Veteran’s Day: Catching Up

Well, it’s been a while, huh?

Man, a lot has happened since my last post in March. It’s been seven months, to the day. I look back at that post, and it’s hard to imagine trying to even summarize everything that has gone down since then. I won’t try and do it all in one post – I owe those of you who actually take the time to read my posts some actual details. But I’ll hit the major points tonight, and try to go from there over the coming weeks.

For those of you who weren’t aware, we lost my grandmother, Tokuno, in the tsunami. Even as I type these words, it doesn’t seem real. It’s hard to think about, really. She died when the tsunami hit the rest home in Kesennuma at which she spent portions of her weeks. Some were evacuated to the roof of the building, but unfortunately she was not one of them. We don’t have a lot of detail on it, and it’s difficult to even try to imagine, so I try not to think about it too terribly much. It was an absolutely agonizing several days as we waited for word from our family, glued to televisions, Skyping with relatives who were not in the affected area, and watching news reports on the internet. For some time, there was simply nothing. For all we knew, we lost everyone. My dad carried an especially heavy burden for those days, as he received only a 30s phone call from his brother in the wake of the tsunami before the call terminated. For days, we knew nothing other than that. There was simply no information. Then, as we slowly started establishing accountability, we finally received word on the death of my grandmother. My youngest sister was the first to learn, and it was she who had to notify my dad. Finally, at least we knew.

In the wake of that, I pushed hard within my chain of command for release to deploy to Japan for what was beginning to be known as Operation TOMODACHI, which is Japanese for “friend.” Through the hard work of a dedicated network of peers, supervisors, and what I can only see as divine intervention, I was able to navigate the complex military bureaucracy and soon found myself deployed to Yokota Air Base, Japan. What followed over the next month, I consider the most honorable thing I have done yet in my career. My role was small, miniscule even, in comparison to the dedication the US military poured into that mission. But I count myself a lucky man to have been able to participate for even a brief period of time. Hopefully, I can capture in writing some of my experiences there and share them with you all.

Because life is life, while all this was going on, Jen and I were undergoing a major transition. We decided to leave active duty and pursue an opportunity with the Alaska National Guard, so as all this was going on, I was assembling application paperwork, conducting interviews, and praying for the best. Shortly after returning, I received word I was selected, and thus began major preparations for a huge life transition. Also no small potato! The summer passed quickly, between work, prepping to leave, and everything else, not a day was wasted. We sold cars, bought a new one, filed paperwork, and generally tried to figure out how we were going to live in a radically different location.

Oh, and there was also a lot of running. While in Japan, I didn’t have a lot of time to train, so I just tried to stay as fit as possible. Coming home and getting back in the groove was no picnic, but with the help of my friend and mentor Matthew Whitis, I got back on track. There were successes: at the age of 34, I posted a 4:47 mile / 10:44 2 mile in a local track series in the dead heat of the SC summer. And there were frustrations: my 5k race times were nowhere near where I wanted them to be. But through it all, I trained hard. Looking back, I consider some of those workouts achievements in and of themselves. The last track session I hit in SC was 20 x 400 with 200m jogs, alternating sets of four between 78 and 83s per quarter. I haven’t done a workout like that since college.

The move was incredible. Everything just seemed to keep working out and falling into place, to include finding a buyer for our second car literally days before we drove out of town. We spent time along the way with family (I built an earth oven with my pops in MN, which was super fun), and caught the fall colors on our way up the Alaska Highway in Canada. We saw wildlife, and scenery that would literally blow your mind. And then…we were here, in Alaska. Not for long for my better half, though. After ten days here, Jen got on a plane and spent four incredible weeks in Ethiopia. While there, she supported a new clean water/well rehab project and taught health and hygiene courses to the types of folks who still think disease is caused by evil spirits. You can learn more about her work at, and I simply can’t express how proud I am of my wife.

Which pretty much leads us to the here and now. To be honest, I’m not sure where Run For Something is going in the future. Recently, I re-connected with some old friends, who have established a new NPO called Team Run For Veterans (, and the focus will be on supporting athletic opportunities for disabled vets. Supporting vets has been on my mind for a while, and my new job up here in the AK opens some unique doors. I’ll continue to support Mocha Club’s clean water work in Sudan, but I’m considering making this year more about R4V. Today is Veteran’s Day, and to be honest, I’ve had vets on my mind for some time now, wondering how I can better support my own brothers and sisters.

Oh yeah…running…well, by now you should know me well enough to realize I’m 100%. 100% stop, or 100% go. I’m happy to report it’s still 100% go these days. My first act as an Alaskan was to participate in the Bonny Sosa Tuesday Night Run racing series here in Anchorage, and I didn’t suck. In fact, I manage to place top three in five consecutive trail races. The running scene here is vibrant and a rock-solid aspect of the community – the Bonny Sosa runs are essentially cross-country format trail runs, all hand-timed, and require only a 5$ entry fee. Volunteer-supported, and city-led. The courses are held secret until the time of the race, and each race, which occurs weekly in the fall, is held at a different location. One night, we saw over 1000 Anchorites ranging from newborns to octogenarians out there for the race. It’s one-of-a-kind and a definite kick in the ass.

It’s not going to be like SC, where I could race and train on the track and roads year-round. We’re officially in winter, and the snow ain’t going anywhere. But I feel strong. Strong-like-bull strong. Strong enough to post solid track workouts at altitude, and follow them up with a 3.5hr mountain bike ride of 24 miles and 2400′ of elevation change starting from 7500′. Strong enough to stomp treadmill workouts on the same day I post PRs for a 1000m row on the Concept2 (3:29 if you were wondering). Strong enough to get out in the backcountry on my splitboard and feel like I have miles of travel in my legs. Strong like…well, you get the idea. There’s a turkey trot in a few weeks, and if conditions aren’t heinous, I think I can get under 17. After that, Jen and I are looking at cross-country skis and running snowshoes for winter fitness, but we’re still learning the winter ropes up here.

Over the coming weeks, I want to tell you all some stories, and share some ideas and passions. If you want to hear about anything in particular, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section. I’ve already got a suggestion to talk about strength work as it relates to endurance, and I think it will be interesting to talk about how runners get through harsh winters and emerge ready for summer/fall racing. I’ll be honest…posting every day just isn’t realistic right now (or ever probably), but I think if I set the bar low enough (weekly sound good?), we can see some success. Jen, Eric, and Megs – thanks for your encouragement and re-igniting the embers of creativity. Until next time, true believers…

Race Report: Grandma’s Marathon

 It is 5:30am on Saturday the 19th of June, and I am walking from the rental car  in the parking lot of the University of Minnesota-Duluth. I’ve been up since 4:30, aided in my pre-race prep by both my wife and mother, who helped prepare my normal pre-race breakfast of coffee and toast with peanut butter. It’s been light for some time now, and the weather is cool and overcast, around 50 degrees F, optimal for the task at hand. My “sweat bag” is in hand, labeled with my race number, 1817. In it are my singlet, my racing compression socks, water bottle, and a permanent black marker. I am nervous, finally.

The past couple of days have been a whirlwind. On Mon night, I found out the memorial service for Flo and White was going to be Thu, in Tucson. So, Tues morning before we departed, I made arrangements to fly from Minneapolis to Tucson Wed night, and return to MSP on Thu. After dropping off Rider, our dog, with the family who would watch him during our absence, we got off-course on the drive up to Charlotte, and only made out flight because it was delayed. After spending the night in Minneapolis with friends, I flew out the next day for the memorial service. The memorial was amazing. The entire hangar was packed with military members, friends and family.  I spent the service fairly composed, but completely broke down near the end during the playing of taps, the 21-gun salute, and finally a two-ship fly-by of helicopters and PJs. I said my final goodbyes to Flo and White with slow salutes, and left a token and many tears on their tables.

By the time I got back to Minneapolis late Thu night, I was exhausted and emotionally drained. The memorial had been an important step towards healing the small tear in my heart that June 9th left, but I was still overcome with sadness. My wife picked me up, and took me to our friends, where I took a sleep aid, and collapsed for the night. The next morning, we made our way to Duluth and again my supportive wife stepped in and took the wheel, allowing me to sleep most of the 2 ½ hour drive. We got in and out of the expo as quickly as possible, collecting my race packet and then driving out to my folks’ place.

I was finally home, and felt like I had concluded a long journey to a safe place. Being around my family was a tremendous boost and I wonder at how different things would be had I chosen a strange city to run in. My dad made a great meal for us of home-made pasta and bread and he prayed before the meal for the families of my fallen brothers, and for strength for me the next day. Chatting over dinner about my race plans, I discussed how the past month or so had taken its toll. I knew going in that chasing sub-2:40 probably wasn’t realistic anymore, so I’d revised my goal to running between 2:40 and 2:50. We talked about the conditions, that it was looking to be fairly cool in the morning, and that we’d more than likely have favorable weather. Still, I confessed to Jen later that I was unsettled at an apparent lack of excitement for the race. I’m used to being far more nervous the night before a big race, and as I pinned numbers and gel packets to my singlet and shorts, I hoped I would find it at some point.

Now, within hours of a 0730 start, the excitement has finally hit me on the school bus transporting  dozens of other runners on the way to the start line in Two Harbors. Along the way, I take out the permanent marker and write “FS” and “WE” on my left and right arms, along with “KIA 9 JUN 10” underneath. The letters are Flo’s and White’s operator initials, how they communicated over the radio to each other. On my back is a simple advertisement for Run For Something I wrote the night before on a piece of athletic tape. Hopefully some of the people I pass today will read it, and check out the blog.

I brought my MP3 player, not to run with, but to listen to before the race. I skip back and forth between songs that get me excited: “Intro” by The XX, “Don’t Sweat The Technique” by Eric B. and Rakim, “Swords” by Band of Horses, and “My Girls” by Animal Collective are just a few. The start is next to a car dealership in Two Harbors, and as we unload and walk towards the endless rows of port-a-potties, some elites step off their special tour bus and pass me on the way. There is a large contingent of Ethiopians this year, and the usual  collection of Russian and Eastern European elite women. I know I should see a few of them towards the end of the race, but the men will be at least 10-15 minutes ahead of me.

Once  the mercifully short wait for the john is over, I deposit myself near the corral and enjoy a few last minutes of quiet time. I pull on my black and argyle compression socks and lace up the Ronins, the new Mizunos I’ve broken in over the last week. Overall, the effect of my race attire is a bit of an attention-grabber. My wife remarked, “You look like someone trying to really appear different!” when she saw bold yellow shoes, the black and argyle knee-height compression socks, and the blue shorts and top. We laughed, because it isn’t the point, really. The shoes come in one color, the uniform is my old Grinders outfit. The socks are the only aspect I had any kind of fun with, figuring if I was to wear these ridiculous things to help my calf, I might as well not take myself too seriously.

There is a definite headwind, not what I’d not hoped for. But it is overcast and cool, and I know that the thick forest surrounding much of the course will at least offer brief respites from the wind. Finally, I see Dave and Tim, my old Grinders mates coming down the corral and we join up for a quick warmup. Even after two applications of Tiger Balm and close to 2000mg of ibuprofen since I’ve woken, I can still feel the pain in my left leg. Dave, Tim and I were all on the same training plan, and Dave and myself were training around a target of 2:45. But I let him know during our jog that my plan is to go no faster than 2:50 pace for the first eight and go from there.  Dave was a true elite in his younger days, having logged around 2:16. Now as a Masters runner, he’s running a bit more slowly but is still consistently a national-class age grouper.

When we get back to the start, things are winding up; the television helicopter is overhead, the radio commentators are wrapping things up from the backs of their vans, and it’s time to go. As is always the case with a rolling start, there are people lined up near the front who won’t run anywhere near the times advertised on the signs next to the corral. In fact, the 3:10 paced group is lined up next to the 2:50 sign. With a smile, I position myself a respectful distance back from the start and wait, doing the nervous little dance so familiar to me for the past 18 years…Are we really gong to run this thing? 26.2 miles…man that’s a long way to go…

Then mercifully, the horn releases us and after the usual shuffle, I hear the chirping of the sensor mat picking up all our race chips as I cross the start. Here we go.

At Nashville in 2006, I went out way too fast and foolishly tried to hold it as long as possible. Today I refuse to make the same mistake and armed with my Garmin I keep the first bit extremely tame. The elites are off like a pack of gazelles up ahead, along with the usual suspects who are going out way beyond their training. Later, a review of the results will prove telling; over the next 26 miles I will pass more than a hundred runners.

2:50 pace is right around 6:29, so when I pass the first mile in 6:30 I know I’m doing something right. What is even more comforting is the fact that I keep having to pull the reins back. I can feel the little ache in my leg but it’s dull enough that it fades out of my mind easily. Shortly after the first mile, I fall in to a group of about seven runners, and tuck into the pack, thankful to have others to break the headwind for me, as it turns formidable quickly. It’s an extremely comfortable first eight miles. I have the breath to chat with some of the other runners, and even find myself enjoying the course. All these years growing up watching the race, I never knew what a great course this is. While it’s actually more rolling than I expected, the scenery provided by the North Shore of Lake Superior is stunning. Green on my right, miles of blue on my left, this is home for me. When we pass our first major cheering section in a small town around five miles in, I hear the first of many exclamations I will hear for the rest of the day:

“Love the socks!”

It makes me smile. Compression socks in racing are a relatively new phenomenon; I’m one of the few in a crowd of around 7000 sporting them this morning. They’re supposed to aid your performance, but there’s no hard data to back it up. I figured the compression couldn’t hurt my calf, which is why I picked them up and it appears that so far, they’re working.

The water/Powerade stations are spaced around ever 2-3 miles, and the organization is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. All volunteers, this is the most well-organized support setup I’ve ever seen. They do a great job staying out of the way, proclaiming what they’re holding and offering encouragement as we run through.  It makes me feel like a bit of a star to tell you the truth, and again I find myself surging from the temporary boosts. At one point, I get a little cagey and nick the runner in front of me, for which I quickly apologize.

My first eight splits go like this: 6:30, 26, 25, 29, 24, 27, 25, 34 for an average of 6:27ish, which is perfect. In the eighth mile, I ask myself again if I’m ready to step it up. For a moment, I consider just playing it safe and tucking in where I’m at. There are a lot of reasons. But then I remind myself of the plan: You’ve got a plan to fly, so now let’s fly the plan. Over the years, I’ve had a lot of dialogue with myself during runs, some good, some bad. Coming into today, I vowed to run without fear. I refuse to be scared of what might happen based on everything that has…I hear something in my mind I will hear for the remainder of the race: “I will do a mighty work in you.”

It is a powerful encouragement. I owe it to the guys on my right and left arms, owe it to the Sudanese I’m raising money for;  and I imagine what Flo might say to me at this point in a race. It would be a simple encouragement to go for it: “C’mon, Sir!”

So I do.

At eight miles exactly, I commit and break from the pack. It will be the last time I spend more than a few hundred meters with another runner for the next 18.2 miles. I do what makes the most sense: slowly reel in the group or runner ahead of me, maybe run with them for a time, then move on to the next target. The plan is to run the next eight at 2:45 pace, roughly 6:19 a mile. I check my Garmin pace display constantly to ensure I’m neither going too slow nor too fast. The biggest mistake I can make at this point is to go too hard over the next few miles. I’ve got three gels pinned to the inside of my shorts: an Accelgel for mile 9, a slightly caffeinated Powergel for 16, and a seriously caffeinated Powergel for around 23-24 miles, where I’m going to need all the help I can get. Additionally, I make sure to get both water and Powerade at each station to ensure I’m getting fluids, electrolytes and some calories. 

The sun has started to break through the breaks in the clouds, and the doses of heat are getting to some of the runners. I pass one guy around mile 11 with salt deposits all over him. He stops to walk for a few seconds, then presses on. Additionally, there have been several elites already whom I’ve seen pull off to the side and quit for whatever reason. I watched one earlier today walking her way to the aid station and wondered if the same thing might happen to me later.

A few miles into my break, I’m finally starting to feel the effort. The headwind has turned downright nasty at times, and I have no one to draft off when it does. As a result, I’m working a bit harder than I expected, but nothing to be concerned about. Still, daunting reminders of the miles ahead abound for those who have trouble with math. At one point, I descend a hill, and hit a flat stretch right next to the lake. I have an unobstructed view of just how far I have to go, and it’s enough to provide a grim smile on my face. Yessir – that there is a long ways to go on foot! It’s tempting to start feeling sorry for myself, but I’m strong enough right now to remember the distance to go is not nearly as far as the thousands of miles behind.

I get occasional glimpses of Dave’s pack ahead of me, and each look reveals I’m closing ever  so slowly. Dave is an incredibly rhythmic runner, capable of hitting splits within tenths of a second, over and over and over. When we trained together in Tucson, he was better than my Garmin for keeping me on track. Before the race, when we discussed our plans, we knew we should see each other somewhere in the last few miles of the race. But I can see I’m going to catch him much sooner, which means he must be having some difficulty. Still, I resist the urge to make it all up right this instant and stick to my plan of trying to hit 6:19s.

13.1 is here and gone in a flash. Now I’m working, and I know it because I’m starting to have trouble keeping my mile markers straight: Was that 11 or 12 I just passed? Wait, no, this is the half, so it was 12…halfway there. Concentration on the task at hand comes at the cost of situational awareness. I finally catch up with Dave between 15 and 16, and while I had hoped to spend some time running alongside him, my pace carries me past him after just a brief exchange. Then I’m on my own again, chasing the next few runners. I think of Dave behind me and hope he’s not fading too harshly and send him positive thoughts.

Some miles pass in a flash, some are more agonizing. I get a view of Duluth that shows me some familiar landmarks in more discernable detail: visual proof that yes, I am in fact, making progress. At 16, I check my average pace, and it’s close to where I need to be. My only frustration this entire morning is the fact that I forgot to run off the Auto-Lap feature on my Garmin. It’s set to go off every mile, but that’s a mile according to the actual path I’ve run. Courses are measured, and mile markers placed, by utilizing painstakingly accurate means along specific paths. If you’re cutting tangents, occasionally having to run wide to get to the other side of the road for aid stations, it’s easy run a few meters more than the course measurement. As a result, My split display resets to zero after each mile and as a result most of the instinctive checks at the markers have revealed I passed my GPS-measured mile several seconds ago. As a result, while I can sort of figure things out based on my average pace display, I don’t have that real-time awareness that is so crucial to the constant adjustments I personally require to avoid pace fluctuations. 

Miles 9-16 splits: 6:27, 19, 27,20, 20, 21, 16, 18 for an average of 6:21. Having done the math previously, I knew that my average pace at Mile 16 should be around 6:24. When I check at the marker, I’m a little over 6:25, which tells me I’m a tad slow. I do a systems check. Left calf is starting to hurt a bit more. Muscles are beginning to fatigue ever-so-slightly. My right shoulder started to ache three miles ago, which tells me my upper body form is degenerating. Hydration feels solid, not too much nor too little. Fuel supplies feel sufficient to get me to my destination. Singlet is soaked by repeated douses of the water and Powerade that don’t make it into my mouth at the aid stations. Positive self-talk: Come on, sir. You can do this. You’re doing great. I will do a mighty work in you.  I look deep inside myself and re-evaluate my plan run 2:40 pace for the next ten. I come up short. The headwind is exacting a punishing toll on me, and I know it’s only to get harder each mile. 2:45 probably isn’t going to happen today, but I have two choices: try to maintain my current pace or shift my focus to stepping it up as much as possible and simply keep passing the folks in front of me. I opt for the latter. At the very least it should keep me from slowing down too terribly.

I developed a mental cue phrase and correlating breathing pattern a few months ago to keep my form on track: Finger-tips-hips-lean, each word correlating to a step. The first two on an intake breath, the second two on exhalation, which makes it a 2-2 breathing pattern: Inhale for two steps, exhale for two. Since the first eight miles were easier, I repeated the mantra on a 3-3 pattern while breathing only through my nose because the effort easier. Now I’ve turned into a nasty mouth breather, and I’m back to the 2-2 breathing pattern. Finger-tips-hips reminds me to keep my arms bent at 90° and ensure my fingertips brush my hips; Lean cues a slight forward-leaning posture in an effort to keep my footstrike in the mid- or forefoot. My shoulder ache tells me I’ve been ignoring my form too much and bunching my shoulders up. If I continue to ignore my form, I know the shoulder ache has the potential to degenerate into extreme discomfort. So as I pass 16, I say again: Fingertips-hips-lean, fingertips-hips-lean, fingertips-hips-lean.

Things are getting emotional. I passed a bagpiper a mile or two ago, and I could feel myself choking up. Not conducive to breathing hard. As I ran past, an unknown tune off my right shoulder, my breaths came ragged and I grimaced in avoidance of an inevitable breakdown. The memorial service is fresh in my mind, and though absent  a piper, the sounds to me are synonymous with both sadness and victory. It was the happiest moment of my life to walk down the aisle with my new bride, the sounds of “Scotland The Great”  drifting from the bagpiper standing guard on the beach dunes not far away. And “Amazing Grace” will always bring chills to my skin as it brings to mind the many fallen law enforcement officers throughout history. I wonder if the people watching this race can even read the letters scrawled on my arms by now, but I don’t really care. They’re with me.

As I make my way down Scenic Highway, a road I’ve driven hundreds of times growing up in Duluth, I notice that the people I’m catching are getting harder and harder to pass. They have become fewer and farther between, which is a good sign. It means I’m climbing my way up the pace chart and falling in with runners more my speed.  I remind myself of this and tuck it away as a positive little brain nugget in case I need it down the road.

At this point I should mention that marathons are not without humor. Just because you’re locked into a grim match with either self or competitor doesn’t mean you lose your ability to laugh. Granted, the chuckle may be short-lived, but appreciable nonetheless. Somewhere between  miles 17 and 18, I notice an odd sensation in my running shorts. I realize the wad of toilet paper I stuffed into my shorts liner before the start (just in case) is not only still there, it has turned into a wad of mush. Gross (don’t worry, it was unused!). I take it out of my shorts and bunch it up in my right hand, but I don’t want to simply toss it out here in the middle of nowhere. So I carry it, alternating hands as each arm fatigues. I finally hit a mile marker just before the Duluth city limits, and do my best to throw it at a port-a-john, figuring the location gives it the best chance of getting picked up as opposed to on the side of the road as seagull-bait.

At this point, I pass the beachfront park where my sister was supposed to have gotten married two years ago. While the weather on that day us to an alternate location, today is pristing. There crowds of people near the park, and again I hear, “Love the socks!,” and “Go socks!” I am aware both of my proximity to home and the heartbreaking distance which remains.

As I cross the Lester River bridge and enter the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth, another systems check. Left leg, still nagging but bearable. Small cramps appear and disappear in my hamstrings and glutes, to be expected. Right shoulder worsening. Posture good: upright, slight forward lean. Effort level? I’m right where I need to be, still chasing and passing and not feeling like the finish line is going to show up early for me. Pace has lost all meaning to me in the haze of effort; my focus is simply on the next body on the horizon. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I know I’ve got about three or four miles in Lakeside, then Lemon Drop Hill, which is right around 22 miles. I know Jen and my family will be somewhere between 20-21, and I’m looking forward to the encouragement.

Then, a surprise: “Matt!”

The exclamation breaks my focus. I look quickly to my left and there are Bonnie and Gerry Niemi, family friends and parents of my buddy Jarad. Of course…this is their neighborhood, and yes, there’s the house I’ve visited so often.

I manage a smile, a wave, and a weak, “Hey guys!” Bonnie and Gerry are out of their seats cheering and smiling.

“Keep it up! You’re doing so well!” I register a bit of surprise in their voices, which I take to be a good thing. As I pass, I mumble a quick thanks and their applause fades behind me. The boost is enough to carry me past up to and alongside a tall runner ahead of me. As I pull up, he looks over at me.

“Hey. How’s it going?”

“Great. I. Guess.”

“Out of curiosity, how old are you?”

It takes me a moment. “Thirty-three.”

He looks relieved, smiles, and says, “Okay, that takes some of the sting out of it.”

“Keep. It up,” I manage to get out.  Later I realize I’ve just passed Jarrow, a legendary local runner now running Masters. I grew up haunting his shoe stores and idolizing his race results, and I’ve just passed him. It should be a bigger moment than it is for me, but right now, at this moment, he’s simply one less in front of me. The task begins anew.

The streets of Lakeside are crowded with cheering groups and the occasional assortment of kids offering beer to the runners. Under the tree-lined blocks of East Superior Street, I know there is a good chance of seeing someone out here I know. At one point, I hear someone proclaim, “Go Matt” but I don’t have the energy to look behind me at the group of folks drinking beer from plastic cups to figure out who it was. I just wave a bit, say hey, and keep pressing forward.

I started passing the female elites a few miles back, and I can see a group ahead. A few men mixed in as well. I tug on the invisible cord connecting us and keep willing them closer. At this point, I hear, for the first time today, someone pulling even with me. I look over and see one of the guys who led the pack I ran with the first eight miles. Amazing. A little man in a black jersey passes me like I’m standing still.

“Good job, dude,” I offer as he passes me.

“You too, “ he returns and is then gone. I try to pull even for a few steps until I recognize That Old Familiar Feeling, and back off. Black Jersey is off, his train bound for glory. But the tug has helped me close the gap on the next group even more. Just before Superior makes the big right hand-turn, I pull in just behind them and focus on catching a free draft for a few minutes. Then I hear them, a few dozen yards ahead on the curb.

“Yeah, Matt! GO MATT! Way to go!” I hear my dad’s distinctive accent, despite nearly forty years of living in the States and speaking English. It brings me right back to my childhood, hearing my dad at the multitude of sporting events my parents carted me to through 18 years. There’s Jen, snapping pictures and smiling. Mom and Dad on their feet and smiling at me. Lydia, freshly graduated from high school and art school-bound, shortest one of the bunch. My Aunt Bonnie and Great-Aunt Mary Kay. It’s impossible not to smile.

“Hey guys…”

“You look great, babe!” Jen is juggling pictures, and cheering, no small feat. “Keep it up!”

Boy, that right arm is way across my mid-line!

As I pass them, I wish for the first time today, I could slow things down and enjoy the moment. There is symmetry here, as I cheered for my old man the first time he ran Grandma’s at around the same age as me. There’s happiness at knowing I’m on pace to make my goal; joy at doing it at a race I’ve been wanting to run since I was a kid; and overwhelming satisfaction at doing all this with my family out there to support me. If could, I’d press Pause, and thank them all for being there, probably break down and cry a bit at the emotion of it all.

But, there is no remote control to this show, and a weak “Thanks!” is all I can offer as I stride past them. Their encouragement carries me past the targeted group, and soon I am alone again. A mile away, Lemon Drop hill looms, vaguely menacing. Yet, as I plant one foot after another,  I have no fear. I’ve replicated this hill dozens of times in training, late in 20-24 milers, telling myself remember this when you hit Lemon Drop…curse that mothereffer and give it the business. My breathing has become increasingly ragged by the time I hit the base of the hill, and there are two guys up ahead I vow to chase down on the way up. Somewhere nearby some crazy guy is whaling on a cow bell and bellowing encouragement.


Easy for you to say, I think, but thank him silently anyway. 

The race guide played up the drama of Lemon Drop, how it can really pack a wallop for folks who overextended themselves early on in the day. The hill was named for an old restaurant that used to stand atop it, but has long since gone the way of the buffalo. Compared to hills with time-honored and well-deserved names like Boston’s “Heartbreak Hill,” Lemon Drop comes off as a bit…tame. But the incline is constant, and it takes a lot out of me to focus on picking up my perceived effort level and chasing down the two guys in front of me. At one point I make the mistake of checking my pace display. “7:00” is its mocking response. No matter. I keep on it, crest the hill and pass the runners. Hill continuations, or “HC’s” on Coach Gilderman’s high school cross-country training schedule taught me long ago the value of carrying your effort level through the crest of the hill. While everyone else is taking a mental break, congratulating themselves on a job well-done, you’re busy crushing them. Simple concept really, but much harder in practice than theory.

From the top of Lemon Drop, the remainder of the course unfolds. Over the years, I’ve run the remaining stretch dozens of times along the Boardwalk that follows Lake Superior’s shoreline. It’s somewhat comforting, but not really. Most marathoners will tell you that relativity is in full force at the end of the race; five miles at the end of a marathon is far longer than a casual five from the front door. I grind ahead, descending Superior St, past some familiar commercial landmarks that begin to lose meaning.

Everything starts to blur. The water stations, what gels I’ve consumed, my last mile split; at one point, just before reaching a series of turns, I am really confused about the route ahead, although it really boils down to a left turn, a right turn up a hill a few blocks later, and then an immediate left. My state of mind is exactly why the race organizers man turns with volunteers pointing the way. I pass a female elite who I’ve been chasing for the past mile or so, at the top of a surprisingly difficult short hill. As I approach Sir Ben’s Tavern, and then Fitgers, I see the sidewalks are packed. I’m not sure if my mind is magnifying things, but the crowd roar is deafening. It could be the tall buildings on either side, or maybe an excess of cow bell…but it leaves me with goose bumps. It’s here, around 24 miles in, I realize that I’m not going to have a colossal meltdown in the next two miles.  I am tired, but strong, and know that my training will carry me well.

Cruising through downtown, I reach Lake Ave., which is again packed. It strikes me as a little cruel that the route takes me right past a short cut to the finish. There is music coming from somewhere, but I’m not sure where. The crowds nudge me a little further through Downtown. Past Ragstock, the vintage goods place that when it opened was a tad scandalous for northern Minnesota. Past the place my dad bought me my first suits after graduating the Academy. Past the jeweler that made my best friend’s wedding rings.  Finally, just before the public library, form whose doors I used to carry over-loaded canvas bags chock full of soon-to-be-late library books, the course releases me into a downhill left hand turn and into the final mile of the day.

Descending, I realize a woman has caught up to me. For a fleeting moment, I think about letting her pass. Then I realize that we could probably both use the help, so I stay even, then pull ahead. We trade leads a few times around the backside of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center (DECC). I hope she understands I’m not doing the usual male pride nonsense. I just want someone to help me through this last mile.  We’ve picked it up quite a bit, or so it feels. We pass the William A. Irvin ore ship, make another right, then the final right on to Lake Drive. A small cramp hits my left arm, and I hope it doesn’t spread to my legs.

Just a few blocks more...

As we make the final turn, I wonder if my family was able to make it to the finish area before me. I get my answer. I first hear, than see my dad yelling for me off to the right. I step it up. Probably just over a quarter mile to go now. I keep it just fast enough that the woman behind me doesn’t fall too far back. I wave her forward, hoping she will trade leads with me, but she does not. I can see the finish, the clock ahead, and know I will be under 2:50 easily. The streets are lined with spectators, and I hear Jen off to my right and know she is busy taking pictures while she encourages me. 

My breathing comes ragged. Everything burns, but seems to be working alright. Every step spreads a grimace on my face. As I approach the finish, I hear my name announced. A few meters before the line, I kiss my right and left hands and touch the names on my left and right arms, then raise my hands as high as I can and look heaven-ward.

Then I am hitting my Garmin for the last time today, and stumble to the Runner-At -Rest Pose.  I look at my watch, hands on my knees: 2:48:09. I am completely overwhelmed. The sight of first Jen, and then my family, brings me to tears finally as the weight of the past couple weeks seems to fall from me. What a road it’s been to finally arrive here at the finish line, completely soaked from head to toe, a barely coherent mess. But here I am, surrounded by the people most important to me, and proud. In the end, I didn’t accomplish my original goals for either fundraising or overall time. But I raised close to $200 for Mocha Club, which is a start. And I broke 2:50, which is another great beginning. They were both big accomplishments, something short of total victory, but well beyond failure.  

At the finish with my biggest fans

Shout Out From Mocha Club

News flash – MC gave me a quick shout out on their website blog: Check it out when you get a hot minute…

This is not the Mona Lisa

Somewheres out there in the wurld...

In other news, I’m back from some work stuff that kept me pretty wrapped up after the marathon. Anticipate some new material showing up on RFS (that’s my cool new jingo-istic abbreviation…kinda like EPL…Eat Pray Love 🙂 in the near future. I hope all of you are well; it’s been a little while since I wrote to you all and I’ve missed ya!