Over the past week-and-a-half, I have driven more than 2,000 miles in my own SUV, ridden nearly 400 miles in a rented van, and run 44.2 miles in races and a handful more on my own. I have slept in a motel in Valentine, Nebraska, and failed to even attempt to sleep in the basement of a dingy YMCA in Racine, Wisconsin. I have ingested steak in a Nebraska sports bar, BBQ brisket in the restaurant at the same motel mentioned above, a bag of huckleberry licorice, and a burger so mammoth I was only able to finish one-third of it, all secure in the knowledge that with the distance I was running it was all getting burnt off anyway. I have opted not to eat (yet observed the existence of) Rocky Mountain Oysters served under multiple euphemisms, a taco filled with chorizo and Flaming Hot Cheetos, and a concoction billed as the Mother Of All Burritos (MOAB) at a truck stop convenience store in Dick Cheney’s home state. I have visited the self-proclaimed World’s Largest Truck Stop. Twice. I have driven through a town with a listed population of 4. I have been comforted by the sight of cowboy hats worn without irony, and myself wore a cowboy hat as I approached the finish line of a marathon in Wyoming, removing it and waving it in triumph as I crossed. As I did this, I was wearing a racing bib with the number “26” on it, and a little “.2” and smiley face drawn by me next to it with a Sharpie, because a marathon is 26.2 miles and you mustn’t forget that final .2.
In short, I have lived a bit of a fantasy camp existence. Granted, given that I work in sports in an office where the largest meeting room is called the Super Bowl, I already live a bit of a fantasy camp existence when I’m not on vacation. Many men spend their lives hoping to go to the Super Bowl once. I go to the Super Bowl a couple of times each week.
Yet, as is likely the case for most grown-ups who work in sports but don’t play them, I work in sports as a proxy for what I’d really like to do – namely, to play sports full-time and get paid for it. As is also likely the case for most of those same grown-ups, I knew by around the age of 12 that I wasn’t athletically gifted enough for that to be even a remote possibility.
Partially by circumstance and partially by design, the past week gave me perhaps the closest approximation of being a full-time athlete that I am ever likely to experience. And it was pretty great. I’d been planning to run the Casper (Wyoming) Marathon for many months. My mom relocated to Wyoming for work in 2012, and the following spring she very nearly didn’t survive a serious illness. She’d also never seen me run in a race since I took up the hobby of distance running in 2009, initially to make good upon a vow I made to run a marathon after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease the prior year. So I planned to run on June 1 in Casper as both a challenge and an excuse to visit my mom. Then, my workplace formed a corporate team in the Ragnar Relay (a 12-person relay race from Madison, Wisconsin to Chicago) for the following weekend. We’d also fielded a team the previous year, I had a great time then, and I’d obviously be adequately trained this time around, so I had to say yes to Ragnar as well. Since I didn’t want to completely neglect my wife and daughters for a full week-and-a-half while doing all this racing and traveling, I simply opted to take the entire stretch off and my running vacation was born.
The two photos above serve as bookends. The first was taken a few minutes before the start of the Casper Marathon, and the second was taken mere moments after I completed my final leg in the Ragnar Relay. I’m with my teammates/coworkers there, and with me in the Casper photo is my friend and Team In Training running coach Monica, who thought a marathon in Wyoming sounded like a fun thing to add to her running resume and also traveled out for it. Monica and I finished consecutively, two minutes apart, in Casper. She also happened to run even more miles than I did with a nine-person Ragnar team of her own this past weekend, so major credit to her for that accomplishment. As for the coworkers, some are faster than me and some are slower and some are younger than me and some are older, but we’re all a bunch of sports fans who love a challenge and happen to get along with each other pretty well, so this was a great way to spend a weekend.
As it turns out, these two weekends were also likely the pinnacle of my five-year running “career” thus far. Despite the 5,000-plus feet of altitude, I set a PR (personal record) by 20 minutes in Casper, my eighth marathon. Then, my three relay legs in Ragnar consisted of a 9.6-mile monster (longest leg of the entire race) in direct sunlight and scorching midday heat, a night-time 5k through the outskirts of Milwaukee pounded out in less than 26 minutes, and a final 5.3-mile push the following morning through Waukegan and North Chicago, Illinois at a sub-10-minute pace per mile on zero real sleep (thanks, Racine YMCA) powered by Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, thus proving the slogan that America literally can run on Dunkin’. In the process, I found that “Mona Lee” by Jason and the Scorchers is the most effective “power song” to psych myself up to run I’ve ever used, and that my current pair of Sauconys is the best pair of running shoes I’ve ever purchased.
A personal favorite experience from the Ragnar Relay came unexpectedly during my final leg, the beginning and end of which took place on a bike path but the middle portion of which meandered through the streets of Waukegan. If you aren’t familiar with the area, let’s just say that Waukegan isn’t exactly a picture of suburban affluence these days. The roads and sidewalks are pock-marked with potholes, many of the buildings in disrepair, and the fact that the Ragnar organizers don’t schedule runners to arrive there at night is surely either intentional or convenient. I’m by no means rich, but I initially felt some pangs of guilt while running through the middle of Waukegan as I imagined how my leisure pursuit must appear. Yet those feelings evaporated as I passed the storefronts and saw the locals emerging from them, watching from the sidewalks without any looks of envy on their faces but, rather, cheering us runners on and encouraging us. It was fantastic. I responded in kind of combinations of thumbs-up, fist pumps and “thank yous” to the spectators as I passed.
Perhaps Waukegan was a fitting locale for this all to end. The author Ray Bradbury grew up nearly a century ago in what must have then been a very different Waukegan, Illinois. A few months ago, I read his novel “Dandelion Wine,” a semi-autobiographical account of a summer during his childhood. The main theme of the book, which is to a large degree plotless, is to slow down and appreciate the little things you experience as you are experiencing them. That’s what the best vacations should do. I’m a big believer in summer vacation for kids and don’t support year-round schooling because I think it’s, at its core, for the convenience of working parents and to the detriment of the development of children. Some of the best real-world learning and character development doesn’t take place in the classroom. A lot of it takes place outside.
One place I differ slightly from Bradbury: I’m all for slowing down, but where running is involved, I’m not a big fan of it. I run slowly enough without slowing down intentionally.
Maybe I ought to think about signing up for another race.