Monday, January 17, 2011

A victory lap in Arizona

After a year filled with Rock n Roll Marathons you might think the last place I'd be in 2011 would be at another Rock n Roll Marathon, but suffice it to say these are some of the best organized, fun events around and I had a slightly different purpose this time. This was a victory lap. In fact I was invited to PF Chang's Rock n Roll Arizona Marathon by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Competitor Group Inc. to honor my accomplishment and promote the 2011 series and the spring TNT season. And we couldn't have picked a better event or a better day for everyone involved.

The weekend began with a morning flight to Phoenix and the usual ritual of the marathon expo. Here I picked up my bib and ran into CGI's Dave Hussa, the director of their charity relations program. LLS is the official charity of RnRAZ which is why celebrating my feat of being the first person to run every mile of every Rock n Roll event in a single year would be honored here. I first met Dave at the Country Music Marathon, then again at RnR San Diego and RnR Seattle. If you've run an RnR event in the last couple years and seen the Elvis at the marathon/half marathon split directing you where to go, you've seen Dave. At the Rock n Roll Series booth, he handed me a VIP pass and said he looked forward to seeing me at the TNT Inspiration Dinner tonight. Then followed this with, "You don't know what we have for you, do you?" No, I didn't. CGI had provided me with a framed gold record and RnR series jacket at RnR Las Vegas where I set the record and I certainly didn't expect anything else. He wouldn't tell me what it was so I went away curious.

I then met up with Adam Ricklefs, the author of one of the most popular endurance running blogs, The Boring Runner. I first met Adam on an episode of The Runner's Roundtable podcast and then in person at RnRAZ last year. He was volunteering in the Brooks booth and enjoying being a new father.

This weekend was NFL Playoff weekend so I left the expo and hit a local bar to catch the Ravens\Steelers game before the TNT Inspiration Dinner. I'm glad I did, as it turned out to be a classic and definitely the best game of the weekend. Congrats to the Steelers.

Around 5pm I, along with over 400 TNT runners, descended on the Phoenix Ballroom for the Inspiration Dinner. John Bingham, long time friend of TNT and author of the Penguin Runner column on was the host and started with a great comedic monologue about what to expect tomorrow during the race. I first heard John speak at the Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska, my very first marathon and Reesa's first half. John calls himself the ultimate back of the pack runner and spins some great yarns about how long it takes him to finish which puts all the TNT first timers at ease. If you haven't heard John at one of these events, you really should (there's a video from his speech at the TNT dinner before RnR Seattle on his blog). He's terrific.

After his remarks, the SVP for CGI came to the stage, Tracy Sundlun, to talk about tomorrow's race and the relationship between TNT and CGI. Tracy, is a former Olympian and long time marathon coach for the US Olympic team - an impressive resume. I met him at the speaker's table shortly before the event began. He struck me as a very serious, executive, focused on his speech. But when he took the stage his real personality popped out and I saw how funny and witty he was. He opened with an awkward silence that got everyone giggling again, and had a great little quip. "Look to your right. Now to your left. One of the three of you will do something stupid tomorrow." Everyone laughed and pointed at each other. His point was that tomorrow one of the three would try something new - a new drink or breakfast food. New shoes, a new routine. Something that would throw off your game. This is a really bad idea and something we preach endlessly in TNT, but it is inevitably ignored. The lure to try all the new stuff from the expo is usually was does people in.

After his remarks it was time to honor the top fundraisers who had come to RnRAZ. From the local Arizona team was a woman who had secured a $5,000 grant as a donation and Lori Jomsky from Los Angeles who I had seen pop up on Twitter several times last year who had raised over $10,000 for this event getting nearly half, she said, from social media, from people she hadn't ever met. Impressive. And not my experience with social media at all.

Then Tracy turned to my accomplishment. After mentioning what I had done, he reached down under the table and slid free a large black leatherette case. I knew immediately what it was. "No, you didn't!" I said with surprise and excitement to Dave Hussa. He acted innocent. "No!" I repeated, this time to Tracy Roseboom, the TNT national director for this event. She gave me a wry smile. After Tracy finished describing my 2010 feat and the money raised (thanks again to EVERYONE who donated to my cause) he pulled out a brand new classic, Fender Squier Bullet Strat electric guitar. It had a steel plate mounted below the strings commemorating my completion of the entire Rock n Roll Marathon Series with congrats from TNT and CGI. Dave leaned over and said, "Looks like you will need a larger shadow box for all your medals."

I grasped his shoulder in gratitude, hugged Tracy and leaped onto the stage to shake Tracy's hand. What an incredible gift and a fantastic honor. Upon holding the new guitar and feeling its heft and incredibly perfect construction, I knew this one wasn't destined to be locked away in a frame. It demanded to be played. I gave it a few mock strums for the cameras demonstrating my complete lack of experience. But I'll change that. Incredible. Just incredible. I can't thank you enough, CGI and TNT for this.

On the way back to my room I exchanged congratulations with the high fundraisers, wished good luck to all the TNTers in attendance and made my way back to my room to give the guitar a closer examination and to dress my chair for tomorrow's run.

That evening, I was interviewed by the local Fox affiliate who featured me and other runners on the 10 o'clock news while warning viewers to avoid the road closures tomorrow as me and 30,000 of my closets friends would be taking over the city, Scottsdale and Tempe for the day.

No matter what the event, whether a marathon or not, I can never seem to sleep the night before a race. I was in bed by 10 but up until 12; then up at 4, 5 and 6am. I finally pulled myself from bed at 6:45 so I could meet Tracy and other TNT half marathoners in the lobby at 7:15. Today's half marathon would be very different for me because I was going to watch the start knowing I wouldn't be jumping in until later. That was because local channel 3 wanted an interview 10 minutes after the start. As someone who usually starts in the first few corrals I wasn't sure how I'd feel watching all these people take the course while I sat on the sidelines.

We gathered some fellow mid-pack TNTers to join me for the interview, then we were off. I crossed the start line with corral 18 and commenced weaving through the crowd hoping to get up to my normal race pace by the second mile. Competitor does a great job with its wave starts as each group isn't so crowded that you can't get room to run shortly after crossing the line. But the best part of starting here was the chance it gave me to see so many other TNT runners and wish them good luck. A few recognized me from the night before calling out, "Hey, guitar boy! Way to go!"

Rock n Roll Arizona is a fantastic place to do your first marathon or half because it is dead flat, the weather is mild and on this day, it was sunny and beautiful. I set my marathon PR on this course last year and once I was able to get up to speed I was feeling fantastic. I'm not fully healed from the RnR series last year and the muscles around my right knee were talking to me through the first 6 miles. They shut up (or more accurately, fully warmed up) by the half-way point and I couldn't have felt better. At mile 7 I passed a guy dressed as Slash, the guitarist from Guns n Roses and gave him high horns, the metal god salute. Three female Elvis impersonators were next up on the left and before the next water stop was a cheer squad all dressed as the cookie monster from Sesame Street. It's always interesting seeing the costumes along a marathon course. Two younger guys were running in Mexican wrestling masks, sewn tight to the backs of their heads. Didn't want to know how they would be feeling by the end.

Near the finish, the most impressive guy was the mid 30s muscle man who crossed the line with a large tree trunk slung over his shoulder. He had carried it all 13 miles and had run in work boots. Wow.

Around mile 8 I caught up to runners my pace and ran alongside Nick, a college student from Reno. He was running his first half marathon and already had the endurance bug. He had biked around Lake Tahoe and was planning a fantastic event for the summer - cycling 2,000 miles from Washington state to Canada then back down to Southern California. I told him it was a fantastic idea and encouraged him to add a charity element to his adventure. He said his grandmother suffers from Cystic Fibrosis and I let him in on the secrets of fundraising - it's actually easier than you think.

Nick and I ran together swapping stories, goals and ambitions through to mile 12 where I lost him at the last water stop. I always pick up the pace in the last mile of a race, if I can, and I was more than able today. I crossed the line in a respectable 1:40:33. Later, after Reesa had looked at the online results, I felt pretty good about this time as the first mile had been far slower than my normal pace due to the weaving.

After grabbing a banana and bottle of water, I headed over to the VIP area getting there between breakfast and lunch to find little more to eat than, well, a banana and another bottle of water. But the timing was good because American half marathon record holder, Kara Goucher was there with her newborn. I asked her how she did on this her first event since having her child. "Ok considering. Seventy-four minutes." Here's the difference between the elites and the rest of us. They express their times in minutes. The rest of us: hours and minutes. It certainly wasn't her best time but darned impressive.

A few minutes later Josh Cox came into the area with an entourage of K-Swiss handlers. Josh had set out today to break the American record in the 50K by adding 6 or so miles to today's marathon. He met his goal, beating the prior American record by 3 minutes and nearly smashing the world record. He fell just 7 seconds shy. Wow. No wonder he looked tired.

I had an early afternoon flight so I left shortly after that and on the way back to the hotel sat on the shuttle with a young shoe designer from Brooks, named Dana. She had just finished her first half marathon and did so in prototype shoes she had helped create. They were minimal, racing style shoes - just the kind I liked. She had a good race but was fearing the whole time that the shoes, being prototypes, might fall apart on her. No worries with quality Brooks construction, apparently. We had a good chat and I learned about the Brooks wear-testing program. Something to consider since I love to try new shoes.

This race was my testing ground for the Innov-8 f-lite 195 racing shoe. These flashy red racers are designed for the efficient strider who lands midfoot and likes a barefoot-like feel but with enough cushioning to handle the pounding over 13-26 miles. I had run in them a few times prior for training and found them to be very comfortable and responsive. Much like wearing next to nothing on your feet. Fantastic. But I felt a little embarrassed talking to Dana with them on my feet; Brooks being the series sponsor and all. But who knows. Maybe my experience in Mizuno, Asics, Brooks Green Silence, GoLite and Nike Frees will make me a good candidate to help Brooks with its latest designs.

Overall, I couldn't have asked for a better experience in Arizona. Running this first leg of the 2011 Rock n Roll Series made me nostalgic for last year's feat and ready to start my 2011 season. More Rock n Roll this year? Maybe. But not the full series. I have new goals to conquer. I'll fill you in on my next blog post.

Happy running!

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