Pikes Peak Ascent

THE Toughest 13.1 Mile Race in the World

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How Challenging is Pikes Peak?

What does it take to run a race straight up 14,115 feet to the top of Pikes Peak mountain in Colorado? Although the average grade of slope is 11%, oxygen levels drop progressively as altitude rises, further compounding the uphill ordeal. The nature of the run (dirt trails, rock, and other natural obstacles) and the high altitude makes this race much more difficult than your standard 13.1 miles.

I thought I knew what was in front of me, but I had no clue. I heard tons of stories about how difficult this race was from fellow runners, and to be candid, I was very nervous I wouldn’t finish. One story seven years ago stuck in my mind from a running couple at the Great Wall of China Marathon, “We ran 50 half marathons in all 50 states, but failed to summit at Pike’s Peak. We missed the final cut-off and the trail was as tough as they come and the altitude was brutal.”

While I have completed every race to date, this one was giving me serious pause. I wasn’t 100% confident I would meet the cut-off times or cross the finish line. Despite running marathons all over the world, I was experiencing  major internal anxiety.

The Ascent (or ascent portion of the Marathon) can take as long, or longer, than a full flatland marathon. In fact, many flatlanders find that it can take much longer! On the other hand, if you have trained in high altitude, it is possible to go a little faster than your flatland marathon time during the Ascent.

Since I don’t train, I assumed I would be running for 30 mins longer than my normal marathon time…

3 miles in as the altitude was kicking my behind

What should you know about the Pikes Peak Ascent?

1. Registration – If you want a shot at running this race, you must send the race director one of two official finishing times from a race that you completed within the last two years. You can submit either a full marathon time (6 hours or less) OR a half marathon time (2 hours and 30 minutes or less).

They are extremely strict about this rule and it’s non-negotiable .

2. Packet Pick Up You must get your own packet and bring your own photo ID. For those of you who enjoy receiving swag giveaways from various companies, well, you will be in for quite a shock because you literally get your bib, a business card, and well, nothing else. While I normally toss out most of the swag I receive besides the running T-shirt, many people do enjoy all of these extras. The real swag is given when you cross the finish line. More on this shortly…

3. Wave Start and Cut-Off Times – a total of 1,800 people run the half and/or full marathon. You better stay in your corral, because if you cross the start line earlier than your scheduled gun time, you will be disqualified. I heard stories from people who had this happen in the past. In order to help alleviate course crowding, both the Ascent and the Marathon utilize a rolling wave start. Runners have been seeded into starting waves based on their qualifying times. The runners bib number defines the wave with bib numbers 1 through 199 in wave one, bibs 200 to 299 in wave two, bibs 300 to 399 in wave 3, etc. For example bib number 645 will start at 7:06, bib number 1347 will start at 7:13.

For the Ascent and Marathon, the on-course cut-off times are as follows:

In order to receive a finishers jacket and be listed as a finisher, Ascent runners must complete the entire course in under 6 hours 30 minutes; Marathon runners must complete the course in under 10 hours. These cutoffs are determined by your chip time (start time -> finish time).

Here is a link to answer any more FAQ’s

4. Race Day – you can feel the nervousness and excitement hanging around the start line. As I said above, I was anxious. More anxious than I can remember in recent time. Maybe it’s because I am getting older, or maybe it’s because I know what it takes on any given race day to sum up the mental and physical energy to run from A to B. I knew this mountain was going to be extremely difficult to conquer.

Elevation 9,500 feet. Hoping to reach Pikes Peak (not shown: insides in knots!)

The elevation gain (start to summit) is 7,815 feet. Take a minute to fully process that fact.

The start is at 6,300 feet and the summit is 14,115. The Ascent has very few stretches which are not going uphill. Thankfully, there are no exposed ledges, so there is little danger of falling off the trail!

The course and elevation breakdown.

This race was by far the toughest half marathon I ever ran (in the USA, if not the world). The altitude was harsh, the terrain was challenging, and the internal mental battle was constant throughout the entire race. Due to poor weather conditions, runners were turned around at Barr Camp, but I continued pushing forward with a few other runners. Sidenote: we should’ve just turned around like everyone else. We managed to reach the A-frame right near the tree lines, but we didn’t want to risk going any further. Like everyone else (eventually), we turned around and ended up running about 20 miles in total.

5. The bling and coveted finisher’s jacket – for a half marathon race, this bling is outstanding and every runner should want this medal in his or her collection! You can slide the runner on the medal back and forth and just knowing you made it to the top (unless you had our weather conditions) is worth every step.

In order to get your race pullover, you must make it to the top of the mountain. Although the threat of hail and lightning prevented us from summiting, finishers who completed the race under the cut-off time were able to receive this comfy pullover. To be fair, I wear it all the time when I travel.

Sweet justice, this puppy is comfy!

 

Back of the bling and jacket

In spite of the weather, I am left with an itch to return. Yes, it is always nice to accumulate new bling and sport a great pullover, nothing can actually replace crossing the actual intended finish line and summiting Pikes Peak.

I might have to book my flight again next year and go for round two.

Any takers?

2017 Shipyard Old Port Half Marathon

Racing + Lobsters = One Happy Runner

Race #5 – 10 for 10 Challenge: 10 Half Marathons in 10 Different States

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Is Maine worth the trip? In a word: Yes!
Yes, life is good in Maine. So good, that I am kicking myself for waiting 39 years to make my way to the northernmost state in the New England region of the U.S. With its heady mixture of artistic and outdoor adventures, Portland is stylish and sophisticated, yet remains genuine and unpretentious, a place where grey flannel and plaid flannel coexist companionably. And underlying the latest tech, fashion, and culinary scene is a deep sense of continuity. Oh, and did I mention I am obsessed with seafood? Specifically, lobster!

Visiting Maine is like eating pasta in Italy, I am forever thankful and ruined.

The Shipyard Old Port Half Marathon
This race is Portland’s premier summertime running event that cuts through the heart of the Old Port district and West End neighborhood. Runners are treated to sweeping views of Casco Bay, its many islands, ferries, sailboats, lobster boats, tug boats, and paddlers, the Presumpscot River, the City of Portland skyline, and the Back Cove.

Water and boats as far as the eye can see

Takeaways from this race experience:
* Race expo is small and intimate – located in the heart of Old Port off of Fore street, runners can walk the expo and be in & out in a matter of minutes. 
* Maine’s second biggest road race – 4,200 entrants with more than 40 states represented. 70% of participants are actually from out of state.
The route is extremely scenic – the allure of Portland in the summer and the breathtaking views are worth running 13.1. The final few miles the of the second half of the race feature some of the course’s most scenic terrain, as runners will make their way nearly all the way around Portland’s Back Cove and Bayside trails.
* Food, food, and more seafood! – before, during and after the race, there are a multitude of incredible fresh seafood options from J’s Oysters to The Lobster Shack. Your belly should always be full!
* Bling is a factor – for most runners, and I thought race director Erik Boucher, did an excellent job with the medal.

Do you like this race bling?

If you have an extra day or two, I highly recommend visiting:

  • Lucky Catch – take an unforgettable 80-90 minute excursion in Casco Bay

    Set your own traps and reel in live whole Maine lobsters

  • Eartha – is housed in a three-story glass gallery at DeLorme Headquarters and is the world’s largest rotating/revolving globe located in Yarmouth, Maine.
  • Oxford Casino – 45 minutes outside of Portland is a small casino where runners and gamblers alike can try their luck
  • Freeport, Maine – 20 minutes outside of Portland, you will find beautiful coast lines and shopping

For your shopping fix, check out the LL Bean’s HQ

  • Lobster Shack at Two Lights – this spot has the best lobster in all the land (see photo at beginning of blog) and the most spectacular calming views

    One of many eye-popping views at Two Lights along the water

Whether you are running a half marathon or looking to visit The Pine Tree State, there are no shortage of options for you and your family.

AND if you need a lobster taste tester, you can email me anytime and I will be happy to join!

2017 Virginia Wine Country Half Marathon

Run. Sip. Explore.

Race #4 – 10 for 10 Challenge: 10 Half Marathons in 10 Different States

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Wine and racing…is that really a thing? 

This is not only a thing, but a growing trend in different cities and running groups around the globe. Most runners, like myself, are scanning the internet for challenging races in cool destinations with badass bling (don’t kid yourself, race bling affects many people’s decisions to sign-up or keep searching on Google). Add wine to the race cocktail and you will get a quality field or at least an extra motivated one. Destination Races produces the event as part of the popular Wine Country Half Marathon series with its six events in North America. It’s the only race in the series located on the east coast and it’s remained a favorite of runners seeking a more bucolic setting away from the hustle and bustle of major cities.

Pre-Race Risk

Disclaimer: Before all you runners roll your eyes, email me, text me (how you have my phone # is beyond me), I do not endorse trying a new product, especially running shoes, the night before a race, let alone a half marathon.

Let’s backtrack about 7 hours. My alarm went off at 3:33 am. Somewhere between 3:37 & 3:51, I pulled myself out of bed, showered (I think), hopped in my car and drove 6.5 hours from Charlotte, North Carolina to Loudoun, Virginia. Special shout out to the creators of Serial for captivating my attention over 8 consecutive episodes. I may or may not be the last person on that train, but I am glad I boarded!

Anyway, I walked into the race expo, grabbed my bib, double checked my tracking chip worked properly and was about to leave… until I saw running sneakers without laces called Zero Tie shoes. These newer running shoes are insanely popular in Asia. In the U.S., this product is just in the infancy of rolling out. Think Back-to-the-Future without the Nike symbol. I was offered the opportunity to sample these on race day, and since I have never done such a thing, I figured when in wine country…

There is a wheel on the back heel of the shoe, and when you put your heel down and drag it backward, the shoe tightens.

13.1 ends with bling in a vineyard

The 13.1-mile loop course starts and finishes amongst the lush vineyards and farmland at Doukenie Winery. After the first half mile, the spectator support dwindles considerably, but runners are treated to creative mile markers along the route all tied to the theme of vino. The course is surrounded by beautiful foothills, vineyards, and some funny signage along the way.

This may or may not have been placed here by the owner for this picture

By Mile 6, my newer racing shoes were taking a toll. The air circulation was not ideal, my feet were hot and I could feel the blisters forming. Of course, I anticipated some discomfort, but I will say, not having to bend down and retie my shoes was a nice change of pace. In past marathons, when I bend down late in a race to tie my shoes, I occasionally cramp. It’s aggravating and this happens at least every four or five races, so not having to worry about this issue was comforting.

From miles 6-12, runners went through a ton of hills, dirt roads, and battled against a climbing humidity. I began pushing my pace closer to the picturesque vineyard driveway foray for the final half mile into Doukenie Winery. Once across the finish line, runners and their guests are can attend the post-race Wine and Music Festival featuring live music, and wine tasting ($25 extra but worth the add-on during registration) from a dozen of Loudoun County’s wineries.

And after a tough 13.1 miles through the vineyards of Virginia, what better way to celebrate than to drink a glass of vino directly from your finishing medal!

One of the most creative race medals you will ever see!

2017 Berlin Marathon – Fast, Flat and 99% Humidity

This Is Berlin

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If you’re a veteran marathoner looking to set a personal best — or a newbie seeking a flat, fast course for your first marathon — the Berlin Marathon could be the race for you. It’s the third-largest marathon in the world (after New York and London) — and the fastest.

The Berlin Marathon route treks through a wonderful, vibrant urban city steeped in history and stunning landmarks such as Victory Column, Reichstag, and of course, Brandenburg Gate!

BEFORE THE MARATHON

Pre-Race Expo

Arrive Early – I arrived 20 minutes before the doors opened to find a Disneyland-style line of runners looking to enter the expo. To be fair, the line moved pretty quickly and the excitement of the Berlin Marathon officially kicked off.

First order of business: your wristband – before you enter the main expo, all runners must place their right hand over a machine that secures a Berlin marathon wristband around your right wrist. Without this wristband, you can’t enter the race corrals. Despite my initial thoughts of this thing falling off in the shower or ripping in my sleep, this puppy was not going anywhere.

The wristband stayed on for 3 full weeks after the race until I took a pair of scissors and cut it.

Swag disappears quickly! – I am not one to buy a lot of swag at marathon expos, but I will say, the rumors are true on this one. Race jackets (heavily coveted by runners like their own children), running shoes, and even finisher T-shirts were flying off the shelves like no expo I have seen in the past five years. Forget Caveat Emptor; arrive early if you want to get your swag folks.

They serve beer – I shouldn’t have been surprised being in Germany and all, but I was still slightly caught off-guard that they served tall beers for 2.5 euros at the expo. And no, I didn’t buy a beer, but only because it was 11:00 am and I was more interested in waiting 45 mins to capture one shot on a podium at the expo.

In-line Skating Marathon – The day before the main event, Berlin hosts one of the largest inline skating marathons in the world. This year, Berlin saw around 5,600 inline skaters race on the 42-kilometer loop. This was a very impressive event to watch from the finish line in-person.

RACE DAY 

World Record Buzz – Every year, runners and spectators alike hope to see the marathon world record fall of 2:02:57, set by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya on September 28, 2014, at the Berlin Marathon. This year’s race hosted a record of 43,852 marathon runners from 137 countries as the marathon celebrated its 44th anniversary.

Miles 1 – 8– We all want to be a small part of history. Unfortunately, no world records were set this year, maybe due to the 99% humidity…more on this later.

The race began with overcast skies, drizzling rain and a rising humidify. For some reason, it takes about five miles (for me) to feel comfortable until my mind and body settle down several miles in…

Stopped at Victory Column in the beginning of the race to admire the breathtaking view.

Signs are in kilometers – for those of you used to seeing mile markers, remember this race takes place abroad. I am a big fan of counting up from 1 to 42 km because it feels I am making faster progress knocking out km after km.

Miles 8 – 18 – This race course was fast and flat and for someone who stops to capture different film footage, takes pictures of creative signage and sometimes backtracks to get a particular running shot, I found myself flying through this stretch despite the rising humidity. Runners race by iconic buildings in Berlin including the Reichstag, Berlin Dom and the CN Tower. I was beginning to understand why so many runners PR’d (personal record) on this course and why world records will likely continue to fall in this city as the years trickle forward.

CN Tower (far left), Reichstag (top), Berlin Dom (bottom)

Bands play every half-mile – 50+ bands, every half mile or less, played their music on the streets of Berlin. There were small kid bands strumming their tunes on sidewalks to a mini orchestra of senior citizens showing off their skills standing in a park.

Mile 19 – at 99% humidity, I hit a wall. I had nothing left in my legs. At that moment, I was on pace to finish in 4 hours and 30 minutes, almost 30 minutes under my fastest marathon time (London Marathon, 2000, 4:57:57), and that dream came to an immediate halt.

Miles 20 – 26.2 – Yes the humidity was out of control, and yes, my legs felt heavy as all heck, and without a doubt, I was not going to PR this race despite how flat and fast this course was designed to be for racers.

BUT, I fought hard those last 6.2 miles.

Every race is different and you never know how your mind and body are going to respond. I ran by stretches of people on massage beds whose race was over due to cramps, dehydration, and god knows what other ailments. I see this type of thing almost every race, but the last six miles was a reminder that nothing is ever promised or guaranteed for a runner in any marathon. Listen to your body, is my best advice.

AND on mile 25, I did just that. I was thirsty, salivating to be precise. Instead of a water or Gatorade hydration station, there were some friendly spectators serving full mugs of beer and shots of Jägermeister. When in Germany, right? I stopped and took a big gulp of cold beer, and boy, was that refreshing!

My favorite part about the Berlin Marathon was the final two kilometers because once you turn the final corner, it’s a straight shot through Brandenburg Gate and over the finish line.

Behind me is Brandenburg Gate, one of the most iconic structures in all of Berlin.

From incredible sights along the way to an infectious energy on the speedy course, this was a truly unforgettable experience. For anyone looking for an international marathon to run I would recommend adding this race to your bucket list.

With Marathon Major #5 of 6 in the books (London, New York City, Boston, Chicago, and Berlin), I have set my eyes and stomach on Japan.

Next up? Tokyo baby.

5 marathon majors in the books, 1 to go!

2016 Athens Marathon – It All Started Here

The Athens Marathon is like no other on Earth. According to legend, it covers the same ground that the Athenian messenger Philippides ran when he brought news of victory from the battlefield of Marathon 2,500 years ago to announce the Greeks’ defeat over the Persians. As a runner looking to complete the 7-continent marathon challenge (Great Wall of China, Boston, Big 5 in South Africa, Rio, Outback, Antarctica and now Athens), racers run in the very footsteps of the ancient gods and heroes that gave birth to western civilization. The finish line is in Athens’ magnificent Olympic Stadium (more on this later), the birthplace of the modern Olympic Games.

Let’s hire a driver and skip the bus (Miles 0-0), 6:11–7:45 am!

I am superstitious and working on my extreme OCD. I like flying on the left side of a plane, prefer odd-numbered race bibs, eat chicken Alfredo pasta before every marathon, lay out my racing gear the night before, set my alarm clock three times over, and always always ALWAYS take the public transportation provided by the race director. Upon meeting my friends in Athens, they informed me they hired a driver and we would not be taking the runner’s buses in the morning.  My heart sank as they clearly did not know my routine, but I hadn’t seen these guys in 13 years, and I wasn’t about to rock the boat. After being re-routed by the police at almost every turn, we managed to arrive at the runner’s park 15 minutes before our cut-off time. The bus route was 50 minutes long (just saying).

Made it to the start line with my friends Mike and Luke from the UK. Never a doubt!

The Marathon First Originated Here (Miles 1-5), 9:33-10:17 am

5 years ago, I never dreamed of looking to complete the 7-continent marathon challenge. Today, I had the opportunity to come full circle and run side-by-side with my good friend Luke, who was attempting his very first marathon (of all places, right?). The gun went off and we crossed the start line in one of the most famous running spots in the world: Marathon, Greece.

As we began our trek toward Olympic Stadium in Athens, there were kids cheering and standing in the street handing out leaves to runners for good luck. A group of runners dressed as Spartans marched their way along the path stopping at times to wait for one of their pack who had fallen slightly behind. The temperature was a mild 60 degrees and we maintained a steady pace, that is, until we hit Mile 6.

Your standard set of Spartans marching along in perfect synchronization.

Since when does a hill not have a downhill!?! (Miles 6-18), 10:27 am – 1:31 pm

The Athens Marathon is known for its hills. When Luke and I approached Mile 6 (neither of us looked at the race route beforehand #superstitious), we didn’t think it would be another 12 miles before the course leveled out! While the temperature was climbing, so was each mile as we began knocking down one after the other. At Mile 10, we thought we saw the ground level out; however, it was about 500 feet that leveled off (didn’t go down at all), before we resumed our ascent toward Athens.

Despite the never-ending uphill, we crossed mile 13.1 at the 2 ½ hour mark. Considering we had just run/walked the past seven miles, I was pretty happy with the pace, but knew from experience the back half was going to be brutal. At Mile 15, Luke suggested we start skipping to change up the pace (when in Athens). We skipped about 50 feet, and soon saw some very friendly faces cheering us ahead. They were jumping up and down, provided some much anticipated hugs, H20, and of course, captured plenty of pictures.

Left to right: My parents, my good friend Christy, myself, Luke, and Nicky (Luke’s wife) met us after running their own 5K earlier for R4P.

We had one simple question,“Is there a downhill in our near future?

Without hesitation, a local of Athens said, “Yes, right around the corner.” With a huge sigh of relief, Luke and I took off and ran around the corner. To our dismay, it was yet another hill! “LIES” we shouted at one another (half laughing, half in despair).

For the next four miles, we ran/walked up this mammoth of a hill. We saw a man, easily 65 years old, running barefoot in a Spartan outfit! At Mile 16, we saw a pack of bikers on the opposite side of the road cruising along without a care in the world. At 17, bus after bus sped past us carrying dejected runners who were unable to finish due to fatigue, injury or some other ailment. The looks on their faces was sheer motivation to keep running.

Those bikers flew right by us.

Did The Hill Actually End? Not really. (Miles 18-26), 1:31-3:35 pm

Run for a couple minutes, stop, walk, run for a couple mins, stop and walk. We were pretty spent by the time we reached the “top of the hill.” I mean lets be real, it wasn’t the top.  The hill continued going up, leveling off at times, but then continuing its ascent all the same. No wonder Philippides died. Wild guess: he had no water stations set-up every mile during his run, no electrolytes to rejuvenate his body and likely no paramedics rubbing cramping cream on his calves.

At Mile 20, we hobbled into some familiar faces again: our crew who provided us with another much needed lift of energy. We paused to talk, chat and laugh off the insanity of the race and hills.  No matter what race, distance or location, it always helps to see your family and friends cheering you on in multiple spots along the race.

Over the next six miles, Luke and I laughed and talked about life. 20+ years since first meeting as friends in Northern Michigan at Camp Walden, we were running the Athens, Marathon as slightly older friends. With all the aches, pains and mental battles we endured throughout the race, we weren’t going to stop: except to thank the paramedics who were helping us and everyone along the way.

Taking a moment to catch our breath and admire the Philippides sculpture in the heart of Athens.

The Most Epic Finish Line in Running: Olympic Stadium! Mile 26 – 26.2, 3:35-3:39 pm

Words will never do this finish line justice.

The last .2 miles was the culmination of a 7-continent journey that began at the Great Wall of China, which was meant to be a 1-year campaign and nothing more. Along the way, everything changed. I met so many people, families, doctors, researchers and runners. I heard from countless strangers through emails and social media images that all kept supporting this cause from every corner of the globe.

How could I stop?

I ran the Big 5 on an open animal reserve in South Africa. I was stopped at Mile 25.8 in Boston due to the bombings. I fought my way through a monsoon in Rio. I returned to Boston to finish what I started. I pushed through the Red Clay of the Outback and battled the mind-blowing elements in Antarctica. And now, I was entering Olympic Stadium in Athens!

OLYMPIC STADIUM, ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME!!!

Running into this iconic stadium built entirely in marble and seeping with centuries of history. This site hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the first modern Olympics in 1896. The stadium is  literally surrounded by marble flights of steps terraced into the contours of a U-shaped structure— splendid in materials but ostentatiously simple in construction technique.

When we crossed the finish line, I felt pure joy. Joy to be alive. Pride to run for this cause, in honor of those who lost their battle and for people who need the help now. Love for my family and friends experiencing this moment near and far. Overwhelmed by the privilege of having the opportunity to run around the world. Determined to keep running until a cure is found.

That’s right, I am nowhere near done, not even close! I have big plans ahead and they involve something even larger and more grandiose than this finish line both on-and-off the race course. To be honest, I am just getting started…

Sweet Justice: 7-Continent Marathon Challenge complete!

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The Hatfield and McCoy Marathon: No Feudin’, Just Running!

The Historic Feud: Family, Honor, Justice, Revenge and a Vicious 26.2


The Hatfields and McCoys. Mere mention of their names stirs up visions of a lawless and unrelenting family feud that would span generations. The Hatfield-McCoy Marathon lived up to its reputation of being the Weather Channels “15 toughest marathons in the world.” Why?

100+ degree temperatures, winding hills for days in the Appalachian Mountains, the historic family feud rivalry that permeates every part of this route as runners crisscross between the Kentucky-West Virginia state lines! Oh, and the option to run a Double Half Marathon was too unique an opportunity to bypass (more on this shortly).

The Choices

Runners had 3 options: a half marathon, a full marathon and what race director Shawn Cool (yes that is his name, and yes, he lives up to the billing) call the Double Half Marathon. You are likely thinking the exact same question I did when I asked Shawn “Is a double half marathon not the same exact thing as a full marathon?” Answer: not exactly. The double half marathon are two back-to-back 13.1 mile races with two separate start and finish lines. The first half marathon starts in Kentucky and runners have 3 hours to finish the race. IF you finish any time before the 3 hour time limit, you earn a break (finish in 2 hours, 30 mins = 30 min rest period).

The second 13.1 miles begins in West Virginia.

Family representatives of the McCoy's and Hatfield;s made it difficult to choose sides!

Family representatives of the McCoy’s and Hatfield;s made it difficult to choose sides!

Round 1 – 13.1 miles, Kentucky, Temp: 65-85 degrees (2:29:21)
This was one of the first races that started with the firing of a real gun…and it was from both the Hatfield and McCoy representatives! We started in Kentucky and made our way through the heart of Feud Country (Miles 1 -6). We ran past the Randolph McCoy home place site and the graveyard where several of the McCoy’s were buried after they were tied to pawpaw trees and shot by the Hatfield’s. Six years later, The New Year’s Night Massacre occurred were the McCoy cabin was surrounded and attacked by Hatfield’s.

After passing these historic sites, you reach Mile 7 and run into the infamous Blackberry Mountain, a mere 30-degree incline spanning a full mile to the top. The elevation of these Appalachian hills are magnificent, and over the next 6 miles, this was a consistent theme with epic views of the countryside.Approaching my first finish line, I crossed into Matewan, West Virginia. With a rare 30-minute break, I assumed this would only be a positive; however, my plan and reality did not exactly match up.

Relaxing for 30 minutes at the halfway point and soaking in the historic scenery

Relaxing for 30 minutes at the halfway point and soaking in the historic scenery

Round 2 – 13.1 miles again, West Virginia, Temp: 85-105 degrees (3:14:30 mins)
I hydrated, stretched, ate several bananas and remained standing in the shade doing everything possible to avoid stiffing and cramping up. As soon as the second half marathon began, I ran 500 feet and felt both calves cramp up. NO! Cramps have followed me all my life in most races, but usually closer to the finish line. With 13.1 ahead, I ran through them and thankfully they went away by Mile 14. Unfortunately, at Mile 17, they returned in full force, but only because of “The Incident.”

After running up and down endless hills through muddy and rocky terrain, I came around a bend to find a woman shrieking on the ground as she held onto her unbelievably cramped calves. She was dehydrated, scared and in cringing pain. She was unable to put any weight on her feet and asked “Can you just carry me up the hill?” I have been in this type of pain before (Mile 24 during the Great Wall of China Marathon) and could empathize. I lifted her onto my back and proceeded to carry her several hundred feet up the muddy hill. Full disclosure, I attempted to film this because I thought it would make an epic video, but she was none too pleased, so I put my phone away and after 30-feet of walking, my calves cramped, and cramped badly! Eventually, we got to the top of the hill and a medical tent was within sight; I never saw her again but assume she received the proper attention.

Over the next 9 miles, I ran alongside rivers, over bridges and through coal mining areas. At Mile 20, I literally paused to get hosed down by some friendly supporters who mentioned the temperature was currently showing 101. At Mile 23, a couple cops were cheering on runners when I decided to stop and grab a picture. Needless to say, they wanted to have a little fun and handcuffed me! They asked which family I supported (we have to choose before the race). I chose McCoy’s because they are a bit more controversial.

After hearing my response, the cop said, “That was the right choice!”

After hearing my response, the cop said, “That was the right choice!”

With a combined time of 5:43:51, I felt that I earned every mile of this challenging race. was beyond exhausted and craving two things: an ice bath and moonshine.

Seeing my McCoy representative waiting at the finish line was pretty invigorating!

Seeing my McCoy representative waiting at the finish line was pretty invigorating!

Red Bull's 8 finisher medals you need in your collection

Red Bull’s 8 finisher medals you need in your collection

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The 2016 Antarctica Marathon

Running a Marathon at the End of the World

Nervous Energy. As a veteran of nine marathons, I have experienced plenty in my racing days: showing up having not trained for London, ascending and descending 5,164 steps on the Great Wall of China, being stopped at mile 25.8 in Boston due to the bombings, running in ankle deep sand in South Africa on an open animal reserve, fighting through a monsoon in Rio and trekking through the red clay in the Outback. Yet nothing could prepare me for the ever-present nervous energy for the Antarctica Marathon and this is why:

  • The waitlist averages 3-6 years
  • The Drake Passage – 48 hours of 20-40 foot waves and gale force winds
  • The unknown variable of the weather on race day
  • The cutoff time – 6 hrs and 30 mins – could be shortened at any point due to weather conditions
  • Oh…and the location – the end of the world!
Preparing to run on continent #6 with my good friend Alex Turoff

Preparing to run on continent #6 with my good
friend Alex Turoff

The Course: 6 loops end-to-end through snow, mud, rocks, hills, and ever changing winds off the coast.

The Spectators: Some friendly penguins, my fellow runners and the race and expedition staff.

The Pressure: The 6th continent for R4P and the 7th in my lifetime (ran London Marathon in 2000). Time to complete the race: 6 hrs 30 mins

When you come this far, there is only one acceptable result: finish, capture plenty of video and photos for the cause, and enjoy every moment.

Loop 1 (Miles 1 – 4.37): Ready. Set. Keep Moving! Sunny, 30 degrees, 5-10 mph winds and 3 penguins – 40 minutes

With a combined 11 layers on my body, I crossed the 2016 Antarctica Marathon start line with 101 of my fellow runners. To my left, three penguins perplexingly stared at us humans about to embark on 26.2 miles ahead. The first mile ran past a couple of research bases, wrapped around an inclined hill leading along a muddy path which merged into a larger hill. As I approached mile 1.2, I left one of my water bottles in the “drop zone,” because there are no water stations in this race. You leave your drinks of choice at the start/finish line and you drop whatever you want off in this area.

At the top of the “drop zone” peak, I looped down a 500 foot descent that led to a very long and winding path which was blanketed by rocks for a good mile. Believe it or not, I was actually getting warm because the sun was out and I clearly had on too many layers. Twenty minutes into the race, I reached the first half end of the first loop where a staff member was holding a sign that read “China – Turn Around.”

The turnaround point referencing the Chinese research base in the distance.

The turnaround point referencing the Chinese
research base in the distance.

Turn around!? In most races, you run from point A to point B where everything is fresh and nothing is repeated. I don’t like knowing what is ahead of me, and psychologically, this race was the exact opposite. I ran back through the rocks, up the now ascending 500 foot hill, past the water bottle drop off and back to the starting line. I removed three layers, sipped some chilled Gatorade and proceeded out for the start of loop two.

Loops 2 & 3 (Miles 4.37 – 13.1): Overcast, 10-20 degrees, 10-25 mph winds, 0 penguins. Floating ice in the distance – 1 hour 35 mins

Loops two and three were not as easy as loop one. The sun vanished and the wind fluctuated between 10-25 mph. Being totally exposed to the elements, I focused my attention and energy on completing loop two, added a layer since the temperature dropped by 10 degrees, sipped some Gatorade and proceeded on the same exact route I had run twice beforehand.

he course began to get more treacherous with every additional mile as I trekked from the thick mud toward the slippery uneven rocks.

he course began to get more treacherous with every additional mile as I trekked from the thick mud toward the slippery uneven rocks.

The halfway cut-off time of 3 hrs 10 mins was deeply branded in every single marathoners mind. I talked about it on the plane from the U.S. to Argentina with a stranger (thank you kind sir for putting up with me), at the banquet dinner in Buenos Aires, at breakfast, lunch and dinner on the Drake Passage, with the staff and possibly even a penguin or two. With the weather being so unpredictable, I was not going to take any chances.

Loop three took my mind away from the elements on the ground and I focused my attention on the extraordinary glaciers in the distance along with majestically floating patches of ice in the foreground. The skies were getting thicker with cloud coverage and the winds were clearly picking up and smacking our bodies around like penguins running away from fur seals.  As I approached the start/finish line, I breathed a big sigh of relief: 13.1 miles in the books in 2 hrs 30 mins. Two more layers were added to my body.

Loops 4-5 (Miles 13.1-21.84): Freezing rain, 35-45 mph winds, penguins (possibly), numb fingers (most definitely) – 2 hour 9 mins

The backend of a marathon is never easy. Between flying halfway around the world, having a queasy stomach (cheers Drake Passage), running 13.1 miles thus far and knowing the weather conditions would not improve, I couldn’t have been in a more ideal situation.

This. Is. Living.

A family of penguins takes notice of us runners.

A family of penguins takes notice of us runners.

Was I cold and slightly tired..um, YES! I could barely feel my fingertips and the reason I know this is because I pulled off my mittens and removed the thin gloves from my red clearly numb fingers. Every time a staff member would ask me how I was doing, I would instantly reply before they finished the question “I am good! I came here to finish.”

To be fair, during these two hours, I refused to let any type of doubt creep into my mind. I literally mumbled 300+ times during this race “You know, you are never coming back to run this race again, right?”  A good number of people already dropped down from the full marathon to the half.

My body wanted to pause at times, but my mind refused. I knew pausing meant slowing down. Slowing down meant my body temperature dropping. My body temperature dropping meant I might not run the pace I needed which mentally would lead down a treacherous road. I kept my head down and my mind focused on loop six which ended up being the sweetest 4.37 miles of my life!

Loop 6  (Miles 21.84-26.2): 20-30 mph winds, penguins (left a long time ago), heart still beating, and a finish line to cross – 2 hrs 2 mins

My feet were sore, my face was cold, I had ALL my layers on and approximately 23,000 steps was between me and the finish line. Being on this continent allowed me to run alongside some of the best runners on the globe in a place that fewer than 2,000 people have ever attempted to run a race. For crying out loud, this is Antarctica! A place that offers endless panoramic views of glaciers, floating icebergs, penguins, seals, whales, picture perfect sunsets and sunrises and the purest form of escape. With all this floating around my head, I crossed the halfway point of loop six.

One of hundreds of floating glaciers in Antarctica

One of hundreds of floating icebergs in Antarctica

As I made my way back toward the finish line, I stopped at mile 25 and began walking. I could have easily kept running, but I didn’t want this experience to end. I thought about how much transpired since I first started this journey in 2010 which has literally taken me all around the world. The goal initially was to figure out a way to raise dementia awareness and funds by running races. I needed a name, a website, a research partner and actual supporters to believe in this cause.

And as I walked up to mile 26, I zen’d out on my back. Yes I sat down, closed my eyes all the while runners passed me by and asked if I was okay. I was more than okay.

Five minutes later, I jumped to my feet and crossed that finish line with at 6:11:18 a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment.

What began as an idea has transformed into a living dream that has exceeded all my expectations.

What began as an idea has transformed into a living dream that has exceeded all my expectations.

Of course, I wasn’t going to leave that continent without the most refreshing ice bath on the planet!

The coldest polar plunge on the planet!

The coldest polar plunge on any continent – slightly above freezing.

I have been asked at least several hundred times already “so what is next?”

My answer: Athens, Greece of course! And what better venue then where the marathon originated to run my 7th continent for R4P.

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2015 Chicago Marathon

How to Run 26.2 Miles with Leg Cramps

IMG_8486

On race day, 1.7 million spectators came to watch over 45,000 runners treat themselves to a 26.2-mile tour of diverse cultures, historic buildings and residences, renowned architecture, vibrant murals and the mouth-watering scents of some of the best dining in the world. Known as a “major” in the marathon world (other majors include Berlin Boston, NYC, London, and Tokyo), this unique race takes runners through 29 different neighborhoods in the Windy City.

In past years, runners could participate in the Chicago Marathon on a first come, first serve basis before all 45,000 spots were filled. However, due to increasingly high demand, all interested runners were required to register online and wait until the April 28, 2015  lottery. On the 28th, all registered runners would either receive a confirmation email or the dreaded “wait until next year” notification. After registering, I convinced my good friend at Northwestern Medicine, Kevin, to register. He was one of the first people to listen to my Run4Papa pitch back in August of 2010, and has been advocating for my efforts ever since.

The experiment was set in motion: local Chicagoan + rookie marathon experience = ideal opportunity to run together to raise Alzheimer’s and other related dementia awareness.  Honestly, what where the odds he and I would both win the lottery?

Apparently, 100%…

October 24: Starting Line at Grant Park, 65 degrees, 7:45 – 8:33 am

Like most race days, I tried my best to project a sense of calmness, not just for myself, but also for my first-time rookie marathoner. I kept telling him since April 28, 2015, he was going to finish this race and there would be no other ending then him and I crossing the finish line.  More than anything, I believe that all races are 80% mental, 20% physical. For me, that has always held true…until today.

Kevin and I patiently waited as we inched our way to the start line.

Kevin and I patiently waited as we inched our way to the start line.

Mile 1.5 – State Street, 66 degrees, 8:51 am
Considering it was the middle of October, you might think that the weather would be cold and windy; however, it was 63 degrees and rising! As Kevin and I made our way onto Grand Ave., my parents were cheering us on as we rounded the corner heading toward the historic State Street and the Chicago Theatre. As runners, we feed off that adrenaline shot of support whether it’s at mile 1.5 or 25.5.

IMG_8568Mile 3 – The Loop, 67 degrees, 9:09 am
The spectators of Chicago made their presence known by lining the streets, producing some of the most original signage at a race. One of many benefits to capturing video and pictures of these races for Run4Papa is intentionally taking time to soak in the moment. To complete 26.2 miles is an accomplishment onto its own, but to be able to truly capture the race in its most pure form along the way, is utterly priceless.

Miles 6-12 – Old Town, Lincoln Park & Lakeview, 70 degrees, 9:49-11:07 am
We began to get into a groove. As we passed mile marker after mile marker, we would look at one another, (say nothing), fist bump and carry onward. With almost a quarter of the race completed, we were riding the Chicago heat wave as the temperature rose to 67 degrees. That is, until Mile 12 came along.

Mile 12.1-15 – River North, 73 degrees, 11:07:01-11:51 am
Cramps. Both calves. Seemingly out of nowhere. I have cramped in races before, but NEVER this early.

  • Mile 20 – Boston Marathon on Heartbreak Hill
  • Mile 24 – Great Wall of China Marathon ascending and descending 5,164 steps
  • Mile 25 – The Outback Marathon through mounds of red clay
  • Mile 26.1 – Big 5 Marathon in South Africa on an animal reserve

But those were extreme races and late in the race. Mile 12.1! This was unacceptable. For the next mile, the cramps would come and go, but it didn’t feel like anything serious. At Mile 13, Kevin and I stopped at a medical aid station and I rubbed some extreme cooling gel on my calves. I thought (and hoped) the problem had been rectified.

Mile 15.1, West Loop & Greektown, 77 degrees, 11:51:01 am
Instantly, I could see a huge emotional and psychological lift Kevin received by running alongside his nephews for about .2 miles. He was running strongly and I insisted he not slow down because of my cramps. Initially, he pushed back and said “we will finish this race together.”  From my own experience, when you are running at a quality pace, the last thing you want to do (even if your heart is the right place), is slow down. In order to ensure he kept moving forward, I checked myself into a medical aid station, and wisely, off he ran.

Kevin and I ran into his brother, wife and two adorable nephews.

Kevin and I ran into his brother, wife and two adorable nephews.

Mile 15.5, Medical Tent, 60 degrees (in shade) 11:55 am – 12:10 pm
The medics were not overly complimentary to my situation. They bluntly informed me that my cramps were not going away and that it would be virtually impossible to finish the race with such severe cramping.  Although I have run races all over the world, you never know how your body is going to respond on race day. Today was no exception.

After 15 minutes of treatment, nothing changed besides the fact that I lost 15 minutes of race time. I thanked them for their treatment and advice but my heart would literally have to stop beating before me quitting a race ever becomes a reality.  10+ miles of extreme cramping was now my new reality.

So. Be. It.

Miles 15.5-20, Little Italy, University Village, & Pilsen, 79 degrees, 12:10-1:05 pm
This stretch was a challenging combination of jogging until the cramps became unbearable followed by walking for 30 seconds and then transitioning into a steady jog again. While it was tough running alone, I did have the support of tens of thousands of people I had never met in my lifetime cheering mile after mile. During the time-frame, I saw a war veteran with a prosthetic leg making his way along the course, a fireman running in full gear, and spoke with a man who lost his wife to early onset dementia for several miles. Despite the pain in my legs, there is never a shortage of inspiration along 26.2 miles, and like myself, most runners find a way.

Nothing was going to change from my body’s perspective so I wanted to take full advantage of the experience.

Nothing was going to change from my body’s perspective so I wanted to take full advantage of the experience.

Miles 21-23, Chinatown & Bridgeport, 83 degrees, 1:15-1:45 pm
I do not recall much of this stretch besides the fact that I was hitting a mental wall and my calves were rock solid full of cramps. I tried zoning out (which is something I never do), but the cramps had literally been going on for the past 10 miles and I had over three more to go! As I lifted my feet forward step-by-step, it felt like there were 10-pound weights attached to my ankles; however, when I glanced down, it was just my calves begging me to quit.

Mile 23-26, The Gap, South Commons, 85 degrees, 1:55-2:32 pm
I was exhausted and ready to push through to the finish line. As I gave my parents a final hug, I started to jog until my calves wouldn’t cooperate any longer.  Seconds later, I looked to my left and saw my father. He wasn’t behind the spectator railing, he was walking alongside me! I thought he was trying to give me a quick, emotional boost, but he ended up walking/jogging with me until Mile 26. Those three miles, 47 minutes and 15,840 feet with my father are a priceless memory I will cherish for a lifetime…

Seeing my parents cheering at Mile 23 was a huge emotional lift.

Seeing my parents cheering at Mile 23 was a huge emotional lift.

Mile 26-26.2, Grant Park, 85 degrees, 2:32-2:34:18 pm
My father was calmly asked to get back over to the spectator side of the race and I knew with .2 miles remaining, I was going to finish strong! After battling cramps for the past 13.1 miles, yours truly crossed the finish line at 6:00:48 (15 minutes after my good friend Kevin crossed the line!). While this was not my most impressive finishing time, I felt more proud of this completed effort than many prior races. Admittedly, this race might have been closer to 55% mental, 45% physical, but at the end of the day, I was determined to run against dementia and finish 26.2 miles in the Windy City.

Ice Bath, Château de Connolly, 32 degrees, 4:05-4:15 pm
4 bags of ice, freezing cold water…a perfect end to a long, long day at the Chicago Marathon.

Kevin and I showcasing the bling

Kevin and I showcasing the bling!

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2015 Outback Marathon – Running in the Land Down Under

Red Clay for Days and Ayers Rock as Our Backdrop

When you think of Australia, what typically comes to your mind? Kangaroos. Fosters. The Crocodile Hunter. The Sydney Opera House. The Great Barrier Reef. For me, all of these iconic images stick out, but the area I want to focus on for this article is The Outback. More specifically, Uluru, or Ayers Rock, located in the heart of the Northern Territory’s red center desert, 450 km from the nearest large town; the perfect location for one of the most extreme marathons on the planet. To runners, this race is known as The Outback Marathon where 400+ men and women flock every year to compete in the most remote and historic parts of the “land down under.”

IMG_7167Arriving at Ayers Rock with my father was special enough for starters. Unlike past races, my father was determined to be more than a spectator. He signed up for his first ever race, a unique 3.7 miler (6 km) while I was preparing for 26.2 miles (42 km). The night before the race, we laid out our running gear in traditional R4P fashion.

Saturday, July 20, 2015 at 5:13 am – Climbing out of my bed like a tortoise meandering off a start line, I showed my father the neurotic way I prepare for race day: breakfast consisted of white toast and peanut butter, 1.5 bananas, 3 cups of water and a mixture of fresh fruit, followed by an overly long hot shower, a battery check of my iPhone and GoPro and an excessive amount of body glide applied, well, everywhere (veteran move folks). As we rode the bus to the start line, he was prepped was all decked out in race gear as if he had been running for decades.

7:05 am – Arriving at the crack of dawn to see the sunrise hit Ayers Rock was probably the most panoramic scene one could ask for before the start of a race. The night before, the sky opened up and pounded the red clay with an onslaught of water, packing it down for us runners which didn’t hurt our cause.

8:03 am – I crossed the start line into the extreme wilderness of The Outback. With only 400+ runners between the Marathon (154), Half (150), 11 km (58) and 6 km (77), this was the type of race where sticking side-by-side others runners was essential to maintaining a consistent pace. The only view around was Ayers Rock (not too shabby) and red clay from one side of the world to the next. No Towers. No buildings. No fences. #PureOutback

Similar to my previous seven marathons, I never run with music. I think it is helpful to feed off the environment and listen to my body since there weren’t tens of thousands of runners to keep pace with along the way, nor hundreds of thousands of spectators cheering us on from Miles 1 – 26.2.

8:33 am – My father crossed the start line for his 6 km race! I felt an extra sense of pride because he running in one of the most breathtaking places in the world, and knowing him like I do, he was loving every moment.

8:33 am – At Mile 3, I began chatting with a woman who worked as a pediatrician in Sydney which quickly transformed into an uplifting scenario for two reasons. First and foremost, since my “Papa” was a pediatrician for 50+ years, it was incredible to run alongside a doctor that clearly shared the same passion for her patients and families. Secondly, it was an inspiring opportunity to pace one another while exchanging our motivations for helping others in this world.

9:18 am – While I was approaching Mile 8, my father was crossing the finish line with a massive million watt smile. Although I wasn’t present to see his initial reaction, the picture below says it all!
AOMF00959:53 am –Mile 11 came quicker than initially expected and I was making my way up and down ankle deep red clay dunes. Fortunately, my father and close friends were skipping around the course in a car and meeting every two to three miles along the way. The fact that I saw my support crew five times in the first 13 miles was beyond uplifting, especially running in such an isolated location.

IMG_753210:25 am – Passing the 13.1 mile marker, I immediately recognized that I had run the first half of the race WAY too quickly. They say in the racing world, that if you are able to talk and run, you are running at a solid pace. If you are unable to run and talk, you are running too quickly. Admittedly, running with the pediatrician initially felt like the right pace; however, I am truly awful at pacing myself! I run with the flow and usually never look back. As I was knocking down miles 14, 15 and 16, the speed of the first half of the race was starting to take its toll on my body. I knew I had 10.2 miles remaining and like all marathons, no two are EVER alike. Your body and mind respond differently every time, and you best be prepared for the unexpected challenges along the way.

11:37 am – The red clay was seemingly endless. Although the red earth was helping cushion each and every step, my feet were also absorbing the red clay on the bottom of my shoes and sinking slightly into the ground with each and every step. Miles 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23 all felt like an endless maze through the Outback. The only saving grace was seeing my father every couple of miles in between the dunes.

IMG_723412:51 pm
– The beginning of the end…of the beginning again. Something happened that had never happened before in a race for Run4Papa. At one point, I went from seeing a camel tour to being completely alone on the longest red clay road you could imagine. There was no one in front of me nor behind me!

Infamous Mile 24 (38 km) was dead ahead…or so I was led to believe. I passed by a water station and headed toward Ayers Rock, and presumably, the finish line. For the next mile and a half, I continued running on terrain that felt similar to the previous 24 miles; yet, somewhat unfamiliar. Something was off. Was I on the course? Did I take a wrong turn? The red ground didn’t feel as uncovered as previous routes I ran earlier. I made an executive decision to turn around and head back toward the water station, truly not knowing if I was making the right or wrong decision, rather just trusting my instincts.

1:55 pm – Hearing the words, “We are so sorry, but the 38 km sign temporarily fell down and you were indeed running in the wrong direction” were not the most pleasant ones of my racing career to date. “You need to veer left NOT right and the finish line is a mere 4 km ahead (2.5 miles).

Demoralized does not even begin to describe my emotions in that moment.

At this point, I had run 27 miles and was completely spent. Knowing I had an additional 2.5 miles to go was gut-wrenching. I started walking “in the right direction” and began cramping, dropping a few curse words, and felt mentally dejected.

Half a mile later, I thought to myself, “Self, you are in Australia running the Outback Marathon to honor the memory of your ‘Papa,’ and for countless numbers of families, caregivers and patients who have supported this journey from the beginning. There is no reason to not enjoy the moment, even if it means running several more miles miles.”

For the next two miles, I ran through cramps that would clearly not go away despite my stretching efforts. And what do you know, the finish line was in sight! Seeing my father standing approximately 500 feet from the finish line was not unusual, what was surprising was that he started running with me ON THE COURSE! Having my father run side-by-side at The Outback Marathon was by far one of my Top 5 racing moments of all time. WE crossed the finish line together at exactly 2:00:33 pm!

2:00:40 pm, Mile 26.2/29.2 – My dad and I celebrated with a massive hug and he shared some fatherly comments that will remain between him and I for an eternity. A 6 km for him and continent #5 conquered and in the books for Run4Papa.

What more could a son ask for on this day? Answer: Nothing.AOMG1107

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Tough Mudder – Atlanta, Georgia

Since there was an insane amount of mud and obstacles at the #toughmudderATL, so I figured why not leave the picture taking to the #toughmudderteam #RunningAgainstDementia #R4Paroundtheglobe