State # 22: South Carolina

Every winter I find I need to get out of PA and somewhere warm, and a run-cation is a perfect way to get in a mini-vacation as well as knock a state off my list. Last year after we went to Massachusetts, my friend TG and I discussed the possibility of flying to Myrtle Beach for race weekend, she would tackle the half, I would run the full. As the weeks passed, we finally decided to commit over the summer, and I helped outline a training plan for her.

One of the only downsides to training for a February race was that winter had been cruel, and it was really tough to get in much outdoor training after I ran Memphis. I’m not kidding when I say this, but I think I managed three outdoor runs. Any time I did attempt an outdoor run I was met with sheets of ice and treacherous terrain, as my trails are left unmaintained in winter (and I won’t share the road with cars). So I ended up doing a LOT of indoor training, with 16, 18 and 20 milers on the treadmill. Was it maddening? Actually it wasn’t bad, I would just find DVDs or shows to stream and find myself entertained as I ran. Considering Myrtle Beach’s marathon was flat as a board, treadmill training served its purpose. I didn’t need to worry about hill training this time around. I seriously just learned to love and appreciate my treadmill. I also managed a 75 mile week, which was a big accomplishment for me and I think it really helped boost my endurance.

The other downside? Pretty much the entire East Coast was in a state of deep freeze, and Myrtle Beach was going through the same unseasonably cold temperatures. When we arrived that Thursday, it was a high of 66, the warmest day we experienced that week.

IMG_2369                           It’s just another day for you and me, in Paradise…para…paradise

After being in below freezing temps for weeks, it felt like absolute paradise to sit outside at LandShark drinking a sweet tea margarita (don’t knock it till you try it!) in the sun, but that was short-lived as the temperatures dipped back down to freezing and the winds kicked up again to make it JUST like home. Good things aren’t always meant to last I guess!

Expo and Race Swag

The Expo was held right where we were staying, at the Sheraton Convention Center, so it made it very convenient for us to get out number and swag the first day of the expo, which was Thursday evening. It had been a while since I had been to a big race expo (besides Memphis) and TG and I both needed some running supplies (Gu, socks, sunglasses, etc.) so it was the perfect opportunity to get what we needed and kill two birds with one stone.
We got a REALLY nice reusable bag, probably the nicest I’ve ever gotten, and the shirts were red, long sleeved, and gender specific. Sure, they were loaded with sponsor logos on the back, but otherwise really nice shirts! The best part of the expo was, by far, the PUPPIES!

IMG_2379                                      And they called it Puppy Love…

I got to play with Molly, an 8-week old golden retriever puppy, as there was a booth set up by an animal shelter trying to find good homes for their puppies. There was another booth set up with maybe 12 dogs that were in training to be service animals. Not only were they trained to help others, but they were ALSO trained to take a dollar bill if you held it out to them!

Another best part was the free beer truck that had maybe six different free beers, and one was ANGRY ORCHARD!

Photo: Angry Orchard

They said the beer was free and they would be back and at the finish line for us. This. Was. Huge. I have run a LOT of marathons, and never, ever have I been able to enjoy a beer at the finish line since my celiac diagnosis. I almost cried with happiness, the very IDEA of getting a beer at the finish from the actual race organizers (and not my husband) sounded too good to be true!

The expo was full of great vendors and we managed to get all we need (finally got a new pair of running sunglasses, LONG overdue) plus some free swag from booths that were advertising races. Marine Corps marathon, I’m looking at you! I got a nice bag and bottle opener just for talking to the guy.

Pre-race dinner
I’ll say first off that my modified-paleo diet was disregarded while on this trip. When I am running races closer to home I think I am going to give the strict paleo a try. But I was pretty shameless with the food I was eating. That afternoon we dug into the Volcano Nachos at Margaritaville, barely making a dent in them, and had an Angry Orchard. I will be the first to say I LOVE LOVE LOVE Margaritaville. You can say it’s hokey or lame, or not like Jimmy Buffet’s music, but they REALLY take good care of their gluten-free patrons. The chef came to the table to talk with us, and they constantly made sure that all of our needs were met 100%. Thanks a million to our server Tim and Chef Sam for an awesome “lunch” that Friday.

We decided that the best place to carb-load that night while in Myrtle Beach was the Mellow Mushroom, a really great pizza joint with a fantastic gluten-free menu. I was really tired and decided to opt for take-out while TG went out with her sister and sis’ boyfriend; I was very sleep-deprived on this trip and decided I needed to just relax in the room than go out. But in the end, it turned out to be absolutely perfect! I got a gluten-free pizza loaded with veggies, a small chef’s salad, and a SIX PACK of Angry Orchard (they know me all too well!). I saved some of the pizza for breakfast (it worked VERY well when I ran Wineglass) and only managed one and a half ciders before finally passing out from exhaustion with maybe 5.5 hours of sleep before I had to get up for the race.

Race Start

The race started at 6:30 AM, well before sunrise. Bottom line: it was cold, unseasonably cold for the area. I have run colder races (MD was a 21 degree start and a 32 degree finish) and being from PA I didn’t even really mind it much. I was pretty well-dressed for the race, but looking at everyone else I probably looked WAY underdressed! I was in shorts, calf sleeves, arm warmers, double-gloves and a knit hatband. I was cold but not freezing. A lot of people were in much warmer running gear, most were in throwaway clothes (including bathrobes!), and some were even dressed with thick running jackets, heavy pants and balaclavas like we were running in the Antarctic. Look, it was 30 degrees and the sun wasn’t up yet, but I don’t know if it was cold enough to dress like Randy from A Christmas Story. Also, I’m from a part of the country where it’s just the norm to be that cold in Feb, so 30 degrees was actually almost comfortable. The sight of me in shorts must have garnered some pity, as one woman passed and handed me a metallic sheet from the Chicago Marathon and told me she had a spare. I was grateful for it in the end, but would have survived. Still, runners are an awfully kind and generous bunch!
We didn’t have to wait long once the bus got us to the start; we both hugged goodbye, wished eachother luck, and got into our respective corrals. The National Anthem was sung, the crank chair division started around 6:25 AM, and before we knew it, we were on our way!

Course

The course was pancake flat, and overall fairly scenic. We went through quite a few touristy areas loaded with restaurants and gift shops, but my favorite thing was DEFINITELY seeing palm trees!

IMG_2357                                  Best. Gift Shop. EVER.

Sure it was cold, but it was very nice to see run through a beachy, tropical atmosphere. I will admit that the cold made me want to run fast, and I felt like my first mile I was flying…until I look at my watch and saw 8:25 for the first mile. OK then, not nearly the 7-minute mile I envisioned my legs running, but it certainly FELT like I was running faster. I decided to run a conversational pace and just enjoy myself.

IMG_2413                                   Go pink lightning, you’re burning up the quarter mile…

The first 8 or so miles were pretty quiet and low key. Then suddenly I had a runner come up alongside me and start a conversation. While that might bother some runners, I certainly never mind that, especially when I had no intention to PR. When I run races now I NEVER try to set myself up for disappointment, I don’t like to say “I have a X:XX finish time goal”, instead I just say “Hey, I’ll run based on how I feel and go from there, if I do well, awesome, if I don’t, I still earned my finish and that’s all that matters.” So having a running buddy come out of nowhere was pleasant.Here’s the amazing thing. We talked for a bit, swapping stories. He was also a Marathon Maniac and working on his 50 states goal, and at some point we ended up talking about Hatfield McCoy Reunion Marathon from 2014. It dawned on me suddenly that I met this guy before!!! We ran together for maybe 2 miles right before Blackberry Mountain before we lost one another (I was struggling with pain issues and he trucked right up the hill…singing). It was pretty funny! Only because he was telling me about the horrible time he had travelling to HM’s marathon, and I realized I had heard this story before! So, Seth Cramer, from South Florida, it was really great to see you again, and thank you for helping those miles fly by. I hope we meet again soon! I know you have yet to earn PA and DE.

We ran and chatted and laughed for MILES. I’m SURE plenty of runners found us obnoxious and annoying because we were a bit raucous, but we were there to have fun and it wasn’t a death march, so we might as well joke around, have fun, and swap race stories. We ended up running with another guy for quite a few miles, but eventually lost him. We kept a good and consistent pace throughout, and it was awesome to get to run so close to the beach! It was absolutely beautiful with the sun out and just a few clouds. Sure, it was chilly, but with the sun up and my body finally warmed up, it was actually pretty nice for a marathon! Ten miles later though, I realized I needed a portajon stop, and it wasn’t going to be pleasant…I had to stop, there was no way I could keep going. So Seth and I parted ways.

Interestingly enough, we found each other again as I managed to somehow catch up. Guess I was having a pretty good and consistent day with my pace. I was feeling conversational, in a good mood, and never once hit the wall. The only problem I encountered was after the first half, the wind really started kicking in (10-18 mph, so not brutal but enough to slow you down a little) and made it just a little bit tougher. Any time we could detour off the main road was a blessing, to get the wind out of our face.

Water stops

Myrtle Beach’s marathon was very well-stocked with volunteers and more than enough water stops, one every 2 miles from what I could gauge. There was no fuel until Mile 16, so I made sure to carry two Gu gels with me for Mile 6 and 12 (I just stuffed one into the cuff of each arm warmer, easy peasy!). But the volunteers were very helpful and friendly, and I really appreciated them standing out in the cold for us. They had another Gu stop at Mile 22…and I managed to snag one more for the road. I am trying to be better about fueling myself evenly and not waiting until I feel like I’m going to crash, so it was just right. While I adore the salted caramel Gu, I will say that the salted watermelon flavor was a genius idea!

Finish

I never really hit a wall, but I definitely had some unpleasantness on the course. I could feel blisters forming in their usual places (never bothered with Vaseline or moleskin, which was a big mistake), and actually felt them BURST in my shoes. It was slightly nauseating. One toe I swear I could feel the fluid sloshing around in the blister before it burst like a water balloon. Painful but I just did my best to ignore it. I was way too close to the prize now.
Looking at my watch I could easily see I would manage another sub-4. Talk about a wonderful moment! I had managed three sub-4 marathons out of the last four that I ran, and I was so thrilled to see it was getting “easier” for me to keep a consistent and even pace throughout. In the past I know I always had problems starting off way too fast and then would crash and burn in the second half. Now I was staying evenly paced and not allowing myself to run faster than I could comfortably handle.

I was thrilled, too, to see TG and her sister waiting at the finish line with a camera in hand, and she had her medal hanging proudly around her neck. Yay! That was one of the best moments of the morning. I know that last .2 I just ran as fast as I could without bowling anyone over; I wasn’t trying to showboat, I just wanted to be finished.

IMG_2409Getting to see friends at the finish line is my ultimate reward!!!

 Place/Medal

My finish time was 3:52:20, a minute off my PR in Wineglass. If ONLY I didn’t need that restroom stop, I would have been RIGHT THERE! But I digress, my splits were almost identical, with my first half at 1:54, my second at 1:58…with a restroom stop and winds to push me back, I think my pace was almost perfectly consistent the entire race.  I used to run with 15-25 minute positive splits, but I was finally getting better at properly pacing myself.

I will say, too, I had several runners congratulate me at the finish line, pretty much the general message from all of them was “Strong finish, I was trying to keep up with you”, which was a REALLY nice thing to hear. Gotta say that runners are a pretty amazing group of people, sure you compete a little, but if you run faster than someone else, they aren’t sour grapes about it, but congratulatory and happy for you!

The medal was nice, a heavy metal set of flip-flops on a tropical lanyard. Part of me wished they could have incorporated the palm tree and moon from the state flag into the medal, but it was still a nice reward.

IMG_2407

Dreaming of the day I can start Lazing on a sunny afternoon…
and ditch the PowerPuff Girls hatband!

 

Overall Finish 407 / 1478
Gender Finish 99 / 623
Age Group Finish 20 / 121

Post-race spread and celebratory meal

While it was sunny out, it was COLD… and while we would have LOVED to stand around and enjoy the post-race festivities a little more, the wind was just making it a little unbearable. The finish tent food was actually pretty good, lots of fresh fruit to choose, muffins, granola bars and other gluten-filled carbs, but all I wanted (as I usually do after a race) was fluids, so I grabbed a Powerade and bottle of water. We did finally manage a toast at the beer tent, Angry Orchard and microbrew in hand, and while the beer was apparently as much as you could carry (gasp!), it was just too chilly to stand around in sweaty clothes and drink cold beer. Trust me, it was a real shame. 10 degrees warmer and no wind chill I would have easily enjoyed the sunshine and celebrated a little more heartily.

My post-race meal was, of course, at Margaritaville. I’m SO lucky to be able to travel with friends that are easy-going about meal planning and having to choose restaurants with GF options. I think some people might not be so generous about it and get a little resentful about it. But so far, in life, my friends and family care more about my health and well-being than their own needs, and that really makes me feel blessed.

I had a chicken sandwich (with bacon…OMG) with fries (double OMG) and their amazing (and enormous) brownie sundae. I barely put a dent in the sundae but had to make an effort! It was the perfect way to end the day before having to fly home to a wintery hell.

https://i2.wp.com/vsm.defocus.net/img/vsm-c0f26cab5a93f1353991ac8abbaf4f8f.png

Now that South Carolina is done, what is next? Well, I was SUPPOSED to run the Naked Bavarian Marathon this weekend but it got postponed due to inclement weather conditions. THEN I was SUPPOSED to run the Garden Spot Village Marathon in April and THAT got deferred because my parents treated us to a family weekend vacation that very same weekend, luckily the race organizers were VERY understanding! So life can definitely throw some curveballs, good and bad!

So, just maintenance for now, and it’s fine…a lot less pressure on myself. It’s good because I really am busy with upcoming vacations, social plans, and plus I got sick with a cold when I got home, so it’s just been slow recovery!

This May I’ll be running the Sugarloaf Marathon in Maine, and surrounding it with some smaller, local races as well. By the end of the year I will almost be halfway done my goal of 50 states and DC, but I also have a goal of running 100 marathons, which I think can easily be done if I include ultras in the mix.

It’s going to be a fun and exciting year, and I can’t wait to share it with you!

Advertisements

State #14: New Jersey (where AC became The Windy City)

New Jersey was an easy state to snag since it was somewhat close to home; it’s an easy weekend getaway without too much fuss. The Atlantic City marathon took place four weeks after my disastrous Montana marathon, and while my recovery was slow at first (it took me several DAYS to finally walk down steps without pain), my last long run of 15 miles felt promising. I felt confident I would finish and hopefully wouldn’t have any mishaps. Things like muscles cramps and knee pain are very unpredictable for me and can vary from race to race.

The weather the week of the race was tricky, and the forecast was constantly changing. Tropical Storm Karen had hit the Gulf Coast and we ended up getting the remnants of it by the end of that week. After six weeks of gorgeous and perfect weather, we finally got our due (and honestly, we needed it…running past completely dry creek beds just made me a twinge of sadness) and it rained buckets for two days.

The weekend forecast for Sunday’s race seemed iffy: there was a 30% chance of rain, and no doubt it would be windy since we would be running along the boardwalk. But for this weekend it definitely kicked up a notch and we definitely had some uphill battles to face on a “flat and fast course”. Chicago’s marathon was the same day as Atlantic City’s, and all I could think was that the Windy City would be HERE in New Jersey.

We managed to get to AC with 45 minutes to spare before packet pick-up at Caesar’s Casino closed  that Saturday (there was no race morning pick-up, so it was definitely a you-snooze-you-lose scenario). We lamented the $20.00 price tag to park, it was highly annoying to think we’d have to pay $20 to get in and out in less than a half hour. We scrambled to find the Ballroom where the expo was held and luckily found it with ease after traversing the smoke-filled casino. I barely had time to even check out the expo itself, I just wanted to get my number, shirt, and get out of there.

I was happy to see that at packet pick-up we received two vouchers for $5.00 parking at the casino for race weekend. Talk about relief! The shirt was also very good quality and fit perfectly. I always love when they make men’s and women’s sizes, makes the biggest difference when you get a small. Men’s small is still huge on me. Afterwards we explored what we could of the area, but it was pouring rain and we didn’t want to hit the boardwalk or explore any outdoor areas since we were completely without rain gear and umbrellas. We managed to get ourselves dinner and settled in fairly early, which is ideal to attempt a good night’s rest.

AC Skyline – Bob Krist

Race morning I woke up feeling completely overwhelmed. My stomach was a mess, as I had been having some pretty severe GI issues in the past week, and the forecast looked somewhat grim. While rain wasn’t a concern, the wind definitely was: wind speeds were 16-24 mph with gusts up to 35 mph until that afternoon. Ugh. I actually shed a few tears just wanting to drop out of the entire thing but Chris pulled me together; he said “You’ll do great, you always do! It’ll be an adventure! It might not be your best race, but you’ll have plenty of stories to tell when it’s over.” That Chris, seriously my biggest fan and motivator. Ever! He never, ever lets me down.

We accidentally ended up taking a different way from our hotel in Egg Harbor Township and were seriously hustling to get to the starting area. The road we took had a red light every 5 feet it seemed, and in the end he managed to drop me off with just a minute or two to jump into the starting area while he parked. I stood way in the back and had absolutely no idea when the race even began. In my haste I had completely forgotten to pack a watch, and it would be my first marathon I ran without one. Talk about a major rookie mistake! In part though, it kind of made me feel less pressure, and I didn’t even care when I finished. I just knew I needed to finish in one piece. Starting from the very back I had to slowly work my way towards a pace group I felt compatible with…while I never ran with a pace group and had no intention to start, it at least helped me gauge how I was doing since I didn’t have a watch. Chris said that is usually how he can tell when to start looking for me at the finish line. Once the 4 hour pace group goes through, I’m usually not too far behind. That’s why he was so panicked when I took so long to finish Montana’s marathon…finishing at 5:28 is unheard of for me, and I think he feared the worst had happened.

As the race began I was happy to see I felt pretty good. The weather was cool and overcast, and the wind was kicking up a little but a lot of it was at our backs in the early miles. The initial start on the boardwalk was very pleasant, I actually loved running on the boardwalk because it was a flat, softer surface with zero camber. This factor makes a huge difference from road races I think. I crossed the 5k point at 27 minutes and felt pretty good about my conservative, conversational pace. We hit a few overpasses in the beginning miles, so the hills were knocked out pretty early. I also found it fun to run through a long tunnel, though it felt maybe 15-20 degrees warmer!

I met several runners throughout the early miles, and everyone was super friendly, cheerful and chatty. We only got hit by a couple wind gusts and just laughed it off, as a lot of it was still helping push us forward. One guy I met was running his very first marathon and had a lot of questions, especially about hitting the wall. I discovered later the furthest distance he had ever run was 13.1 miles. Oh boy. Well, I guess he will just have to learn the hard way that the distance is one not to take lightly. I never got his name, but we were fast friends for at least half the race until I finally lost him around Mile 18. I wish I did get his name, I would have loved to see how he finished.

I met several Maniacs and a couple people who were running on their birthday. I absolutely love this! What a better way to spend a birthday than getting up and running a marathon, only to be amply rewarded with a medal and lots of finish line goodies? Yes, I realize only a crazy runner would think this!

We hit the boardwalk area around Mile 8 and noticed the wind was still strong, but pushing us forward gently. Chris was along the boardwalk taking pictures and waving and I felt a swell of happiness that I was able to assure him I still felt good. To top it off, I felt a definite burst of energy when I snagged a Power Gel at Mile 9.5…until then we couldn’t find Gels if our lives depended on it (it was getting to the point where some of us were getting cranky), and I usually try to take in my first gel around mile 6 or 7. The course description made it seem like there would be more water stops and gel stops then we knew how to handle, so I never bothered to pack any gels or bring my Nathan. Since quite a bit of the course involved out and backs, we passed the same tables.

Once the halfers turned around to go back to the finish line at Bally’s, we ran along the windy boardwalk and noticed the crowds had thinned substantially, the sun was out, and the winds were fiercely kicking sand into our faces. But it was still not too fierce, it was more shoving us to the side. We turned right off the boardwalk and this is when things really started to get dicey and more difficult.

There was a lot of out and back on this course. What made it hard, for one, is that there was really no etiquette as to people coming back, the road wasn’t divided into two lanes for the faster runners to pass the slow, so we pretty much did our best to keep on the proper sides…but it could definitely cause a little backup and confusion at water stops, not to mention mile markers! I saw Mile 16 before Mile 15 and thought, blessedly, I passed 15 without noticing it, but nope, it was simply further out because there was a turnaround. Also, the wind was definitely gusting hard and taking its toll on the runners. It never ceased, and there was no refuge from it whatsoever. If you were heading west, it helped to nudge you along or maybe pushed you to the side, but if you were running east, it was like trying to push through a brick wall at times. The gusts got up to 35 mph and there were times where I felt as if I was running in place on a treadmill. Never had I run in windy conditions like this for such a long distance. I was used to maybe 15-20 mph winds during training runs, but oftentimes you could be somewhat shielded by the hills and trees along the trails. In this race you were simply out in the open with little to help soften the blow. Sometimes it even seemed as if the wind couldn’t even make up its mind, and I was pushed back, to the side, and then forward in a matter of a few seconds, like I was caught in a mini tornado. I laughed incredulously when this happened, it was almost too ridiculous to be true.

My one thing I was very, very proud of was that I never walked (unless it was through water stops). All the people who passed me in the beginning miles were suddenly starting to walk. People that passed me miles ago and were nowhere to be seen ahead were trudged along angrily as I passed. I think the wind really did a lot of people in during the final 5-6 miles along the boardwalk. By that point the wind was fierce and relentless, sand was getting whipped into my face and even in my eyes. I simply turned up my headphones, searched for an ass-kicking sing (like Foo Fighters’ White Limo) and mentally pushed…hard. I didn’t quit, instead I grit my teeth and soldiered on.

I knew the finish line was at Bally’s casino, and it could be seen like a shining oasis in the distance. The visibility made it VERY deceiving though…while it looked like the finish was in sight by a mere mile or so, I still had several miles to go. The boardwalk was also open to the public, so we had to navigate around the sightseers, walkers, gamblers and tourists as we headed east toward the finish. I honestly don’t even think that most people realized there was a race going on that day!

I realized as I ran toward the finish that I actually felt GOOD. No knee pain, no muscle cramps, just a little hip flexor soreness and some soreness in my feet and toes, but otherwise I felt strong and was so relieved to see that the end was in sight. All I could keep my sights focused on was Bally’s and Trump Tower, and KNEW the finish was within reach. As we pushed against the strong wind gusts the crowds started to thicken with spectators and encouraging cheers. All I could do was smile, wave and thank everyone. Ordinarily I would cheerlead for other runners as I passed, but I was too exhausted to do much else. Chris stood waiting just before Mile 26 and I could tell he was SO proud. I think I surprised myself even that I didn’t totally give up!

The finish line seemed so far away even at Mile 26, but all I could think to myself was one step more, another step, another….I just had to keep moving, keep pushing. I never did a full on sprint as I sometimes had seen others do in a final surge of energy. I didn’t need to finish ahead of anyone else. I simply wanted to finish, and that was my ultimate reward. Once I crossed the finish I staggered to a volunteer to get my medal, and slowly kept moving.

The medal has a real blinking light in the lighthouse! Not to mention a bottle opener! Perfect for all occasions.

I remember in the final couple miles there was a girl in pink that was loping ahead of me, then I would pass her, and we sort of played an unspoken game of Catch Me if You Can. In the end, she finished ahead of me by less than a minute, but enthusiastically said to me “Great race!” with a grin. All I could think to myself was “I was really never racing anyone”, but honestly, maybe for some reason it helped push her to have someone to focus on defeating. It was fine by me, as I had never had any expectations anyway. We chatted for a minute while loading up on fluids, both in agreement that the wind really killed any time expectations, but it kept my spirits soaring. I had done it, and couldn’t be prouder that I finished in 4:12, a 9:37 minute-mile.

After a long and tough race, I was amply rewarded with more fluids than I could consume, and grabbed a couple Rita’s water ices at the finish tent.  I cannot even describe how good that water ice tasted. I needed nothing more than that to get me through that very moment. The sun was shining, the day wasn’t even halfway over yet, and all felt so RIGHT in that very moment in time. I won’t say it was my favorite marathon or my best finish time, but I will say it was definitely a successful one. I am very proud of my accomplishment that day, and hopefully can have an even stronger finish at my next race.

My Race Results

  • Finish Time: 4:12 (9:37 minute mile)
  • Race Place: 300/825
  • Gender Place: 102/369
  • Age Place:33/119

What I learned

NEVER EVER doubt yourself! I was literally in tears race morning thinking there was no way I would ever finish, and in the end I did better than I expected. I stayed steady, made sure I had plenty of fuel in the tank, and had FUN. It was a great time!

So here are my states conquered so far. Slowly but surely you can see I am making progress, and soon will have to head west a LOT more!

14 states

State #13: Montana

Years ago I remember the state I was most apprehensive to run a marathon was Colorado, mainly due to the elevation; never once did I assume Montana would be a difficult state and I looked forward to the challenge. The marathon I ultimately chose, the Two Bear Marathon, had so many appealing things, how could it possibly end in disaster? Oooh, it’s a really scenic race! Scenery is totally my thing. Awesome, 16 miles are on trails! I love running on trails! Elevation is only  3200-3800? I did pretty well in Colorado, and it was twice the elevation. Hills? Please. I did my second-best time running Hatfield-McCoy. Piece of cake.

Never again will I underestimate a race like this. Years ago I ran a 15k on technical trails and I found it to be incredibly difficult. My usual 8:30-9-minute mile was crushed and I finished in over 2 hours. I was third from dead last. It was a very humbling experience. I wasn’t even angry or humiliated, I was just relieved that I finished without twisting an ankle.
Multiply that experience by three, and you have Two Bear in a nutshell.

Two Bear was by far the smallest and most beautiful, picturesque race I have ever run. There were less than 100 full marathoners, and it was in the outskirts of Northwest Montana in the small resort town of Whitefish, a mere 20 miles from Glacier National Park, one of the most scenic national parks in the country. I knew it would be one for the books, and I couldn’t wait to experience it.

The elevation chart alone speaks volumes of the level of difficulty of this race, at least for a seasoned road runner like myself. The first 16 miles are on winding, technical trail, a lot of single track, although some of it was on wide, flat logging roads. Absolutely gorgeous scenery, but unfortunately you spend a majority of time looking at the ground to ensure your step isn’t misplaced and you unceremoniously stumble your way into an injury.

I will preface this recap by saying that my camera died very early in the race, and any pictures I managed to take weren’t great. So I am sad to say I don’t have too many photos to capture the essence of Two Bear!

The morning of the race we were bussed up to the starting area before sunrise, the air was crisp and cool and the runners were all quite friendly. I even met some Maniacs in the start congregation area, Maniacs whose numbers were in the triple digits (whereas I’m 6301); yup, I felt like QUITE the newbie, but they didn’t bat an eyelash over that sort of thing.

The start was literally a bright orange line spray painted on the ground, and the race director made some brief announcements, mainly reviewing what to expect during the trail section. She warned for us NOT to pass on the section of trail that was along a steep cliff wall. This generated nervous laughter from some of us, some wide-eyed glances from others. I started feeling this sense of dread. All I kept thinking to myself, because I am a pillar of confidence, is Oh man, please don’t let me finish last.  The gentleman at the start line popped off a prop pistol to start the race and we were on our way. No chance of backing out now!

The first mile or so is uphill, and I felt it almost immediately. My lungs burned from the thinner atmosphere and I had a hard time adjusting to it, as we had been in Montana for less than a day and a half.  The trails were easy to navigate and not overly rocky at first, and allowed room for runners to find their groove. As the trail section continued, some of the sections were narrow and twisty, sometimes with switchbacks as you climbed uphill. My legs burned and I was already feeling well worn-out by mile 8 or 9. I was aware of the single track not allowing much room for passing, and I constantly made sure I was aware of runners on my tail; I stopped often to allow people to pass and they always passed with thanks and a bright word of encouragement. I never, ever wanted to hold up traffic because of my inexperience. I needed to stay in the slow lane and swallow my pride.

The scenery was unlike anything I ever experienced during a race. Any moment you could have easily snapped a picture and it would have been suitable for a glossy running magazine photo. The air was clean and crisp and the aspens were changing with the season. The woods were fragrant with the deep scent of pine (I was reminded of the Disney ride “Soarin” when they spray the pine smell as you “glide” over the California Redwoods…it really was that strong) and the trails ran alongside gorgeous and colorful cliff-sides; there were breathtaking views atop hills of beautiful Beaver Lake, and birds called pleasantly as the sun peeked through tree branches. There were many, many times where I was completely alone on the trail and it was almost like a magical cinematic moment. The woods were deep and vast, it was almost frightening how small I felt and how easily nature could swallow you whole if you took a wrong turn. Luckily the course was well-marked and side-trails were roped off with bright orange tape or a volunteer directing which way to turn, otherwise it would have been easy to get lost for hours and not see a single soul.

At water stops, I allowed myself some time to catch my breath, fill my water bottle and talk with the other runners and volunteers. I can easily say that time was definitely not a factor, I knew I would be running a possible personal worst that day, and let myself have fun rather than get huffy and upset over numbers.  I think I probably wasted a good ten to fifteen minutes at stops, and it was worth it to get a second (or ninth) wind. I underestimated how difficult the hills would be, not to mention the trail sections were quite rocky and difficult to traverse at times. I found myself accidentally kicking my right ankle quite often (and to this day I still have a scab from it) and as the miles passed and I grew more and more fatigued. I stumbled a lot in the final trail miles due to pure exhaustion. I never completely fell, but I had quite a few close calls, pinwheeling my arms for balance and yelping out in surprise. I must have been one of the luckier ones, as I saw a blood-soaked paper towel on the course and other runners with bloodied knees. I stubbed my toes quite often, wincing in pain, but made sure I kept moving. My quads absolutely ached and my right knee started sharply barking at me at around the halfway point, likely from all of the lateral movement and changes in elevation. Never in my life had I experienced such difficult conditions for a marathon. I think if it were a half I would have had the energy to finish somewhat strong, but a full definitely kicked my butt pretty badly. So, I must say to all of the trail/ultra-runners out there, I salute you in proper AC/DC fashion.

The elevation chart shows a very steep downhill around Mile 15. It was so steep and my legs were practically jelly by this point, so I carefully walked it, my muscles burning from trying to find my footing and stay upright. I never in my life felt so out of shape, so challenged. It had taken me close to three hours to run (if you could call it that) 14 miles, and I am usually at Mile 20 by around this time. It was just unlike any race I had ever run, and I didn’t bother to practice on the super technical trails back home. While I ran trails often, they were much more user-friendly than the ones Two Bear had to offer.

At the end of the downhill we suddenly hit pavement and the stupid part of my brain muttered in relief “Oh Thank God, something I can work with here”. Ugh. Not sure WHY I assumed the last ten miles would be a way to catch up on my horrible pace. Transitioning from trail to pavement was an absolute shock on the system, and my right knee was extremely aggravated. The first few miles I managed to keep a decent pace, carry conversation, and it felt as if I was actually running a regular race again. Sure I was exhausted, by Mile 16 I felt like I had run the full marathon already, and slowly ran out of steam by Mile 19.

There were several factors that made the last ten miles difficult. One was that the road portion was in full sun with zero shade, and Montana was experiencing warmer than average temperatures for that weekend. While it was only in the mid-70’s, the cloudless sky absolutely sapped any energy I had left. Second, half of the miles (15-20) were entirely uphill. Why not, right? Third, I constantly found myself going back and forth between shoulders on the roads that weren’t closed to traffic. It was scary to see a Jeep barreling around a sharp corner with probably no idea we were in the road, so I did my best to adjust my gait to the camber and keep my eyes open for vehicles.  While I know as a runner you are supposed to run against traffic, with the sharp corners I felt much safer running with traffic because I knew they would at least be able to see me from a distance. Lastly, my knee was furious with me and there was no placating it. It forced me to walk a LOT in the final miles.

I don’t think I ever walked more in a marathon in my life, and felt pretty annoyed and frustrated when I was walking at MILE 25. For God’s SAKE! Mile 25?!?!? By then I am just so ready to be DONE I bolt in the last 1.2 miles just to cross the finish line! Instead I was walking and shuffling like I had just run 100 miles. I hadn’t had knee issues like this in years, but I imagine it was due to the beating I took on the trail section. I do recall in the final miles seeing a massive uphill on a residential road ahead of me, and groaning inwardly at the sight, only to have a teenaged volunteer direct me to veer left onto a flat side street. I almost wept in gratitude, I couldn’t have imagined taking a wrong turn on such a steep uphill, thank goodness he was paying attention!

The finish line couldn’t have come sooner. The crowds were next to nothing at this point, as most runners had finished, but those who stayed still applauded and cheered with gusto.  It felt great to have the announcer say my name, hometown and state; in fact, I was the only full marathoner from PA and felt a little proud to represent.

The medal was awesome too, a polished black granite disc with the logo etched on it hanging from a leather strap, and it weighed close to a half a pound. I think it is by far one of the most unique medals I have received, and even Chris marveled at how substantial it was. “WOW, that’s quite a medal!” he beamed.  I could do nothing more but smile and nod…it felt so good to finally be finished and know I had a hot shower to look forward to within minutes.

I have run 16 marathons to date, and this one was one for the books. I had my slowest finish time ever, 5:25. I was glad to not have finished dead last. I was so worried about my knee and if I had done some damage to it, getting in and out of our rental vehicle (did NOT help matters that it was a Dodge Durango) was excruciating and I could barely walk. The rest of the week my quads were so incredibly sore above and beyond anything I had felt from Hatfield-McCoy, and it took well over a week to recover from muscle soreness alone.

But in the end, I did it. I earned a new state. My knee recovered within 24 hours. The soreness subsided. I can look back on my accomplishment with pride and think that I never quit, never cried or got upset, never got angry. I simply finished, earned my medal with a smile, and know that the experience will make me more resilient to tough challenges. My next race will be nothing compared to Montana, and I know I’ll be ready for it, stronger than ever.

How did it stack up to other marathons I ran?

The EXPO: The expo was more of a packet pick-up with a single Hammergel table letting runners sample their wares. The shirt was great quality and a perfect fit, thank goodness, since they didn’t allow size exchange. With a race that size, I don’t expect that anyway. There were two separate lines for the half and full, which made it well-organized and quick for the full marathoners. I didn’t even have to deal with a line.  The only downside was that the packet pick-up was in a gymnasium of a local fitness club. The expo was on one side of the gym, and the other side sounded like a group of children were having a screaming contest to see who could come up with the most high-pitched, annoying scream possible. It made packet pick-up swift with little delay. I only wish that the club had considered that could be a major deterrent to the runners. It was near impossible to ask questions of anyone, as all you could hear were high-pitched shrieks and screams that drowned out anything on our side. I promise I am not trying to sound like Gru from Despicable Me…cranky and crabby. But I wasn’t alone in my sentiment.

Support: The volunteers were incredible and get top marks across the board. They always wanted to keep track of your number to make sure you were staying on course and to ensure that we all finished, they happily filled bottles, provided any fuel or fluids you needed, and asked over and over how you felt, if you needed anything, and offered lots of cheerful words of encouragement. The volunteers ranged from grade school kids to seniors, and all were equally amazing. Made you feel really good knowing they cared and wanted to make sure your needs were met, and they always let you know what to expect in the coming miles. Plus there was no lack of water, energy drinks, Hammergel, cut bananas, orange slices and pretzels. You didn’t even need to carry gels for this one. The only downside is porta johns are non-existent more or less until you get to the paved section of trail, so you either have to hold on or let go of your pride and go for it in the woods!

Spectators: Mother Nature and her entourage are the only spectators beyond the volunteers in the trail section. There were also two girls in bear costumes there to cheer us on. I tried to pose for a photo opp, but my camera battery died early, which was a huge bummer. I will say they were ADORABLE and made my morning. Once you get to the road section, again you pretty much see volunteers and very, very few spectators. Don’t come to this race and even expect spectators of Hatfield-McCoy proportions…because even that is asking for a lot.

Finish Line FareAs a celiac, and an exhausted one at that, I barely looked, but there was a beer truck and a pub stand that provided free pulled pork sandwiches and cole slaw. Beer always sounds good at the finish line, and thankfully Chris had a couple cold Angry Orchards waiting for me! I didn’t see much else, but was thankful to at least be handed a cold water by a sweet little girl that volunteered at the finish line. It was all I even needed at the time.

Swag: Awesome medal, one of the most unique ones I ever received, and a wonderful long sleeved grey tech shirt with the Two Bear logo and it actually FIT. The bag also had some Hammer samples, such as electrolyte tablets, and wasn’t overly loaded with a lot of excess waste, and for that I am always grateful, actually.

In the end, though it was a very tough race for this inexperienced flat-lander, I can look back upon it with many, many fond memories, and would highly recommend Two Bear to anyone who wants to truly experience Montana at its most challenging. It was well-worth the trip!