Friday, July 26, 2013

A New Day Dawning: Still Going Long but also Trying to Get Strong

Last year I completed the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning and while it is not the ultimate test of an endurance runner it is an accomplishment that most ultrarunners see as anything from respectable to awe inspiring.  People who don’t run ultras see it as downright incomprehensible.  I am not here trying to toot my own horn…well, ok, maybe that’s a lie, there’s at least a little tooting going on, but for the most part it’s an accomplishment that I hold for myself and reflect on. It makes me smile.  However, the Slam is part of my history and I don’t foresee it ever being a part of my future.

Last year I ran the Boston marathon as well.  I qualified for the first time ever in December of 2011 at the Tucson Marathon the weekend after having run two marathons in one weekend while holding nothing back.  I had brought my marathon time down by an hour and twenty five minutes from my first marathon in December 2005, also the Tucson marathon.  However, Boston has cut its qualifying time by five minutes and I’m not sure that Boston will be a part of my future again either.

In my years of blogging one thing I haven’t really talked much about is just how hard the whole triathlon and ultrarunning thing has been for me, how much sacrifice it has entailed.  Sure, I haven’t held back in revealing how hard various races were for me or my experiences of low points during races but one thing I haven’t written about is the almost constant frustration with my size and my never ending attempt to not only control it but to shrink it.

I am not an endurance guy.  Yes, I can do endurance sports and have done pretty well but I have always been bigger than 95 percent of my peers, I have always been overweight and my sports growing up were mostly football, rugby and the throwing sports in track and field.  How on earth I fell in love with extreme endurance sports I’ll never know but I really do love them and I’ve done my best to be competitive.  I think those days are over.   Actually, I want them to be over.  I’m tired of spending hours upon hours training mostly alone.  I’m tired of tracking my calories constantly year after year in the hopes that I can shave three pounds off my 200 pound frame when my competition weighs in at a typical weight of between 135 and 150.  I’m tired of fighting against my own biology.  It’s burning me out and I need a balance.

Here is what I do want.  I do want to keep running marathons and ultras though when it comes to ultras I don’t yet know what distances are still in my future.  I want to be able to eat healthy and smart without counting every calorie taken in and expended.  I want to allow my body to find a good weight and I want to stop agonizing over whether I weigh 203 or 197.  I want to get the mantra out of my head “two seconds per mile slower for every pound gained, two seconds per mile faster for every pound lost.”

Enough is enough.  I just want to do my thing with my friends and have a good time.  I realize it’s my own fault for pushing myself as I did but I’m a master at imagining external pressures where there really are none.   I began this season at 208 and immediately freaked out and started hammering my body with exercise and trying any crazy ass diet I could think of.  I also pretty much immediately discovered that my body was still cooked from having run the Slam last year and within a month I became sick for a month and bounced up to 212.  In desperation I tried to hammer myself back into shape before the National Guard marathon trials at Lincoln in May.  It’s not that I expected to make the All Guard team or anything I just didn’t want to embarrass myself or my team.

However, despite all attempts my body just wouldn’t respond and I became increasingly discouraged about my ability to keep up the low weight I had achieved or to regain any of the speed I had lost over last year.  At the marathon trials the other three members of my team all placed in their age group and made the All Guard Team.  I ran about 8 minutes slower than the previous year when it had been about 10 degrees hotter and landed somewhere in the middle of the pack.  While I was happy for my teammates I just felt like the out of place fat kid back on the elementary school playground.

I don’t need that in my life.  I love to run and I want to keep loving to run.  I have 24 more marathons I want to do in order to collect the 50 states and I’d still kind of like to run Hardrock though I honestly think there’s little chance of that.  The luster of the Hardrock dream has faded considerably because of the virtual impossibility of getting in.  There is far more to life than a slavish devotion to one race.

So, what’s next?  Well, Olympic weightlifting, that’s what.  It was a dream of mine as a very young kid, I mean like second grade young.  I remember seeing it in the Olympics and then going out to the garage where, for whatever reason, we had one of those plastic coated concrete weight sets and I started doing the lifts as best I could.  Like many things in life at that age Olympic weightlifting quickly fell by the wayside and was soon forgotten.  I mean, it’s not like it’s a popular or well publicized sport.

As I was researching alternative ways of regaining my speed having given up on the notion that I could regain and maintain a low enough weight, I came across Olympic weightlifting for sprinters and the old flame was rekindled.

As I said, I’m still going to do endurance sports but I’m not going to push hard to be fast.  I’ll run at whatever speed I can muster on 40 to 50 miles a week and my weightlifting.  Maybe more importantly, I don’t plan to slack off on my weightlifting for the benefit of my races.  I’d like to see what I can do at a weightlifting meet and that is going to mean consistent lifting, which I have already discovered keeps my legs pretty fatigued what with all the squats.  On the same token though I’m not going to sacrifice my running for my lifting because in all honesty I think the running is my long-term ticket to health and fitness.

So, here I go, heading off into two directions and looking to get the best out of both.  Yes, it’s a lot of working out but it’s what I call a balance and I’m really looking forward to how things unfold.

No longer a Clydesdale: Rule Change not Weight Loss

A lot of people who race in the Clydesdale division celebrate when they no longer qualify as a Clydesdale because they have lost their excess weight.  This happened to me though it wasn’t something I crowed about.  I was certainly happy to lose the weight but my heart is with the Clydesdales and I figured that, in time, my body would once again be there as well.  I got down to 187 but it was murder to get there and it lasted for maybe a day or two of severe dehydration.  Even sticking at 195 took monumental effort and I figured it wasn’t something that was sustainable.

I entered this season at 208, became sick almost as soon as I started my spring weight loss and bounced up to 212.  I have not dipped below 207 all year but I’m also a year older and I recognize that while I could probably peel off another pound or two, I’m probably not likely to head south of 200 again.

My new approach to a more sustainable lifestyle will involve a combination of running and strength training, specifically, Olympic lifting.  I’m a big guy, I should do some big guy things and the Olympic lifting is something that was an early dream of mine, possibly my first dream with respect to sports.

In any case, I also thought that maybe I’d pick back up racing in the Clydesdale division but I soon discovered that I was no longer a Clydesdale, at least not in the eyes of USAT.

On January first of this year a new USAT rule came into effect that places a Clydesdale at 220 pounds, not the former 200 pounds.  I do not expect to weigh that much again and of course I’m not going to gain weight to race as a Clydesdale.

The reasoning behind USAT’s ruling is that all athletes have gotten larger by about 10 percent since the Clydesdale and Athena divisions were created in 1997, yes, the Athena division is now at 165 instead of the old 150.  USAT assured athletes that the weight divisions weren’t just fat people divisions developed so non-competitive people could get awards too but given everything I’ve seen that argument is pretty unconvincing.  In honesty, I have no idea what legitimate reason USAT has for having the weight divisions other than as feel good awards.  They have never treated the division with respect, there are no rankings, everyone is dumped into age groups, and there are no legitimate Clydesdale and Athena national competitions, the divisions have no age groups other than the 39 and under – 40 + split and nine times out of ten when the awards are given the Clydesdale and Athena awards are not just last but often forgotten until an athlete reminds the race director.  This happened far more with Athena’s than Clydesdales though.

Anyway, I’m no longer a Clydesdale in the eyes of USAT but I will always be one at heart, regardless of the rules, regardless of my weight.  I am a big guy racing in a small guy’s game.

Storrie Lake Triathlon – err – Duathlon: A Race Report

It’s been a while since I’ve done a triathlon and it looks like it will be a while longer.  In the past three years or so I’ve really been focused on running but I try and get in a triathlon or two because I feel an affinity for the sport I’m just not so wild about training for them.

In order to get out triathlon fix for the year the GeekGrl and I registered for the Storrie Lake triathlon in Las Vegas New Mexico.  The last time we had done this race was the last time it was held under the old race management. The race was shut down but then resurrected a few years later by different race management.

Storrie Lake used to be one of the more popular triathlons in New Mexico, hitting entrant numbers above 200, which is not the biggest race in New Mexico but in the top three.  However, drought hit the state and lake levels plummeted so the triathlon became a duathlon at the last minute and that pissed a lot of people off.  Many didn’t show but the race took place anyway.  The next year there were few entrants and though recent rain storms put the lake back up to swimmable levels it also washed a lot of crap out onto the roads, which lead to many of the racers having flat tires.  This again turned many of the local triathletes off and so the final year it ran under the old management, the year the GeekGrl and I first ran it, the number of participants was abysmal and so the race shuttered its doors.

Last year new race management breathed life back into the race and apparently had descent numbers and so the GeekGrl and I decided to give it a try and figured we’d meet up with many of our old multisport friends.  However, it was not to be.  The drought in New Mexico persists and the lake levels continued to fall all summer and once again the Storrie Lake Triathlon was changed to the Storrie Lake Duathlon and participation was minuscule.

The whole experience was pretty surreal and somewhat depressing.  The triathlon scene has undergone a serious change in the few years that the GeekGrl and I have been absent from it.  First of all it was just odd being around multisport people again after spending so much time among marathoners and ultrarunners.   The triathlon culture is shockingly, I would say desperately, a culture of gear, gear that is intended to shave milliseconds off your race time.  However, the really bizarre thing is that most of the people using said gear could shave minutes or even hours off their times depending on the length of the race and still be solidly mid-pack.  This is not intended to be a slam against those people in particular.  The GeekGrl and I fall into that category when it comes to our multisport predilections.   We both have expensive race bikes and wheel sets, skin suits and speed laces, we even have aero helmets (though I was too embarrassed to wear mine and I don’t know why the GeekGrl didn’t wear hers).  The thing that was jarring was, in a sense, seeing it from an outsiders perspective.

We “grew up” in the sport of triathlon as adult athletes and so we were eased into the gear culture and it just seemed normal.  When I first started running marathons it was different but there is less gear needed anyway and there are a lot of triathletes who run marathons so the triathlete vibe is still well represented.  However, when I first started ultrarunning I remember describing it like showing up at a homeless encampment.  If anything it was the anti-gear culture, ultrarunners are antitriathletes.  It became funny to me when a triathlete would come to an ultra because invariably they would be decked out in arm sleeves, leg sleeves, compression shorts and it always seemed like every bit of gear, no matter how small, had the Ironman name and logo plastered all over it.  I used to look at them and say to myself, “all that Ironman gear won’t protect you from this.”

Anyway, big culture shock in many ways but once the race began it did end up feeling pretty familiar and pretty comfortable…in a manner of speaking.  As far as the racing went that was anything but comfortable.  I was doing the sprint distance and holly crap, I had forgotten what it means to actually sprint for over an hour, sprinting on a run, sprinting on a bike and then once again sprinting on a longer run.  In all honesty I would say I was pretty much done in the first mile or less and the rest of the race was me drawing ragged breath just trying to hang on.

I did hang on for a second place Clydesdale finish, that was later revoked because the USAT rules for Clydesdale weight had changed earlier in the year and neither of us were Clydesdales any longer.  However, this change of fortune landed me in first place in my age group.  However, I should remind you that there were maybe 30 people, men and women, in the race so there may have been maybe two or three guys in my age group…maybe none, I haven’t bothered to look at the results.

In any case, the experience was kind of depressing because first of all the entirety of Northern New Mexico is just dry as a bleached bone and in places where there used to be a thick undergrowth of native grasses there is just burnt up weeds and red dirt.  It has probably been four years since the GeekGrl and I have actually driven north of Santa Fe on I-25 and it has changed dramatically for the worse.  The other thing that was depressing is the race announcer basically spent the entire time talking about how triathlon in New Mexico was dying and local athletes weren’t supporting the sport and we should stop supporting ironman races and save the hard working local races.

I can’t say that I disagree with him but just looking around at this one race it seemed like trying to breathe life back into a corpse.  Initially I felt responsible for the apparent death of amateur multisport in New Mexico but then I had to remind myself that me and the GeekGrl are just two people and what I was seeing appeared to have been a mass exodus.  However, it was just one race that had been chopped from a triathlon to a duathlon, hardly a representative measure of the health of multisport in New Mexico but truth be told, I’m kind of afraid to travel the old roads again and see where things actually do stand.  I fear it may not be good.

Blow the Man Down: A Swan Lake Marathon Race Report

The Swan Lake marathon was day tow of our Upper Midwest marathon double weekend and we were running it mostly because the GeekGrl still needed South Dakota in her 50-state quest and because it takes place the day after the Marathon to Marathon in Iowa.  The marathon begins and ends at a Christian camp that sits on the banks of Swan Lake just outside Viborg South Dakota.  This is a stunningly small part of the country and it is pockmarked with small farming villages that nobody except the immediate residents have ever heard of.  In fact, there are several small towns that even locals have never heard of.  However, the GeekGrl and I were familiar with the pace because 1) it is very near my birth place of Vermillion, SD, 2) it is very near the places I visited my relatives as a kid and 3) it is the same part of the country where, quite miraculously, the GeekGrl and I met.

I have no connection with Swan Lake but the GeekGrl actually spent a summer there escaping the world after a particularly difficult divorce so for her it was not just about picking up South Dakota, it was also a redemption run.

I suppose like any good story of redemption, the GeekGrl, in quite an improbable way, returned to an awful place in her history to face it down and triumph over the badness it held in her life.  Swan Lake fought back but in the end she overcame and I was glad to be a part of it.  Her return was improbable because the last time she was there she had been a life-long non-athlete who prided herself on sloth and now she was returning as a runner with a combination of over 40 marathons, ultramarathons and ironman triathlons under her belt.  I suppose there are some things in life that require that much training to overcome.  The other reason it was an improbable return is the fact that it’s Viborg South Dakota.  I mean, really, what are the chances any non-native will end up in Viborg South Dakota once in a lifetime much less twice.

In any case, the marathon starts and ends at the Christian Camp and makes a full lap around Swan Lake.  The rest of the distance, the majority of the distance, is made of two huge rectangles that are comprised of a mix of dirt farm roads and paced rural routes.  One rectangle heads south of the lake and the other north.

I say that Swan Lake fought back because when race morning dawned there was, and had been, a soaking rain that turned off and on throughout the race.  That rain was also accompanied by high winds and lots and lots of mud.  The GeekGrl decided to take the early start along with maybe six other runners.  They headed off into the dark and driving rain without fanfare an hour before the rest of the runners took the course.  I remained behind in the muddy field waiting for my own race to start.

By the time the official starting time rolled around there was a brief reprieve from the rain and the sun was just beginning to make its presence known in a gunmetal grey sky.  As with the Marathon to Marathon, this little race saw an over-representation of Marathon Maniacs looking to pick up another state.  With a modicum more fanfare the official race began as we all lurched forward onto the muddy road.

My legs felt pretty beat up from the day before and while I was running slowly I felt like I was running well.  The course was flat and muddy until we hit the pavement for the first time then it was just flat and wet.  The rain started back up and I began wondering how the GeekGrl was faring.   Maybe 8 miles into the race I saw a couple of the early starters but neither of them looked like the GeekGrl.   The course ran through the small town of Viborg but still no sign of the GeekGrl.  We turned back onto a mud road and began heading north toward the place where the half-marathoners split off and finish.

I found the GeekGrl standing at the intersection of the full and half marathon looking wet, muddy and discouraged.  I jogged up to her and she said she had had enough of this shit and just wanted to be done.  This was her battle so I didn’t want to resist but in all honest I was pretty ready to be done myself.  We began to head off in the direction of the half marathon finish and told a race volunteer we were calling it a day.  The GeekGrl told me how she didn’t really want to have to come back to South Dakota to do another marathon and started telling me about her race so far.  I told her that I thought she was doing ok overall and that I had seen a few of her fellow early starters miles back.  This caught her attention.

In the dark and rain and mud the GeekGrl had been struggling to keep up with her fellow early starters but it was so dark and there were so few that she hadn’t realized that she had actually gone head of several of them while trying to chase after the couple that was in front of her.  When the sun finally began to rise she was basically alone on the course and it never occurred to her that maybe there were people behind her.  When I informed her that she was not in dead last place her attitude changed from resignation to determination and we decided to turn around and get back on course with the rest of the marathoners.

Our decision to continue on was heartening at first.  We ran together and chatted, talked about the early days of our relationship when we had first met and about how far we have come together but that reminiscence was ended in pretty short order by an increasingly fierce wind and yet more miles of muddy road.

The remainder of the race was pretty grim.  It seemed like the majority of it was directly into a screaming headwind and I did my best to shelter the Geekrl from the brunt of its force but it’s pretty much impossible to escape the wind out on the open plains of South Dakota.  Towards the end of the race we even saw one woman cut the course by maybe a mile and a half.  There is a little out and back section in a residential area on the north side of the lake and there is an aid station and a row of port-o-potties.  During the race there are two occasions when you run that out and back and the final few miles is one of those times.  This woman headed away from the out and back and straight for the port-o-potties.  The race volunteers stationed there told her she was going the wrong way but she assured them that she knew and was just going to use the restroom so they left her alone and the GeekGrl and I proceeded on to the out and back section.

We kept expecting to see her on the out and back but never did.  We began to think that maybe she was really ill and had spent a long time in the can but when we got there she was still nowhere in sight.  It seemed unbelievable that someone would spend the money, make the travel and then slog through 23 miles only to then skip what was at most a mile and a half of a full marathon but that’s exactly what she did.  As the GeekGrl and I ran the final half-mile of dirt road to the finish line the port-o-potty woman was driving up the road toward us and off to who knows where.  Amazing.  However, I can also empathize with what it’s like to just be desperate to have some misery over with so I can’t completely say I blame her.  I once read an account of a guy who attempted to run a 100 mile race that took place in a residential neighborhood around a single block.  He said he made it 97 miles and then could not bear the thought of even one more lap and so he quit.

However, the GeekGrl and I, though we came close, did not quit and we spent the final mile or so taking about her victory, her redemption.  It felt good; it felt like victory, it felt like we now fully owned our memories of South Dakota and any of the nasty intruders had once and for all been put to rest.

The Ugly, the Bad and the Good: A Marathon to Marathon Race Report

I’m aware that the famous Clint Eastwood film is called The Good, The Bad and The Ugly but that’s not the way I encountered things when the GeekGrl and I flew off to the Midwest to run the Marathon to Marathon – Swan Lake Marathon weekend double.  I’ve wanted to run the Marathon to Marathon in Iowa ever since I came across it maybe five years ago.  I just thought it was a cool name, something with a little added interest because let’s face it, there isn’t a lot that Iowa has to offer in terms of marathon experiences beyond its ability to put on small, rural marathons run by subdued but friendly people who remind me of my long lost relatives.  Yes, I am born of the upper Midwest and have loads of relatives there but our family moved away long ago causing an insurmountable cultural gulf between me and them.

The GeekGrl and I flew into Omaha, Nebraska and got a rental car and headed for Storm Lake Iowa, home of the Marathon to Marathon.   When we arrived we went to packet pickup at the local high school and discovered it wasn’t open yet so we went to check into our hotel room.  Since we were only staying one night, checking out before the start of the marathon and then leaving town immediately after the race, I went for a less expensive room option.  I never do this in a city or in any part of the country where I suspect the town is essentially dying or trying not to die because the cheap motels in those areas are always bad news.   However, in some small, rural towns I have gotten into something that may not have all the modern luxuries but is clean and kitschy and locally owned.  Those kinds of places are pretty cool but you still have to be careful.

Anyway, thinking I had a better handle on the upper Midwest than I actually do I felt pretty sure that I was booking us into a quaint motel run by a retired farming couple.  Maybe each room would have some kind of farm theme like the corn room and the hay barn room.  Don’t laugh, the GeekGrl and I once stayed in a really kitschy motel in rural Colorado and each of the rooms had an animal theme of the animals that were hunted in the area.  As I remember we either stayed in the Elk room or the White Tail Deer room.

In Storm Lake we had rooms at the Budget…I’ll not name the actual hotel but suffice it to say that there are two budget something hotels in Storm Lake with slightly different names and they are about a block from each other.  One appears worse than the other but both look pretty bad.  When I saw the first Budget hotel my stomach turned but then I almost immediately saw the other one and in a fit of hope I drove past the first to arrive at the second. Like I said, it wasn’t a lot better but the outward appearance at least suggested that it wasn’t about to collapse on top of all the $5 prostitutes, crack heads and cockroaches dwelling inside.  When I attempted to check into Budget the latter I was informed that I had no reservations.  I begged them to double and triple check, check different phone numbers, email accounts even different names hoping beyond hope that for some bizarre reason long forgotten I reserved a room under a pseudonym.  No luck.

With my heart in my shoes I shuffled back to the car with the powerless gait of a man being lead to the death chamber to tell the GeekGrl that the hotel I had so recently enthusiastically thanked the gods was not ours, was, in fact, ours.  She cheerfully chirped “maybe it’s not as bad as it looks” and I gave her the stink eye as my stomach began to boil and a clammy heat spread over my face.  I drove over to our Budget the former and entered the office.  It was immediately worse than I had imagined.  It was small and dingy.  The walls were covered with a riot of free paper calendars and advertisements from local, low end businesses, and given their random placement I suspect their primary purpose was to cover holes and pealing wallpaper.

The space was heated to a stiflingly humid 98 degrees and there was a large portrait of a red robed Guru staring indifferently back at me from behind the counter.  Nobody was present and my first thought was “Thank god, nobody’s here.  I can run back to the car and tell the GeekGrl ‘It was the weirdest thing, the place is abandoned.’”  But my plan was wreaked by the appearance of a plump but haggard looking East Indian man wearing rumpled pants and a grubby undershirt.  The only thing more powerful that the shabby appearance he conveyed was the smell of sweat and curry draining from the room he had so recently inhabited.  I had the strong suspicion that this entire scenario would only be found in the ghettos of Mumbai India and, quite surprisingly, Storm Lake Iowa.

Much to my dismay I did indeed have reservations here under my name, using my phone number and my e-mail address.  Despite my almost uncontrollable urge to flee I signed in, got my room key and went to see what fresh hell awaited me in room number 8.  I went back to the car and told the GeekGrl, “I don’t think I can do this, I really don’t think I can do this” and she tried her best to sooth me but I just told her “You don’t understand, you haven’t seen the things I’ve seen.”

I drove around the side and parked outside room number 8 and stared hard at the door willing the room inside to be far better than I expected.  I finally mustered the courage to go investigate and as I opened the door to room number 8 an iron fist of stink slammed into my face knocking me back into the parking lot.  Reflexively I looked at my hands and arms and clothes to see if I was coated in some foul substance but as far as I could tell I was unsullied.  I stood in the parking lot now glowering my defiance at the open door to room number 8 as it hung mockingly on its corroded hinges.  I screwed up my courage and thought to myself “I’m going in.”

I breached the portal and entered a dizzying wonderland of vile smelling mystery.  Because so much stink had drained from the room upon the initial unsealing of the cavity the smell was faint at first but as I stood in the middle of the room it gathered strength like a coming storm.  I initially detected the smell of mold and mildew infused with that of stale cigarettes, perfume, and beer.  It was horrible but it was not over.  I explored a bit further and the stink continued toward a crescendo, now came the overtones of impersonal sex, followed by the sweat and feces of a hard day’s work on a pig farm, lightly dabbed with urine and suicide.  Completing the horror of the experience was the unmistakable antiseptic smell of a Lysol cover-up, the smell of a denial so deep that there is no possibility of a return to civilized lands.

I threw the key on the bed and bolted from the room like a terrified rabbit seeking the sunlight as its warren collapses under the weight of an oncoming bulldozer.  Now in the parking lot next to the car I pulled out my iPad and Googled “Storm Lake Hotels.”  One room was available at a local resort hotel and it was going for a stunning $500 per night.  I seriously considered paying the price but then thought, “Maybe the room wasn’t as bad as it seemed.  Maybe I was just exaggerating because I had gotten myself all wound up about the place’s appearance.  I went back in for another look and was immediately repelled by the forces within.

I went back to the car and once again pulled out my iPad and Googled “Storm Lake Hotels” and got the same result so started looking farther afield.  I found rooms available at a Best Western in Cherokee Iowa, which is about 20 minutes from Storm Lake.  I went ahead and made reservations and the GeekGrl and I departed the Budget hotel of misery without another word, without any attempt to get our money, without looking back.

Our next stop was packet pickup back at the local high school and from there it was on to get our pre-race dinner.  The Marathon to Marathon has its own pre-race dinner that can be purchased and when we got there it looked like a pretty standard pre-race pasta feed with sheet cake for dessert all prepared by the local high school cafeteria lady.  The GeekGrl and I usually opt out of such things in favor of some local flavor and that’s what we did this time.  We had settled on a place called Honey Kissed Pizza, which boasts being “Storm Lake’s #2 tourist attraction.”  We drove to the establishment and discovered that it didn’t open until 6:00 or 6:30 in the evening, which was still about an hour away.  We were tired and hungry and had two marathons to run this weekend.  We just wanted to eat and get to our hotel and sleep so we found something else that seemed local.

What we found was a local “Chinese” restaurant.  You may think Chinese is a bad choice the night before a marathon but we’ve done it before and just like anything else you just don’t stuff yourself.  The place was in a circa 1972 Pizza Hut building that had not seen any upgrade in its interior decorating since, well, probably since 1972. Our impulse was to bolt from the place but we were immediately greeted by a friendly waitress and it just seemed rude to turn around and walk out on her so we stayed and ate their buffet.  The options at the buffet were limited and the only thing that was remarkable about it was that every sauce, no matter what it was called, looked exactly the same and tasted precisely line Aunt Jemima pancake syrup.

Lord, I had forgotten just how uninspired the food of the upper Midwest could be.  It’s not to say that tasty things can’t be found there but for the most part it just seems like most things are on a continuum from low-quality bland to slightly less low-quality bland and it isn’t at all unusual to find foods like the Aunt Jemima sauce.  I once ate at a “Mexican” restaurant in South Dakota that used those creepy , cardboard box blocks of Velveeta cheese like substance.

At the Chinese restaurant I probably ate too much but I got hung up on trying to find one dish that wasn’t slathered in Aunt Jemima pancake syrup.  I could not find a single dish and neither could the GeekGrl.  As we left the restaurant for our hotel I couldn’t help but fell a certain amount of trepidation given our inauspicious introduction to Storm Lake Iowa.

Fortunately the gods smiled upon us for keeping our good humor in the face of such tragedy and when we arrived at the Best Western in Cherokee it was neat and clean and smelled of flowers.  The proprietor of this establishment was also East Indian but he was wearing a neatly pressed suit and was sporting a cleanly shaved face and carefully coiffed hair.  We got our key, went to our room and immediately hit the sack.

Race morning came early and the GeekGrl and I rolled out of bed, had our race morning breakfast and drove the 20 minutes back to Storm Lake to start the Marathon to Marathon.  As we had figured the starting line was packed with Marathon Maniacs looking to knock Iowa off their 50-state quest.  It was a small starting line in front of the high school and there was a local talent there to sing the Star Spangled Banner.  She began to sing and everyone took off their hats and placed hand on heart.  However, one woman in the crowd, who was also running in the race, refused to be outdone and sang along loudly from the beginning of the song to the end.

It was a stunning scene to watch.  Everyone in the cowed was staring at this woman, all the runners were staring at her, even the woman whose role it was to actually be singing was staring at her but the rebellious anonymous singer stared fixedly ahead and continued to sing loudly easily matching in volume the amplified voice of the intended singer of songs.

When the race finally got underway I headed out slow and easy knowing I had a second marathon to run the next day and not having any particular time goal in mind.  My legs gradually warmed up and my pace increased.  Somewhere around a very conservative 9:30 minute mile my intestines began to strangle my stomach and I knew there was about a half-gallon of Aunt Jemima pancake syrup in my gut fighting to get out.  I slowed the pace just a hair hoping that in time things would settle and I could pick it back up but every time I thought that time had come and I tried to pick it up it felt like a badger was desperately trying to escape from inside me using any orifice it could find as a means of egress.

This particular hell lasted until about mile 9.5 when badger finally found his opening and went for broke.  I was still about a half mile from a port-o-potty and clenched so hard that a second and more intense non-running sweat broke out on top of my standard “I’m running a marathon” sweat.  When I spied the port-o-potty in the distance I could see there was another runner hopping up and down in front of it.  There were also about 20 other runners on the course between me and the port-o-potty so I began to pray.

Thankfully it turns out that God does indeed reside in the corn fields of Iowa and by the time I reached the destination the formerly leaping waiter was exiting the port-o-potty and I was able to make an immediate entrance.  About five minutes later I was back on the road and feeling fine.  As I re-entered the race I found I could run at whatever speed I chose, at least any speed that was in my rage of possibility.  I soon fell in with a young woman who turned out to be a female Army Drill Sergeant and ran with her for a while.  We had a nice chat up to about mile 13 when she advised that I go on ahead because she was going to back off the pace a bit.  I took note of my condition and decided that thanks to the slow start I had plenty left in the tank to pick up the pace.

I ran about 20 seconds per mile faster and started passing people.  By the time I hit mile 20 I decided I had more so I dropped the pace another 20 seconds per mile faster and started to real in people who had been much farther ahead.  It felt good to be able to accelerate that much towards the end of a marathon because nobody else around me could do the same so when I passed someone it was at a strong pace and they stayed passed.  With about two miles left to go I spied some guys ahead of me that I decided I wanted to beat so I stepped on the accelerator as hard as I thought I could without completely imploding before the end of the race and was able to bring my pace down to just below an 8 minute mile.

Marathon Iowa is a tiny little farming village tucked away in the midst of a sea of corn and sorghum fields with little to offer but the finishing line of the Marathon to Marathon and a nice little community center ready to serve up a hot breakfast (or lunch) to the runners.  I finished in just under four hours, not fast but I was happy considering the way things had been going.  I went and grabbed a shower and some breakfast in the community center as I waited for the GeekGrl to finish her race.  Once she had finished, showered and ate we hopped on the bus back to Storm Lake and took off for Viborg, South Dakota to run the Swan Lake Marathon in the morning.

All in all we had a good experience at the Marathon to Marathon, it’s a low key, small town race with good support and friendly people.  While there’s nothing about it to make me want to come run it again, were I to still need Iowa to complete my 50 states and knowing what I know now I would most definitely choose the Marathon to Marathon again.  It’s a small town American classic.