Sunday, December 12, 2010

Reflecting on a grand achievement

About this time of year I started spreading the word that I planned a crazy feat for 2010, to run every event in the Rock n Roll Marathon Series. Well here I sit, 12 months later having completed this crazy objective and ready to reflect on what was a wonderful experience.

In December 2009, Competitor had just announced its final events for 2010 -- Rock n Roll Los Angeles Half and Rock n Roll Denver Marathon -- bringing the series up to 14 events. Having run no more than five marathons in a single year I wasn't sure I was up to adding three more and tacking on 6 half marathons to boot, but was bound and determined to try. But I certainly wasn't going to do this alone or just for myself. I knew this would be a great way to spread the word about my love for running, encourage others to give it a try and to promote healthy living. But the higher cause was to help spread the awareness about blood cancers and the need for more research, support and funding. So I set a second goal, to raise $10,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

I'm proud to say that I not only survived the series but set two personal bests in the marathon and the half, exceeded my fundraising goal with over $11,000 collected and made it through the year mostly injury free.

The series provided some incredible highs and very few lows. I met some great members of the running community and dodged some harrowing weather. Here's a look at the highlights from the year that will hopefully provide some inspiration for your future experiences. I highly recommend putting a few Rock n Rolls on your calendar of events.

There are plenty of reasons to run Rock n Roll marathons such as:

Reason #1: The courses. Each Rock n Roll event is a fantastic tour of the host cities. Competitor does a great job of taking you past all the highlights so you really get a feel for these cities. But of course, they leave you wanting more and there's no better way to recover from a tough run than to walk around the city - in compression tights of course.

Best Marathon - Mardi Gras Marathon (Run it Feb. 13, 2011). Its hard to top a run through the Big Easy. The new course, changed to accommodate a 3-fold increase in participants in 2010 was a fantastic tour of the city going through all the famous districts, past Tulane University and finishing in a fantastic park. The city shows itself off beautifully and how can you go wrong with so many fantastic restaurants, hotels and music halls to help you celebrate.

Runner Up - Country Music Marathon (Run it April 30, 2011). Like Mardi Gras, Competitor set up a fantastic course that really showed you all the big sites near downtown. I especially loved seeing Music Row where all the record companies were located. Downtown is beautiful and its party central after you cross the finish line. We had some exciting weather last year, which should mean smooth sailing for 2011.

Best Half Marathon - Rock n Roll Dallas (Run it March 27, 2011). This was a first-time event in 2010 and at first, having lived in Dallas when I was younger, I had to say I was skeptical about how good this could be. But Competitor really found a course that shows off Dallas better than I could have imagined. The course passes by all the best sites, the old historic neighborhoods and finishes at the Cotton Bowl. The course is fast, mostly flat and very festive. Despite a tragedy at the finish line, they couldn't have had a better inaugural year.

Runners Up - Rock n Roll Virginia Beach & Philadelphia (Run them Sept. 4 and 18, 2011, respectively). These two events stand out for different but similar reasons. For Virginia Beach, how can you argue against an event that starts and finishes along the gorgeous eastern seaboard. With waves crashing to your right, a fantastic little surf town and a tour through Camp Pendleton, how can you go wrong. Plus the music festival going on all that week makes it worth an extended stay. Phillie gets props for being, well, Phillie. Its a fantastic town with a great spirit and the course really shows it off, especially Museum Row.

Best marathon course to run a half: Rock n Roll Seattle (run it June 25, 2011). For some reason it seems there are always more people signed up for a half marathon if that same event is also a marathon. Maybe its aspirational, in that if you can complete the half there, you can shoot for the full the next year. Well some events (and some runners) are very different their second 13.1 miles. Seattle is a good place to run half way because the front 13 are a great scenic tour of the Pacific Northwest. You wind through pretty little tree-lined towns and past a vast lake before a tour of downtown Seattle and the finish near the home of the Seattle Mariners and Seahawks. It's not a PR course, necessarily but a great experience.

Reason #2: To Set a PR. A lot of people might tell you that if you want to set a PR you should avoid the big races because the crowds can slow you down. That's true if the start isn't well coordinated and if the course isn't well designed. That was never true of any Competitor event - and I ran them all. Competitor has clean starts down to a science. They break each race start down into corrals based on your expected finish time and for the most part, I rarely found myself weaving though slower runners. At the very biggest events, such as Rock n Roll Las Vegas you may take a bit more time to get to the start line but the timing chips they use are very accurate. Not every Rock n Roll marathon is good for a PR.. A few are rather hilly, like Rock n Roll Los Angeles and the Country Music Marathon. And weather can sometimes be an issue as it was in the Country Music Marathon, Rock n Roll Chicago and almost was at Rock n Roll Virginia Beach.

Best course for a PR: Marathon - PF Chang's Rock n Roll Arizona (Run it Jan 16, 2011). This is a flat, fast, low altitude course with some nice scenery and awesome bands. If you use winter to rehab, interval train and prep for the coming marathon season then you will be ready to run fast through the Phoenix downtown area. I know because I did. Great way to start the year.

Best course for a PR: Half Marathon - Rock n Roll San Jose (Run it Oct. 2, 2011). It's my hometown half marathon and I set a PR here its inaugural year. It was the first RnR event I'd run at that time and was surprised at how pretty the course was. This year was special because so many of my TNT and SMS friends were running it and the bands and cheerleaders along the course were just the best.

Reason #3: The Bands. Competitor's marathons are best known for having lots of bands along the race course which definitely make the events more festive but recently the company has become known for the headliners it bring in as well and they mostly perform right at the finish line. And we're not talking no-name headliners either. Main stage acts in 2010 featured Bret Michels (Rock n Roll Las Vegas), Rick Springfield (Rock n Roll San Antonio), Sister Hazel (Mardi Gras Marathon), Big Bad VooDoo Daddy (Rock n Roll San Diego) and Semisonic (Rock n Roll Denver).

Best band - Cowboy Mouth at Mardi Gras Marathon. If you haven't heard of these guys seek them out. They are an old school party band and just reached out and grabbed us and demanded to be loved. Their lead singer, drummer Fred LeBlanc is a total showman and no matter how bad your legs may have felt you couldn't help but dance around.

Runner up - Neon Trees at Rock n Roll Los Angeles (Run it in costume on October 30, 2011). I had only heard one song from this alt rock band prior to this event and you just can't tell from the radio how amazing this band is in concert. Their lead singer, Tyler Glenn reminded me very much of Michael Hutchence of INXS - massive kinetic energy and emotion on stage. Highly recommend seeing one of their shows.

Reason #4: The Bling. Who doesn't like to receive a big, heavy piece of brag-worthy hardware when they cross a finish line. And Competitor rocks some of the biggest, heaviest medals of them all. And they are the pioneers of progressive medals. After your first event in 2011 you become eligible for their Heavy Medal series which rewards you with medals for completing combinations of events throughout the year. If you are crazy like me you can try to collect them all. Last year the highest medal went to any person who completed 7 Rock n Roll marathon events in a single year. Expect them to up the ante in 2011 when the series goes from 14 events to between 18 and 20.

Best single event medal - Rock n Roll San Diego (run it June 5, 2011). This is the event that started it all and of course you'd expect it to have the best medal and it was. It's hard to top a big 1.5 pound depiction of surf and sand.

Best Heavy Medal - Rock Legend. It's shaped like the head stock of an electric guitar, it weights nearly 3 pounds, requires two anchor points to attach around your neck and signifies 7 Rock n Rolls in a single year.

Reason #5: The Unexpected. I guess you could say this is a possibility at just about any race but I recommend the Rock n Rolls even when this happens because of their professionalism and experience. We had three unique incidents in the 2010 season but all were handled with grace and understanding. When you put on so many races in a single year you'd think the staff would burn out and crack under the pressure but somehow Competitor always manages to perform like, well, rock show roadies, making it all come together.

Tragedy struck at the finish of Rock n Roll Dallas in the form of an unexpected death right at the finish. A 32-year old former Texas Tech baseball player, completed his first half marathon alongside his brother, then collapsed at the finish and never regained consciousness. The cause, an undiagnosed heart condition that resulted in a fatal attack. While tragedies like these tend to make the news and cause a rise of "experts" calling out the risks of endurance running, these tragedies are exceedingly rare. They are also preventable. Many european marathons and other endurance challenges require participants to have an MRI which can find these heart problems. But thanks to the US health care system, which de-emphasizes preventative care, requiring the same here would be cost prohibitive. If you have this condition, it's not the marathon that will kill you - anything high endurance might. If you are concerned you may be at risk for this problem, get tested. There's no other way to be sure.

Weather is always unpredictable and we got a full reminder of this at the Country Music Marathon where a Tornado curtailed the race. A tornado watch had been in effect for that whole weekend and there was talk on Saturday of potentially canceling the race. Hourly updates were pushed out to racers via e-mail and the web site and while there was no all clear, the forecasts suggested the race could go on. It was clear at the start but got progressively worse as the race went on and finally too bad to continue about 3 hours after the start. When a tornado touched down about a mile from the race course, Competitor and the city of Nashville called the race and started turning participants around. Those that didn't finish certainly were disappointed but the rain came down so hard at 3:30 minutes in that you could barely see five feet in front of you. Competitor made the right decision.

Weather caused a sense of deja vu in the days approaching Rock n Roll Virginia Beach as a hurricane made landfall at the start line. That was Friday, the race was Sunday and thankfully the storm had moved up to Boston by then leaving a gorgeous day and very little damage in its wake. The race went off without a hitch but after Nashville I was running through every contingency plan I could think of.

Transportation can also sometimes ruin your day. One incident happened to us, the other was self-inflicted. At Rock n Roll San Antonio, Competitor touched base with every city service, state agency, and transportation service to make sure the course would be clear, the right roads would be blocked off and that nothing would impede the runners. But sometimes you just can't prevent a train running late that refuses to be even later. About a mile into the race, said freight train pushed over the tracks that crossed the course, causing a 15 minute delay. Competitor, that evening, sent a note to all participants apologizing for the incident and within two days credited every runner affected for the lost time and offering them a discount on another Rock n Roll event, including next year's RnRSA.

There's a reasons race organizers are always harping on you to get to the race start early. Sometime the unexpected happens. That was the case for me at Rock n Roll Denver. I was driving down from Boulder to the start of the race and thought I had given myself enough time, but found this not to be true when I sat in line to park my car at the University for 45 minutes. As the race start grew closer and closer, I made a call to jump the line, head downtown and try my luck with either street parking or a local lot. Neither was successful and with just 5 minutes until the gun went off, I had to ditch my car in a private lot. I then spent 3 1/2 hours running with the added stress of losing my rental car and $350 to a towing service. Not the way to enjoy a marathon at altitude.

Reason #6: The Truly Unique. Another big reason to run Rock n Roll is to have an experience you will never forget. For me, each of these events has one special memory that makes it unique but some are more unique than others.

Best Stand Out: Rock n Roll Las Vegas. What happens here, everyone should hear about. Las Vegas pulls out all the stops. First, they close the strip, which only happens for one other event all year. This means you get to run all the way to old Vegas and the Fremont Street Experience with no cars, no cabs and no vans advertising Girls Direct to You. Second, there's two great fun runs the days before the marathon - the Santa run and the running of the Elvises in which every participant dresses up. Third, is the on-course wedding ceremonies that happen in front of the Venetian Hotel. You'll see some great costumes at this event which is another reasons to run it - heck the best costume might just be yours!

Reason #7: To Be First! While yes, there is a chance you can win a Rock n Roll event - if you happen to be Kenyan, five feet tall, and expert at chasing down wildlife - being first means taking home chotckes from an inaugural event. And you will have at least three chances to do that in 2011. Last year was the first for Rock n Roll Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles. Next year you can be among the first to run Rock n Roll Providence (run it August 7), St. Louis (run it Oct. 23) and Savannah (Nov. 5).

Reason #8: Run for Others. Finally and perhaps the best reason to run a Rock n Roll event is to honor and help others. Each Rock n Roll marathon supports a number of charity groups and nearly always has an official charity for each event. I ran for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society who has a fantastic endurance training program - Team in Training. If you know someone who has suffered from Chrones disease, heart disease, breast cancer or a number of other causes, you will find a program and a Rock n Roll where you can honor them. Raising money and running for others is just as rewarding as the race itself.

Just finishing any half marathon or marathon is an accomplishment to be proud of. So get out there, start training and set your goals for 2011. There's no better way to get in shape, stay that way and stick to a program than to have a data circled on your calendar and a race entry bought and paid for. Having a schedule of events keeps me going and motivated. Let me know if I can help you decide what's next on your schedule.

Monday, December 6, 2010

8 minutes to history: Rock n Roll Las Vegas ends a fantastic season

It's mile 26 of the Rock n Roll Las Vegas marathon. For the last 12 miles I have been teased, taunted, twisted and denied. But not deterred. My mantra since mile 15 has driven me onwards, "11 more miles to history." For those who haven't been following my running saga this year, history means being the first person to complete every mile of every 2010 Rock n Roll Marathon series event. This collection of marathons and half marathons, put on by Competitor Group has taken me back and forth across the US and the 14th and final event is here in Sin City.
While others have run every event in the series in prior years, and some had run in every event this year, there has never been 14 Rock n Roll events in a single year and none of my Heavy Medal compatriots would run every mile - completing all 8 marathons and 6 halfs.
With every remaining mile I ticked down the distance to the final finish line. But it was feeling more like a cruel death march than a victory lap.
Rock n Roll Las Vegas started with a lot of anticipation and planning. Since much of our running club, SMS, and our local Team in Training group knew about my plans, many had registered for the event and would be running it with me and helping me to celebrate when it was all over. Close to 30 people were expected to come be part of the festivities.
Reesa and I arrived in Vegas the Saturday before the race, dropped our bags at THEhotel, a special tower in the back of Mandalay Bay that is reminiscent of a W Hotel. We then met some friends for breakfast and headed over to the race expo. While the event was being hosted at Mandalay which would serve as the start and finish line, the expo was up the strip at the Sands Convention Center behind the Palazzo Hotel. While inconvenient, I don't think Competitor had much choice as Mandalay's own convention center was over taken by cowboy central. The National Rodeo was in town and a western wear supercenter had moved into Mandalay. This created an interesting juxtiposition of country and western fans and Rock n Roll athletes for the weekend.
At the expo we picked up our race gear as usual then I got a nice surprise at the Competitor Group booth where Kyle, who runs the Heavy Medal program, presented me with a framed gold record commemorating my completion of the 2010 series. That plus a nice jacket and running bag from Brooks completed the prize. Thanks, Kyle, this is going in my office.
That afternoon we chilled in the room then hit the official pasta party which featured appearances by Sarah Rinertson, one of my personal heroes, and the voice of all things excess, Robin Leach.
That evening we walked off the pasta with a tour of City Center before returning to our rooms to dress our chairs, set the alarms and prep for the next day's race.
It doesn't matter how many times I run a marathon, I always have nerves the night before. With all the anticipation of finally being done with this incredible feat, I was feeling it extra strong this night. I woke up pretty much every hour and my dreams in between were filled with projections for the following day. The usual scenes took place: waking up late and running to catch everyone who had already started, working my way up to my corral just as I realized I didn't have my timing strip, not finishing because of injury, and a cavacade of other disasters. When I remembered the dreams upon waking I'd look over at my dressed chair, double-check the alarm on my iPhone and my Timex Ironman watch, then fall back to sleep confident I was prepared.
I finally awoke for the last time at 5:40am, five minutes before my alarm, and got ready.
The corrals at the start were arranged in a U shape. The start line, heading up the strip was followed by corrals 1 through 11. Twelve and 13 were on a curve crossing the strip and just ahead of 14 through 33 which headed down the strip the opposite direction. This made it easy for everyone to walk right up to their corral, that is until they closed the passage through the U. This, of course, happened just as I was making my way to the corrals so I had to run around the complete U to get to corral 2. It served as a nice warm up and killed time before the start. When I got into the corral I met up with Tim, a fellow Heavy Medaler from Canada who was wearing a commemorative bib denoting his status having, with Vegas, compeleted 7 RnRs in a single year.
We didn't have to wait long for the start for just 10 minutes later a Cher impersonator appeared on the deck above the start, in full feathered gown, to do a Vegas rendition of our national anthem. It definitely sounds different in Vegas, especially with the storytelling interlude in the middle of the song. At least she (it was a she, right?) didn't cut to a runner and ask, "Hey, where ya from?"
After we all took our hands from our hearts and replaced our caps the wheel chair start commenced and our corral started moving up. Within minutes we were off.
The first half of RnR Las Vegas is a scenic trip up the famous strip, then up to old Vegas where some of the original hotels dating back to the 1960s are located. We turn around in front of the Fremont Street Experience a covered road that turns into a free light show every night.
What makes this trip up the strip so special is that Vegas closes the road to runners, something they only do twice a year and don't even do on New Year's Eve. As we passed by several of the enormous hotels they had switched their large promotional boards that face the strip to live coverage of the race provided by the KLAS TV 8, the local CBS affiliate. It was quite a treat to see the sea of runners streaming down the road on a 5-story electric billboard.
Two quintessential Vegas traditions were on full display during the race. The first was the constant stream of Elvis Presley impersonators peppered throughout the course. There were several very fast Elvi - I have no idea how they kept from overheating in their spandex suits - and a few back of the packers. All, to a fault, were portraying old, Vegas Elvis, none went for the teen heartthrob version. My favorite was SpongeBob Elvis. Loved the jiggly nose, stapled-on sideburns and cape.
The other Vegas tradition was the running wedding chapel. On the steps of the Venetian Hotel was a run-in altar complete with preacher and corrals for runner and non-runner guests on both the groom and bride sides of the aisle. None from my corral were taking part as I went by but I heard there were between 70 and 90 people who got hitched that day. Classic.
As we left the strip Vegas reminded us why its called Sin City as a proliferance of advertisements for strippers, tatoos, and escorts lined the streets.
After returning down the strip and approaching Mandalay Bay the course split with half marathoners carrying forward to the finish while we broke right and headed away from Mandalay for another 13 miles. Suffice it to say that the first half of this race is the scenic part. Now began the challenge. The second half started with the first "hill" of the day, an overpass crossing Luxor Drive. Off in the distance was the fabulous Red Rock Canyon state park, which would have made a great destination, but no, we would be denied this vista - and the view of the finish line many, many times today. After the first overpass it was time for another, this one crossing the freeway. After a few miles down Hacienda Avenue we turned right for what would feel like a thousand times. At first the miles went by fairly quickly thanks to all the bands on the course as well as the cheerleader squads who were there to pump us up. If you start dragging in one of these events just veer over to a cheer squad to get some high fives. It's instant energy.
I was also kept company by another Heavy Medaler, Nicole, a student at UCLA who was also completing her 7th Rock n Roll of the year. In all, I would see or run with three other heavy medalers including Guitar Girl who also completed 7 events, all while wearing a guitar headdress. Nicole and I traded paces from mile 12 through 18 where her youthful energy separated us.
I got another boost of energy starting around mile 15 where I came across Andre, a colleague from work who was there to cheer me on, Android phone at the ready. The second half of this marathon could be best described as a corkscrew since you basically do a series of out and backs and loops along Hacienda Avenue before eventually returning to the strip for the finish. This turned out to be good planning for spectators like Andre for the corner he chose I ran past four times. I needed his enthusiasm and friendly face at each one.
If you haven't toured Hacienda Avenue, you aren't missing much. Behind Mandalay and on the opposite side of the freeway it doesn't provide much to write home about. The area is filled mostly with industrial complexes, body shops and warehouses. The low-light was Dean Martin Drive which borders the freeway but without a sound wall.
What drove me crazy all these final miles was the torturous teasing. Countless times we turned onto Hacienda Avenue heading towards Mandalay Bay and the finish just to be denied that goal with another right turn down yet another industrial road. Thus the importance of the mantra. Seeing the finish before you is a tease but a false one when the mile marker ahead reads mile 19. Eventually, you know you'll be turning away from the finish so mentally it made more sense to count down the miles than look forward.
At mile 25 we made the final turn back onto Hacienda and faced what you hate to face this close to the finish - a hill. To get back to Mandalay we'd have to cross the last two overpasses to get back to the strip. With the 25 sign behind me, I picked up the pace. With just over a mile left, at my new pace, I was 8 minutes from the finish line - the last version of my mantra.
I was passing people on both sides as I ran up the first overpass' incline and was telling my talkative right hamstring to be quiet, this was almost over. I passed more people on the second and final hill, then picked it up a bit more as I rounded the corner onto the strip. What?! Where's the finish! It was nowhere in site. Was this yet another tease? I did read that last mile marker correctly, right? We were now passing in front of Mandalay Bay and I was beginning to think I had picked it up a little too early. But then the course turnede right, into the Mandalay parking lot and there it was - the finish line. I stepped up the pace once again and started seeing familiar faces and hearing my name. I waved to the crowd, my wife Reesa, her best friend Brooke, SMSers Stephanie, Randy, Kari and Regina as I started to sprint. I then thrust my fist in the air as I crossed under the banner. Three hours and 34 minutes later and it was over.
Twelve months earlier this crazy quest had started on a desert road in Arizona. Now, 288.2 miles later complete. What a relief. What a feeling.
I shook hands with Tim, Nicole and several other runners in the finisher's corral, then made my way over to the Give Your Sole booth. This great charity collects lightly-used running shoes for children in Africa and poor countries. I had already given them 3 pairs and with two marathons and two halfs and two 10Ks on these, they were ready to serve another.
With flip flops soothing my sore feet it was time to dance.
I met up with family and friends in front of the stage where the day's winners were crowned and onto the stage came Bret Michaels. And he put on a hell of a show. The former Poison front man pulled out the classics including Talk Dirty to Me, Look What the Cat Dragged In, Every Rose Has Its Thorn, Unskinny Bop which had us swinging and singing. What pain?
That evening we celebrated.
An incredible year - complete.
My great, great thanks to everyone who supported me throughout this endeavor. I really could not have done it without you. Together we raised nearly $12,000 for the fight against blood cancers and raised the awareness of this worth cause.
This season's accomplishments were run in honor of those dealing with this crippling disease.
Father Mason of Haverhill, MA, Kristen, Jim, Doug, Betsy, and all the rest of my honorees, this was for you.