime in the next 10 minutes, I started composing a text to Ryan to tell him where I was standing. Halfway through writing the text, I looked up for no reason in particular, and saw a familiar figure with a red sleeveless shirt and a Gumby-esque physique barreling toward the finish line. Was that….no, it couldn’t be, I told myself as I looked at the time on my phone. He can’t be running THAT fast…can he?

Look at this fast son of a bitch SMILING as he finishes

I exited out of my text just in time to snap the above photo of everyone’s favorite running Costa Rican, who obliterated his previous PR by 14+ minutes, to the tune of a 3:25:12. To put it in a different perspective, it took Dan less than an hour longer to finish a full marathon than it took me to finish a half-marathon on this day.

Fuck, this comparison is depressing — let’s just move on to the most insane burger I’ve ever had.


NOT PICTURED: The server wearing a shirt that read, “Dead Girls Are Easy”

Even the back of the menu is awesome

A big reason we were able to convince Paul and Ryan to come on this trip was the existence of an eating emporium in Des Moines called ZOMBIE BURGER + DRINK LAB. The place was popular enough on a Sunday that we had to wait 15-20 minutes in the bar for a table to come available (oh no, the horror), and once we sat down, I was confronted with the delicious dilemma of what to order. Dan chose a “modest” burger with cheese, bacon, BBQ sauce, caramelized onions, and ranch dressing. Paul opted for something that incorporated fried jalapenos and chicken-fried bacon. Ryan went one step further by ordering a burger that was sandwiched between 2 grilled cheese sandwiches instead of a proper bun, but I took home the figurative championship belt by ordering something called “The Walker Ched.” My burger consisted of a “Breaded and deep-fried macaroni + cheese bun, bacon, cheddar cheese, caramelized + raw onion, and more macaroni + cheese.”

I normally think that people who post multiple pictures of the same meal are just about the worst people in the world, but I need to paint a picture of what happened here:

Looks harmless enough, right? Though that’s a strange-looking bun..

Let’s give this a shot.

WHOA. Perhaps we need to re-think this

This next picture was not a staged photo — I genuinely did not know how I was supposed to eat this thing, since my hands went right through the breaded crust of the “bun”:

“I don’t even…”

Eventually, I decided that I needed to adopt a different tactic toward taking down this behemoth. I flagged down our passing waitress and asked her, “Do people usually eat this with a fork and knife?” “Most people do,” she responded with a sweet/pitiful/thoughtful/condescending smile. Well, then, that’s what I’ll do.

Acceptance. Delicious, delicious acceptance.

After that meal was decimated, it was time to finally head home…which was still a 300+ mile drive away. While my knee felt great as we piled into the car, the next 5-6 hours of sitting in a stationary position would be excruciating, even though we stopped every 90 minutes or so to loosen up and stretch. Dan was the guy who had run a full marathon, but I was the one gritting my teeth in pain. NEW RULE: No more 5+ hour car rides home on the same day after a race. I feel I can get behind this.

In what I sincerely hope was my first and last race viewed entirely from the back of the pack, I actually had a great time– I didn’t wear myself out, I got to see a bit of a new city, and I made some new friends along the way. My disappointment of not notching another marathon on my belt was tempered by the relief I felt at getting through the race in one piece, as well as finding a tape/brace combination that seemed to work well. I’m running New York in another week and a half (even if I have to walk the whole damn thing), and the fact that I felt fresh at the end of the Des Moines half was a nice confidence boost.

Now, to just get healthy…

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4 Responses to Day #209 — The Des Moines Half Marathon, or A View From the Back of the Pack (Des Moines, IA — 10/21/2012)

  1. Dan says:

    It’s 9 AM and seeing the picture of the Walking Ched is making me scratch the walls in search of food.

  2. trexrunner says:

    Interesting fact: T-Rex hates macaroni and cheese. Less interesting fact: I’ve been checking your blog every day waiting for this recap. But I’m proud of you for being smart and doing the half. You know I would have done the full.

    • Otter says:

      This is about as close to a secret blog posting as I’ve ever made….I took no pride out of dropping down and waddling the half-marathon, but I had to write about it. The only people that know this post exists are people that subscribe to this blog. I was going to skip it entirely, and then I decided I needed to write it as a form of personal closure….looking forward to better things in NYC next week.

      And yes, you definitely would have done the full. I could have slogged my way through the full, but fortunately for my knee, my goals are substantially less ambitious than yours.

  3. MedalSlut says:

    I think it’s wrong that I am salivating looking at that mess you call a cheeseburger, but I also think you were very sensible dropping down (I didn’t want to say ‘dropping down’, but it kind of makes sense) to the half. Hope you feel better soon!

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