Allen’s Road Back

Submitted for your approval:  A 45-year-old man, trying for years to qualify and run the Boston marathon, gets sidelined with an injury.  His time away from serious running should only be temporary.  Should be.  But months later, he finds himself still struggling to be able to compete, fortunate to run 3 measly, slow times a week.  His road to Boston then detours through an odd place, a place where patients with IV’s draw in deep breaths from cigarettes while standing directly underneath clearly marked signs that read “No Tobacco Products”.  A  place far, far away from his planned destination.  A place called…

West Virginia

This one came about unexpectedly, at an odd time.  Back in October, Nancy, she-of-the-lead-foot, received a speeding ticket while driving through West Virginia.  In order to avoid points against her license and higher insurance rates, she signed up to take a safe driving class.  This required her to return to West Virginia.  She didn’t want to go alone so invited me along for the ride.  I seized upon the opportunity to knock out another state in my ongoing side quest to run a road race in every state.

I did some research and this was the only road race nearby.  The Winter Series 5K it was.


Friday afternoon, we loaded up the car and hit I-77N, which some have rudely dubbed “The Hillbilly Highway” for its direct route to West Virginia, nicknamed The Mountain State, a rather ominous name for a place where you’re about to run a road race.

In a few hours, we arrived in Charleston shortly after sunset.  The road we came in on was lined with refineries, creating a surreal, apocalyptic vision as fire and steam shot out of huge towers.  It was pretty ominous – I felt more like I was entering Mordor than a city in the U.S.

This is what the industrial section of Charleston, WV looks like.

But moments later we pulled into the parking lot of the Wingate.  Nancy had gotten a pretty sweet deal on Priceline at this decent hotel within walking distance of the courthouse where she’d take her class and only a few miles from the start of my race.

We checked in and then set out in search of food.  I quickly downloaded the Urban Spoon app on my phone – this app alone has single handedly improved the quality of my life.  Back in the pre-smartphone days, I would either eat at a spot within walking distance of my hotel, or I would ask a hotel worker for recommendations then spend hours getting lost as I drove around in search of their recommended restaurant.  Now I can just pull up Urban Spoon and check out nearby restaurants.  And that’s what I did.

Nancy and I decided to try a nearby Korean restaurant.  But when we neared it, a guy wearing tattered clothes and a do-rag and carrying a 12-pack, stumbled by.  I took this as a bad omen and decided to try elsewhere.  We finally settled on a nearby Mexican restaurant where the waiter, with a heavy accent, asked me if I wanted a “tall” beer and gestured the size by holding his hands vertically apart from each other, by about a foot and a half.  I answered, “No, small.  Short.”  with a gesture of my own, signing a small mug of about 5 inches high.  The waiter returned with a gargantuan Dos Equis, seriously, about the size of a pitcher, at least 3 beers big.  But yeah, I didn’t correct him.


The next morning, Nancy headed out for her scheduled 2+ hour class while I hit the free breakfast buffet in the lobby.  I was excited about having down time with just me, my Kindle, and some freshly-made waffles.  I was stoked when I discovered I was the only person in the lobby.  Right up until the moment when an obese family of 4 showed up.  Things were still good when they parked their over-a-ton-of-cellulite-butts at the table on the other side of the lobby from me.  But then the youngest member, a rollie-pollie kid of 4 or so, screamed, “No!  I don’t wanna sit here!  I wanna sit there!” and pointed to the table directly adjacent to me.  Fork me.  And because modern American families cannot say no to their kids for some reason, the entire family relocated to mere feet away from me, and hijinks ensued.

The family got their food and plopped down and I could forget about any peaceful reading as the kids were as loud as they were ravenous.  The youngest made return trip after return trip to the buffet, making sure to finger each and every item on the buffet.  After one such trip, he returned with an English muffin, took a bite, and started wailing.  “Something’s wrong with my doughnut!” he screamed between tears.  His father, outraged, like the kid was biting into poison, yelled, “Throw that thing away and go get a doughnut!”  He then forced the boy’s older brother to accompany him back to the buffet where he could find a proper doughnut.  I am not making this up.

While my breakfast time was being ruined, Nancy was taking her driving safety course.  Apparently, West Virgina’s driver safety course consists entirely of watching this video.  She was back at the hotel before I finished breakfast.

Now we had time to kill until that night’s UFC that we were both looking forward to watching.  We stopped by the front desk and asked about local attractions.  The girl at the desk gave us a little notebook with local attractions so we perused the list before finally settling on the West Virginia State Museum.

A few minutes later, we were walking through the history of West Virginia.  Nancy snapped this photo of me out front:

I attempted to imitate the miner's pose, but instead wound up looking like I was doing Aaron Rodger's touchdown dance, or as Mary and Sarah know it, "The Discount Doublecheck".

The museum was laid  out as a timeline of West Virginia history.  I found it fascinating that apparently nothing occurred in the state between 1960 and 1977.  (I later found that the timeline sort of detoured off for those years.  It almost seemed like the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war, and the like, were dirty little secrets to be hidden off the main museum timeline.)

After the state museum, it was time to eat.  I broke out Urban Spoon again and found the Bluegrass Kitchen within walking distance.  The name scared me a little – maybe it conjured up one image too many of the Grand Ol’ Opry.  I imagined a floor covered with straw and a Minnie Pearl look-alike waitress welcoming us with a “Howdy y’all!”  But the menu looked good and it was nearby so we gave it a shot and I was glad we did.  It was actually a hipster joint and our waiter was about as different from Minnie Pearl as a human being could possibly get – he was a thin, 6′ 5″ black dude, tattoo-laden, with a giant bushy fro.  I had “The Perfect Chicken” sandwich and it very nearly lived up to its name.

All that was left on our Saturday agenda was UFC.  Again, the smartphone improved my life by letting me know that there was a Buffalo Wild Wings nearby showing the fight.  I panicked a little when we first entered and 99% of the TV’s had the West Virginia/Miami basketball game on (only 2 geographic locations in the world cared about this game and we were in one of them), while the prelim fights were only being shown on 1 little TV off to the side of the bar.  But as soon as the game ended, the staff put the fights on all the main televisions.  This UFC event proved to be one of the best ever as *SPOILER ALERT* Frank Mir broke Big Nog’s arm and Bone Jones helped Machida take a little nap.  I minimized my beer consumption since I would be “racing” the next day.


The race wasn’t until 2:00 that afternoon so we leisurely killed time at the hotel breakfast buffet, luckily sans the anti-English-muffin family.  Around noon or so, we headed towards the site of the race start, the CAMC (Charleston Area Medical Center).

On the drive over, Nancy asked the question I should have thought of the day before, “Where at the hospital is the start?  Hospitals can be big places.”  I didn’t know the answer but thought that it would be obvious once we arrived.  I was wrong.

I pulled into the hospital and could see no signs of a road race.  We drove into the visitors parking deck where I asked the lady lot attendant something like , “Hey, do you know where this road race starts?”  She had no idea and had heard nothing about any road race.  But she kindly let me park in a reserved section.

We had plenty of time before the race started so I wasn’t panicking.  Yet.  We walked into the hospital and looked around.  Nothing about a road race anywhere.  I picked up a phone labelled “Information” and asked the  lady on the other end.  She knew nothing either.  By now, it was nearing 1:00 and a tiny feeling of panic began to creep into my psyche.  I was so close – I didn’t want to miss out now.  It would make for a long drive home if I had gone all the way to West Virginia to run a race and then didn’t because I couldn’t find the start.

We walked back outside where I spotted a couple of girls in running attire.  “Hey, are you here to run the 5K?”  They were, but they weren’t sure where it started either.  But one of the girls said, “I read something about the start being at the WVU building” and she knew where the WVU building was, so I just followed  her.

Sure enough, volunteers were set up in the WVU building.  Whew, finally, I could relax.  I walked up to the desk and registered and paid the lady and she said, “Okay, you’re all set.” “Um, do we get a packet?  Do we get a bib or a chip or anything?” I asked.  “Nope”, she replied.  “When you cross the line, they’ll hand you a popsicle stick with your finishing position written on it.”  “Ah, we’re going old school!” I said, although I can never remember running in a race where you didn’t at least get a bib, dating as far back as 1982.  No t-shirt, no timing chip, no bib, nothing.  I did eventually get a blinkie light, which is something at least.  It’ll come in handy on some night run somewhere.

I went for a little warm-up and scoped out the course – flat, fast, out and back.  I regretted not being in shape because this was a PR course on a PR day with the temperature in the low 40’s without a hint of wind.  The Achilles seemed to be holding up okay but I was surprised at how nervous I felt for a silly little race.  I had no expectations and intended only to put forth a tempo-like effort.  I thought I’d try to maintain 7:00 pace.  I felt like a sub-22:00 would be acceptable but I really had no idea how fast I could go as I’d done no speed work whatsoever in months.

Finally, race time was upon us.  Nancy snapped this photo of me at the starting line:

Toeing the line in WV. That's me in the beanie, sunglasses, and arm sleeves. Check out the girl in front - the stripe on her sleeve runs exactly parallel to the stripes on my singlet - weird.

After a few opening remarks from the race director, he then counted down to the start and we were off.  I made the usual concerted effort to throttle back,  more important today than ever as I was in no kind of shape to maintain a fast pace.  I tried to just relax and settle in at a sub-7 pace.  As usual, I was substantially faster at first.  I glanced at my watch and noticed I was cranking out sub-6 pace so I forced myself to back off.

I settled in and got as comfortable as possible.  I think I did better than usual at ignoring folks that passed me – I had to.  Going the least bit too fast could mean a ridiculous crash and burn.

I didn’t feel the Achilles at all for the first mile which my Garmin told me I ran in 6:31, a little faster than I expected, but then again, when have I ever run the first mile in a 5K slower than I expected?  I slowed down.

Nearing the turnaround, I got a good look at the leader.  He was cruising, looked legit, and had a very commanding lead.  Second place looked to be struggling.

I was surprised at how comfortable I felt, even passing a few folks.  But by mile 2, I was in no man’s land.  Barring a super human burst of speed or a complete implosion, I was finishing in this spot.  I ran mile 2 in 6:53, a little disappointing after the fast first mile.  I concentrated on speeding up a little for the last mile, but not so much that self-destruction was imminent.

As I neared the finish line, I saw the clock approaching 21:00.  I knew I could break 21:00 with a little burst of speed, but I didn’t want to sprint and hurt something.  I picked it up just enough to finish in 20:56.  Nancy snapped this photo as I was finishing:

On the verge of adding West Virginia to the list of states where I've run a road race.

20:56 was my slowest 5K of the year, and my first one over 20.  And yet I was pleased.  It proved to me that I can run some tempos as part of my training for Boston.  I’ve been running right at 16 miles a week for the past few weeks.  I plan to get over 20 this week, hopefully around 30 next week, and then start “normal” marathon training the week after that.  I will have to continue to work through these injuries (I have some weird ab issue that hurts worse than the Achilles at the moment), but at least this race proves that I can start incorporating a little speed work into my training.  Optimism.

Allen’s road back ran through West Virginia.   My journey continues.  Make sure to say “Hello” when you see me out there on the road to Boston.


3 Responses to “Allen’s Road Back”

  1. mrnedlo Says:

    i just want you to know that my parents are visiting and i just read the section about the hotel breakfast buffet aloud for the entire family. nice work.

  2. Rob Ducsay Says:

    I hate when my doughnut taste like an English Muffin. Talk about buzz kill……

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