Friday, October 11, 2013

#14 is in the books

Well, the Twin Cities Marathon has come and gone for 2013, and my 14th career marathon is complete. The legs are mostly recovered, but the body is still physically tired. Sunday was certainly a memorable day. As with any marathon, it wasn't easy, I was challenged physically, mentally, spiritually, but I am so glad that I had the opportunity to step onto that 26.2 mile course and test my limits.

The day began as every Twin Cities does for me with a ride to the Dome with my parents and my wife. I met up with my friend Justin and his wife, Kristen, who was also running, and their entire family support crew. They accompanied us to the start, which was great to have those familiar faces around. Once the race got going, a thought that kept finding its way into my head was that this truly feels like home. It seemed like every mile I encountered someone I knew cheering on the sidelines. From Eric and 2 and 7, Jason at 3, 7 and 17, my family crew and friends at 7, 11, 17 and 21.5, Anders at 4, Mark at get the idea.

My true physical test came around mile 12 when I was making my way around Lake Nokomis. I had gone out a little quicker than originally planned but I was still very much under control and felt good. However, at 12, I began to feel some rubbing on my right foot at the top of my arch. I stopped to adjust my shoe to see if that would fix the problem. It did not. By mile 17 I knew I had a full blown blister on the arch of my foot and it was going to be a painful struggle to get through the remaining miles. I also developed a blister on the other foot in almost the same spot. These proved to be my downfall on this day. Prior to mile 18 I had been maintaining a solid pace averaging between 6:40 and 6:50 per mile. After 18, I couldn't muster anything faster than 7:00 from there on out.

One of the most pivotal moments of the race came as I was climbing the St. Thomas hill at 21. I was struggling physically and mentally at this point, doubting myself and feeling the pain of 21 miles and a couple nasty blisters. I knew waiting at the top of the hill would be my wife, my parents, and many more of my friends. I was glad to see my mother-in-law (who had run the 10 mile earlier) and my brother-in-law. To get myself up that hill, I began chanting to myself, "Gracie Strong." As I approached the top of the hill I had planned to come over to my family to have them start chanting the same thing, but I never had to...they were already chanting it for me! It was very emotional at that point, but it was incredibly uplifting when I truly needed it. No doubt, God was in that moment and Gracie was with me helping me fight through those tough miles.

Unfortunately, it did not get any easier. Summit was brutal on my body as it always seems to be. I looked forward to getting to mile 24 where I would be met with a crazy crowd of spectators led by TC Running Company. There would be a lot of Wayzata supporters there, and with me decked out in Wayzata gear, I knew I'd get a jolt of energy! And I was right! The crowd went nuts! I got a loud shoutout from the TCRC store owner on his sound system and I was filled with a new level of adrenaline.

I finally reached the last mile and came upon a friend of mine from church who had been on our summer Nicaragua missions trip with me. She ran with me for a block or two and just kept me positive. It came at just the right moment again. In that final mile, I passed 3 college teammates all cheering for me and then the Capitol came into view. The final half mile, I just kept saying to myself, "Gracie Strong. Gracie Strong. Gracie Strong." It kept my legs moving and driving to the finish. I crossed the line in a time of 3:09:55. It was not my fastest day, but it was without a doubt one of the most memorable marathons I've ever had for so many reasons other than my final time. I laid it on the line, pushed myself, hit moments where I doubted I could get there, but I fought through and made it.

In the days since the marathon, I have been tired and sore most of the time. I've been treating my blisters and getting back to full health to eventually start running again. I intend to take the remainder of this week off just for the sake of giving my body a break and then gradually resume regular running. In the fall after a marathon, I typically will run a few 5Ks for fun, to see how fast I can go. I don't yet know how many I'll do, but I know of at least 2: The 5K at the Nike Heartland Regional Cross Country Championships in Sioux Falls, SD and the Turkey Day 5K in downtown Minneapolis on Thanksgiving. These have become staples in the fall for me (with the exception to an injury year last fall).

And I've already made my decision on marathon #15. Most marathons can attest to the addiction that this kind of race puts on you. I have committed to returning to St. Louis in April 2014 to run the St. Louis Marathon for the second time. I am going to be training with one of my college teammates for this one throughout the winter and we both intend to go after P.R.'s on the streets of St. Louis in the spring! Until that training begins in December, I'm going to simply enjoy running and the fact that I have the opportunity to do it to enjoy the beautiful running we are spoiled with here in Minnesota each fall.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

My Marathon Journey: #14 Twin Cities 2013 - TOMORROW!!

Tomorrow is the day. I've been counting up to it over the last 2 weeks with memories, thoughts, and growth over the last 9 years and 13 previous marathons. As I've run, I've grown, I've matured, I've gotten faster (in general) and I've become a whole lot smarter. By no means have I got this whole thing figured out and I don't intend to ever completely conquer this marathon distance. That is what makes it a challenge to go after...there is always an unknown. Will my body be ready on race day, will the weather cooperate, will the course allow me to run a fast time? So many unknowns and the only way to answer those questions is to toe the starting line and when the gun goes off, get out there and give it everything I've got and see what happens.

For tomorrow's Twin Cities Marathon, I have set forth a few goals for myself. First and foremost, I want to run in a way that glorifies God. He blessed me with the passion and the desire to do this crazy thing in the first place, so I want to honor Him as best I can. Second, I want to run a smart race. By that, I mean not going out too fast on the first half of the race. Twin Cities has a pretty fast first 13.1 miles (really the first 17-18 miles are pretty easy) and I have a history of going out too fast and dying on Summit Avenue over the last 5 miles. My goal is to be no faster than 1:29 at the halfway point and to begin picking up the pace on West and East River Roads. I want to set myself up for a fast finish on Summit Avenue where I am the one passing runners that are hurting as opposed to me being the one getting passed.

Finally, tomorrow I will run GRACIE STRONG. This is my first marathon since my niece, Gracie, passed away last October. It's been nearly a year since we lost her and she is all certainly a part of each of us who were impacted by her short 82 days on Earth. I think about her everyday and I keep her on my mind with each run that I go on. Tomorrow will be no different. My shoes continue to say GRACIE STRONG and they always will. This race tomorrow will be in her honor.

With that, I end my journey (of writing at least) to marathon #14. I will post sometime next week my thoughts and results of how the race went. If you are out there on the course tomorrow, send a cheer my way. I'll be wearing BIB#1913 and will be decked out in Wayzata attire (bright blue, gold and white).

The scripture I've been clinging to for many months now, and what will be on my heart during this race is this (it was also Gracie's life verse):

Isaiah 43:1-3
"Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
    I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you.
For I am the Lord, your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior."

Friday, October 4, 2013

My Marathon Journey: #13 Chicago 2012 - 2:54:51

Following the 2011 Boston Marathon, I went 18 months before I would race the 26.2 mile distance again. I had already registered for the 2011 Twin Cities Marathon, but because of my ankle injury, I could not run. It was a long slow recovery process. I was frustrated. I was lacking motivation for a long time as well. When I finally reached the point when I could begin running again, it was like an incredible weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I proceeded to spend the entire winter of 2011-12 getting back into shape and in February, a group of my running buddies all decided to sign up for the Chicago Marathon. It's a marathon I'd always wanted to do, but it was always around the same time as the Twin Cities Marathon (in 2012, it was the same day). Having a bunch of friends to train with, with a similar goal to shoot for made training significantly easier, especially from a motivational standpoint.

We got so focused that we began meeting every Sunday morning in February to do our long runs together, and as the winter turned to spring we began doing occasional tempo workouts together as well. I was quickly shifting from getting into shape to preparing to RACE a marathon. By the time the summer rolled around, I was putting in more miles per week than I had ever done before, and I was so focused on each of my key workouts that it seemed as though every workout was awesome. It never seemed like I had a bad day. My body responded well to my tempo runs, my threshold workouts, intervals, long runs, everything.

In August, as my mileage reached its peak (90-95 miles per week), I gained a new motivation. It also reminded me of what was truly important. Running was something that was fun. It's merely a game. God, faith, family and friends are what matter above all other things. On August 2nd, my niece, Gracia Lorraine Hunt, was born. She was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a condition that meant she only had 2 developed chambers of her heart. We knew months earlier that she would be born with this, but it was all real now that she was here. 5 days after she was born, she had her first surgery to begin repairing her heart. It went well, but it was the beginning of a lot of difficult challenges that Gracie would go through. Prior to the school year beginning, Jen and I took every opportunity we could to be with Gracie and her parents, my sister Becky and her husband Shawn, at the hospital.

When the school year began, we tried to be there each weekend as Gracie grew stronger and we soon hoped she would be able to come home. I found myself taking time on each of my training runs to say a prayer for Gracie and to remind myself that any pain I may be putting myself through in a race or a workout was insignificant compared to what Gracie was going through with all kinds of machines attached to her, helping her just to be able to have her heart function normally. As Chicago approached, I decided that each time I had a moment of self-doubt or began feeling sore and tired during that race, I would make myself listen to and feel my heart beat, and that would remind me of Gracie.

The Chicago Marathon weekend arrived and we flew in on Friday night. We were staying with some great friends of ours only a mile from the start/finish of the marathon, which was great. We took in the expo and had a great pasta dinner the night before with all of our friends that would be cheering me on the next morning. On race morning I got up early, ate breakfast, and spent some time in prayer before I left to walk to the starting line. On my Facebook page that morning, I posted this:

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us." (Hebrews 12:1 NLT)
Race morning is finally here. The race has been laid out before us, so let's run. God, you have guided me through every step of this journey so far, I know you'll guide me through the final 26.2 miles in Chicago. It's time to give God the glory and run to praise Him for the gift He has given me.

That verse has long been one of my favorites from the Bible, which should not be surprising. But the part that stood out to me this time around was the "strip off every weight that slows us down..." part. There was so much on my mind entering this race, some good and some bad. I just needed that reassurance that for 26.2 miles, the only thing that I needed to worry about was honoring God by running this race.

I ran the Chicago Marathon with endurance and with some speed. Chicago is known as a fast course and with a perfect weather day, it was a P.R. kind of day for many runners, me included. I rolled through the half marathon mark in 1:23:40, big time P.R. pace. About 3 miles later, my foot injury flared up (later ended up finding out it was plantar fasciitis for the 3rd time), and my pace slowed. I never let up and I fought through the pain. Gracie was on my mind a lot throughout the final 10 miles to the race. Seeing my friends cheering me on at mile 17 and 25 was huge to keep me going. Having friends like Jason, Ross, and George on the course around me when I was hurting kept me going. I finally reached the finish line in a time of 2:54:51, a new P.R. by over 3 minutes. Knowing the foot injury slowed me significantly, it was a bittersweet result. I know I was in shape to be much faster, but I still ran with everything I could that day.

A week after the marathon, Jen and I were back at the hospital to see Becky, Shawn, Gracie, and my parents. It was a family party in Gracie's room that day and I finally got to hold Gracie in my arms that afternoon. It was great to hold her and to have a little conversation with her. You could tell she was comfortable in her uncle's arms because she filled her diaper a mere 5 minutes after she got into my arms!

Unfortunately, this was the only time I got to hold Gracie. 10 days later, on October 23rd, she passed away due to complications with her heart condition. It was a truly tragic and terrible day for all of us. Gracie had been so strong for so long, but it was just too much for her little body to handle. For as difficult as all of this has been for our family, we knew that Gracie is looking down upon us, healed and having a full heart. Still, we miss her every single day.

In 2013, when I recovered from my injury and began to run again, I began writing "GRACIE STRONG" on each pair of my running shoes. It's my reminder to be strong just like Gracie was for her 82 days on Earth. She's my constant motivation whenever I run and race. She will be my motivation this Sunday when I take my first 26.2 mile journey since losing Gracie. She will no doubt be on my mind and in my heart. Through all of this, God has strengthened my faith. There were so many little miracles that he gave us in Gracie's short life. And he has reminded us of who he is and that he is always with us so many times in the months since her passing.

I can't wait to run my favorite marathon again on Sunday, and run it to praise God and to remember my niece, Gracie. On Sunday, I will be GRACIE STRONG.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

My Marathon Journey: #12 Boston 2011 - 3:22:23

I made my return to the Boston Marathon in 2011, six years after my first attempt at the legendary race. The road that led me to this were challenging, but I was on a mission to prove I could take on the Boston course and have success.

After Twin Cities 2010, I took some time off to let my body get completely healthy before making the decision to run Boston. I registered for Boston the day that registration opened and got in a mere 15 minutes before the race filled on the same day! This is what ultimately led to them changing the registration and qualifying process. Originally, about 8-10 of us from UWRF were going to go out to Boston together, but only 3 of us got in as a result of the craziness in registering.

In mid-December, I began my official training for Boston. It proved to be a difficult winter for training in Minnesota. It was very snowy and frequently very cold, much more than it had been in recent years. Getting motivated to step out the door and run when it's regularly -10 degrees and there is 3+ feet of snow around everywhere is a challenge itself. I found myself taking days off too often and I never surpassed 60 miles in a week throughout the entire winter. Entering Boston, I knew I was not in the best shape of my life, so I was realistic about my expectations. The first thing I knew was that I was much smarter than I had been 6 years earlier and approached the trip to Boston very differently.

My wife and I flew out on Friday night and took Saturday to go to the expo and do a little sightseeing, and then law low and relax for the day on Sunday so my legs would be rested and ready to go for the race on Monday morning. While at the expo I had the great opportunity to meet up with Dick Beardsley and Greg Meyer (1983 Boston champ) and hang with them. Dick is a Wayzata graduate and holds the Grandma's course record still today.

Monday finally came and I was ready. I knew there was no way I wouldn't blow my 2005 Boston performance out of the water, and I felt confident in my ability to get back under 3:10 with the ideal conditions we had been provided. I ran the first 5 miles with my buddy, Kyle, before he took off ahead of me. I maintained a solid pace all the way through the halfway point before I started to hurt. The Newton hills of miles 17-21 took everything I had out of me and it was a struggle to the finish from there. As I had said before, I knew I was not in the best shape I could have been in entering this race, so I wasn't completely surprised by my body's response at that stage of the race. So much of the success of a marathon performance is contingent on the preparation of months prior to the race. I knew that by marathon #12 and I accepted that.

Coming home to the finish line on Boylston Street was still a great feeling. The picture of me nearing the finish with my arms raised up pointing to the sky was my moment of saying thank you to God for guiding me this far and running with me stride for stride on that day. I was beginning to understand more of what it meant to worship God with everything. God blessed me with a joy and passion for running (and some talent) and I wanted to be sure I used it for His glory and not my own.

Ephesians 1:4-5 puts it in a great way: "Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure." God takes great joy and pleasure in us, those who He calls his sons and daughters. God has chosen us and when we choose to live our lives for Him in everything we do, God smiles!

Since Boston 2011 I have only run one other marathon, the 2012 Chicago Marathon. I went 18 months without racing a marathon because of my most serious injury I've ever had to deal with. In June 2011 I fell while climbing down a mountain in Colorado and messed up my left ankle really badly. I had to hike/climb 5 hours just to get out of the remote area we were in. I was unable to walk for 3 weeks and spent additional time in a walking boot after that. The rehab was a long, slow process, but I was motivated to get back healthy and just run again. All of this I would soon learn was preparing me and my family for something even more significant than any injury or race could do...

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My Marathon Journey: #11 Twin Cities 2010 - 3:19:16

After a great but very busy summer, I began the fall of 2010 at a new school for teaching and coaching. It almost felt like I was a brand new teacher all over again, having only taught in Watertown for 2 years. However, I felt confident in what I was doing because I had learned so much in my short time at Watertown. Much like my confidence in my job, I had gained a lot of confidence in my marathon running with the success of St. Louis and a great pacing experience in Stillwater. I was optimistic with my training up until mid-August for Twin Cities.

I began feeling a significant pain in my left heel, which turned out to be my second stint of plantar fasciitis. For anyone that's had this injury before, it's very frustrating and takes a long time to recover from if you don't catch it and treat it early. In the summer of 2010, I had become so focused on my workouts that I tried to push through the pain, which ultimately made it worse. I eventually gave in and took a couple weeks off in August and cross-trained in the hopes that the pain would subside and I could resume running in September to be ready for Twin Cities in October.

The good news is that the pain did gradually subside and I was able to resume running. However, the cross-training was inconsistent and I lost some of the fitness I had built up in June and July. Ultimately, this cost me another marathon P.R. The part of my fitness that hurt the most was my endurance. I still had some good foot speed, but I couldn't keep it going for a long period of time.

Summit Avenue proved once again to be my downfall. However, this time it was not because of the difficulty and positioning of the hills in the race, it was simply that my body couldn't keep up its pace for 26.2 miles. I began to break down around mile 19 and had completely fallen apart by mile 22 on Summit. Frustration and disappointment set in as I spent a lot of time on Summit walking and just trying to keep my legs moving. I eventually reached the finish line exhausted and disappointed. It ended up being my slowest Twin Cities Marathon in my 5 attempts at the course, running 3:19:16. Perhaps the hardest part was knowing how well my training had gone and that I couldn't take advantage of it because of an injury.

James 1:2-4 says, "Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing." Troubles with my running came my way this time around, and I was tested. Ultimately, my literal physical endurance grew out of this disappointing race, but so did my faith. The next 2 years (and my 2 most recent marathons) would be testimonies to that fact. At this point, I could not have envisioned all that would transpire in my life over the next 2 years, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Stay tuned for the final 2 marathon entries, Boston 2011 and Chicago 2012, these are stories that have shaped me more than I ever could have imagined.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

My Marathon Journey: #10 Stillwater 2010 - 3:45:05 (PACER!)

Less than 2 months after I ran my P.R. marathon in St. Louis, I embarked on my 10th marathon, with a decidedly different feel and approach...I was a pacer. Many marathons hire pacing teams to run the race at a specific pace for competitors to run with so they can achieve a specific goal time. Typically, pacers are experienced runners that are assigned to run a pace slower than what they would be racing at so that they are assured of hitting the goal time.

I had run 3 shorter races as a pacer during the months of April and May (2 half marathons and a 30K) and hit my goal pace right on with each of those, so I felt pretty good entering the Stillwater Marathon. This was a relatively new marathon (only its 3rd year...and it no longer exists) so it wasn't a large field of runners, but I had a group of runners go with me at the start of the race. I was supposed to run 3:45, which was much slower than what I was accustomed to, which presents its own challenges. The other challenge of this pacing role was that Stillwater is a very hilly part of Minnesota, so it was a very tough course. The weather was warm, so it certainly didn't help many of the runners trying to keep pace with me.

I managed to stay right on pace through the entire race and came across the finish line in 3:45:05, only 5 seconds off of the goal! By the final 10K of the race, only one runner was still with me, and he never once said a word to me, so I hardly knew he was there until the end. Despite being a very different experience, it was still a lot of fun. I know the people that I helped pace for however long they stayed with me appreciated it, because I got a lot of thank you's at the finish line. I've never been an official pacer in a race since the Stillwater Marathon and I don't envision doing it again. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the races I paced and the people I got to run with, but there is something about toeing the starting line of a race where you know you are going to give every ounce of energy you have to see how fast you can run. Being a pacer, that feeling just isn't there. You have a prescribed pace and can't go ahead of it, even if you're feeling good.

After the completion of Stillwater, my focus turned to some incredibly important moments in my life beyond running. The summer of 2010 was certainly a great summer of running, but so much outshone that. I took a new teaching job at Wayzata High School, where I currently teach and coach today. I moved back to the Twin Cities metro area in Plymouth. Certainly the best part was getting married to my best friend, Jen, on July 30th!!!