State # 12: Michigan: Ann Arbor Lives Up to Its Name

Running a marathon in all 50 states and DC can be a very daunting task, and for the average Joe/Jane it takes quite a long time to accomplish from a training, time and financial standpoint. Depending on the state that you call home, it can be a little easier (or harder) for the aspiring 50-stater to meet their goal faster. Living in Pennsylvania allows me to get to over 20 states within a 12-hour driving time, though I have yet to drive further than 9 hours to reach a race state yet. I consider myself lucky that I live in an ideal location, for 4 states (as well as DC) alone can be reached within a 2-3 hour car ride for a quick weekend getaway to snag some new race bling. I always feel bad for those runners who live in a state in the mid-West who have to pay a lot of airfare just to fly to Delaware, but I am sure the same could be said for me when I have to fly to remote states on the other side of the country.

One of Michigan’s closer cities, Ann Arbor, appealed to me as a marathon destination. It was within driving distance, had more of a college town feel than a city, and had a little more green to it (thus the name).  I also appreciated that the marathon was on the small side, the bigger city marathons tend to stress me out. While I might be missing out on something by foregoing NYC or Chicago by avoiding the mega-races, I feel like I am giving my spot to another deserving runner, not to mention supporting the communities that host the small-town races. A race like Ann Arbor’s marathon, while not a rugged trail race that I’d prefer, still definitely gave off the vibe that it was a smaller race with great support.
There were some downsides to this race according to the reviews: a) it was in June and b) it was fairly hilly. Having run the Hatfield-McCoy Reunion marathon in one of my best times ever (the same exact weekend as Ann Arbor’s marathon actually!), I didn’t let these variables scare me. Whatever happened would happen: this was to be my race for Michigan.

Chris and I decided rather than drive all day, as we had for events past, we would leave in the middle of the night and arrive at a reasonable hour. It worked out in our favor surprisingly well, and we had a great drive with no mishaps. Traffic was light and the miles passed by quickly.

The first stop we made was the Briarwood Mall, not to shop, but for my packet pick-up! That was a first for me, packet pick-up in the middle of a shopping mall. But it was fairly quick and easy, no bells and whistles, grab your shirt and number and you’re on your way. Some expos force you to pass EVERY booth whether you like it or not (yeah Akron, I’m looking at you!), and in this case it was easy to bypass any extra tables if you were in a hurry.

By this time we were well ready for a bite to eat, and decided that Chipotle seemed a safe bet from a gluten-free and vegan standpoint. In the end, I think it ended up being a very poor decision on my part, but at the time it seemed right!

We spent the rest of the day relaxing at the hotel since the race started quite early the next morning, and most of my pre-race food was brought from home. I wasn’t feeling especially hungry or good by dinnertime, but I knew I needed calories. I couldn’t pinpoint the problem, but Chris had suffered from a nasty bug last weekend and I was hoping and praying I didn’t pick up remnants of it the day before my race.

Race morning I felt a strong sense of something being amiss. I couldn’t pinpoint it, but I definitely didn’t feel well, and was worried that something managed to get into my system. All I can say is that the race was one of the worst marathons I had ever experienced. Even after consulting the Magic 8 Ball, I never got an “All Signs Point to Yes” answer on whether or not it was gluten or Chris’ bug. All I can say is that a substantial amount of time was wasted during this race having to stop.

The start line of the race was at the Northwestern corner by Michigan stadium. It was odd, because it was very quiet walking to the start. Runners stood around ready to get the race started, but it was definitely a very low key atmosphere, maybe a step up from Colorado Springs or Hatfield-McCoy Reunion. While it was a warm morning, there was no chance of rain in the forecast and it didn’t look to get hotter than 75 degrees,  this was perfectly doable for a race in June!

The National Anthem was sung, and the race director enthusiastically let off an air horn to signal the race start. We were on our way.

I ran the race at a fairly relaxed pace to start, chatting with a couple Maniacs (Jen and Sean in the very early miles)…the race was definitely a very friendly and relaxed atmosphere, and quite green! There were lots of trees, rolling fields and hills, and it was far more scenic and less of a city atmosphere than Providence. Within 3 miles I started feeling nausea…within 4 miles I had to stop at a jon. Here was Round One. I won’t get into details, but I will say I wasted a good 1:30 minutes just waiting to get into one. Getting started again I did my best to sort of play catch up with my pace.

Things never improved. I stopped again. And again. And AGAIN. I honestly had no idea how my body had anything left to give. But it was horrible. I might as well have been running with the flu. In the 70+ degree temps I actually had chills, nausea, and horrible cramping. I started to worry about hydration and foolishly left my hand-held water bottle in the room, so I had to rely on the water stops. Fortunately there were plenty, and the volunteers were absolutely wonderful throughout.

A lot of this race in the middle miles were a blur. I remember seeing lots of trees and pretty areas, and also lots of roadkill. Very few spectators. In fact, I think the roadkill actually outnumbered the spectators! But those that WERE on the course were awesome. Many were students from the University of Michigan donned in blue and yellow, and they REALLY were cheering us all on! I found that when I had the energy to converse with other runners, they were amazingly friendly and encouraging. I met another Maniac, Roger, who helped me keep my mind off things for a few miles as we talked about our 50-states quest and how far we both had to go. While I lost many of these Maniacs during the race, I saw them time and again during out and back sections, and no matter WHAT, we shouted encouragement to one another.

Around mile 15 the course suddenly got very crowded, and I know I didn’t catch up to a group of runners in a pack, but it turned out that the half marathoners joined us and were with us until their final mile. I can’t say why, but running amongst the half marathoners made me feel a little better about myself. I had covered quite a bit more distance, I was still holding it together, and by this point I had yet to walk. It gave me a small confidence boost.
At this point too, we got a lovely surprise: some of the race went through the Arboretum, which boasted beautiful scenery, unpaved dirt trails, and some hills. By this point I was wiped out, and the steep hills were just too much for me to handle. I walked, and felt absolutely no shame in doing so…not after what I had gotten through so far. I gave myself maybe a minute or two to find my bearings, get a little strength back, and force myself to kick back into a run. It was tough, and it took a lot of determination, but I knew I had to keep going.

When we exited the woods, I saw Chris a little past Mile 18. He was so happy to see me, and thought I was right on pace and really happy for me. Upon seeing him I burst into tears and collapsed into his arms, sobbing that I couldn’t finish, I couldn’t do this. It seemed impossible. I was so humiliated at how sick I was feeling, and how my body was just rebelling against me any way it could. He calmly told me “You’re doing great! You’re right on pace! You look so strong!” Words of love and encouragement poured out of him and gave me a some much-needed strength. He insisted I keep going and wouldn’t let me waste any more time blubbering, so I kicked back into gear and gave it my all to finish those final miles.

When you can start counting marathon miles in the single digits, you know you’re going to finish. Only an hour and a half, only a 10k, only a 5k…it starts to seem a little easier with each mile marker. As you get closer to the prize you feel a tiny boost of energy and excitement. I started feeling those pangs of excitement. I was going to do this. It was a new state, my 15th marathon, and while I wouldn’t have the best time ever, I was STILL going to finish this thing no matter how hard it got.

Sure, seeing Chris gave me a nice push…but my body was still in angry mode. I had to stop not once, but two more times. Ugh. I think the last stop I must have wasted a good two to three minutes. It was horrible. But once I got back onto the course I felt like it was finally my last stop, and I only had maybe 4.5 miles to go. This final leg of the race was an out and back that looped around the Briarwood Mall, so I got to pass runners that were heading to the loop. I saw many Maniacs I had seen earlier in the race, including Jen, and she was marveling that she was going to PR today, on this monster of a course. In hindsight, she was right, it WAS a monster of a course! Much hiller than expected, but also what is nice about hills is that what goes up also goes down, so there was some downhill to give us a break!

Around Mile 23 I saw Chris again and he was again cheering enthusiastically…which helped keep my mind off the poor dead rabbit on the street. I swear I have NEVER seen more roadkill during a race, EVER. But at this point I knew I was gaining strength since I had around a 5k to go. We looped around a road to cross a bridge, and Chris popped out again after running to climb up the stairs by the bridge to surprise me. It truly made me burst out laughing when he cheerfully shouted “SURPRISE! Come on! You can DO this! Come on! Don’t forget, we’re going to go to HELL* after this!” I couldn’t stop laughing at that, I realized at that moment he was right, I WOULD do this! I was really close and gaining strength with this knowledge.

The final mile and a half we had to do a small out and back, and of COURSE it was a nasty uphill one way, why wouldn’t it be? Every runner I passed I made sure that I encouraged them. Many half marathoners and faster full marathoners, donning their medals, cheered us on from the sidewalks, and I think it made a world of difference to our morale. What a boost! I think part of marathoning is how it brings us all together, we all have our eyes on the same prize and we all have to go to the same lengths to earn it.
The finish line took place in a stadium, not THE University of Michigan stadium (but how cool would THAT be?), but the smaller Elbel Michigan Band Practice field. It felt SO wonderful to cross that finish line, even though there were a handful of spectators, I was just so happy to have finished in one piece. My finish time was 4:32, definitely not my best, but not entirely dismal either! The amount of time I spent walking, inside jons (which surprisingly were quite clean and not nearly as bad as most other events), waiting for jons…it was a pretty good effort on my part.

The medal was pretty standard fare, but I was disappointed that it didn’t have trees on it. For some reason, the tagline for the race was “Run the city.” But to me, Ann Arbor was so much more than a city, it had so much green, lots of wildlife, lots of trees, I just felt the medal could have been designed to reflect the green atmosphere of Ann Arbor.
I had absolutely zero appetite, and all I wanted was fluids. I figured I would see what they had and snag a couple things for Chris. After all, spectating is hungry work (and I know he spent a lot of time hoofing it to find me on the course)! As per usual, a lovely gluten-filled spread of pizza, muffins, cookies, and other treats. I managed a bottle of water and a Gatorade and was content with it for the time being while he enjoyed some pizza.

Back at the hotel I managed to get cleaned up and stomached some plain white rice. It was about all I felt like having at the time. I really, really had zero appetite for hours. Chris drove me to Hell, which was a fun little stop, and then decided he wanted to visit the Arboretum and Peony Garden. It was absolutely beautiful, and we even were on some sections of the trail that I ran on during the race. The Mile 17 marker was still in its spot. By around 7 PM I realized that WOW, I was hungry and ready to dig into some much needed fuel.

We got to try a brand new place that isn’t local to PA called Noodles and Company, and it was amazing! They really went the extra mile to explain how they prepare the rice noodles separately from regular, and were very good at advising me as to what dishes I could get that were definitely GF, so a pad thai with no eggs and meat was ultimately my choice. We even took a little side trip to Five Guys to grab an order of fries (yes, I was VERY hungry by this point!) It was absolutely wonderful and felt so good to eat again.

Looking back on the race, I had good memories of Ann Arbor. If I physically felt well, I would definitely give it two thumbs up as one of my better races. Great people, small, low-key, wonderful and friendly volunteers, great shirt (it FIT and I liked the logo design) and decent medal, nice scenery (such a shame I was too out of it to recognize that we ran THROUGH the Peony Garden!!!) and a challenging course…just a highly recommended smaller race for Michigan that I actually would return to if given the chance.

Race Results

Finish time: 4:32:26
Overall place: 261/402
Gender place: 78/141
Division place: 10/20

What I learned

  • I already blogged extensively about this, but I think I know now that I really need to be careful about pre-race meals. Chipotle was NOT a good idea and I need to probably stick to more bland fare that isn’t loaded with spices.
  • I also need to DO MY HOMEWORK and ask again and again about the status of prepared food being gluten free. My health depends on it!

*Believe it or not, there is a small town maybe 20 miles northwest of Ann Arbor called Hell that I was dying to visit for the kitsch factor. We did manage to visit, and mailed some postcards from Hell to ourselves and family. They burn the edges of the card before post-marking it as a nice touch.

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