The Beasts of Milwaukee

Kahn had a plan. And when Kahn has a plan, things quickly get interesting. He laid it all out to me over post-run pints at Triple C. It sounded pretty crazy, but a lot of good plans do. After about an hour of listening to Kahn’s sales pitch, I had pulled up the registration page for a marathon in Milwaukee and was signing up. (Some interesting side notes: I think Chris Harker’s beer played as much a role in my decision as Kahn’s admittedly solid sales pitch. And this same beer also played a significant role in this: I managed to register for the wrong marathon! In my defense, what city has two marathons less than a month apart?!?)

Here was the plan. We were going to recruit a bunch of runners to travel to Milwaukee to run the Lakefront Marathon. To make things more interesting, we’d set up a race within a race – since everyone differs in natural ability (Thanks God, or Mother Nature, or Zeus, or Isis, or bad decisions by my ancestors, whoever is responsible for my hummingbird-sized heart and asthma-ravaged lungs), we’d establish a handicap system to level the playing field. We’d all throw money into a pot, winner take all. The biggest loser would have to chug a Milwaukee’s Best Ice (shudder) moments after crossing the finish line – let the puking commence.

We signed a bunch of recruits early: Mike Beigay, Philip Ciccarello, Brad Belfiore, Will Isenhour, Aaron Linz, the Mayeses, and of course, my better half, Laura. We were excited. We chatted about designing logos and ordering singlets. Kahn started his own hashtag, #BEATLINZ. I went to work on a handicap system. It was on.

But over the course of the next few months, we started losing people. Beigay broke his toe playing kickball. Philip had a newborn who needed him more than we did. Kahn strained his vagina. Our little race-within-a-race turned into a battle of attrition until with just a few days to go before the race, there were only four of us left: Aaron, Adam, Laura, and yours truly.

Laura was freaking out. After looking back on her plan, she discovered her longest run during the training cycle had been 16 miles. This put her into panic mode. I tried to ease her concerns – one need only look back less than six months prior to see she had in fact run a 26+ miler (Boston). It’s not like we’d been lying around eating Snickers and fried chicken – we had some pretty significant mileage overall, just not on individual long runs. But then I looked back at my plan and realized my longest run was even shorter than hers. Then I got a little panicky too.

But there wasn’t much we could do about it. It’s not like you can up your training three days before the race (well actually you can if you want to be really stupid about things). All I could do was watch the Milwaukee weather forecast and keep my fingers crossed.

We made it to Milwaukee without significant incident, even with a short layover and a lot of rushing around, the biggest travel snafu being at the security checkpoint in Detroit where I put my laptop and computer bag into the same bin resulting in me getting pulled aside and reprimanded by the TSA.

Safely in Milwaukee, we hopped in a cab. When our Middle Eastern cabbie’s phone rang and the ringtone sounded like this, I cursed myself for being a racist as I thought, “Crap, that’s ISIS calling.” But he took us to the hotel without beheading us and was perfectly polite in the process. So shame on me.

We checked in, dropped our bags in our perfectly adequate room, and Yelped our way to a little Vietnamese joint around the corner for lunch. I was a wee bit concerned that this might be risky pre-race fare, but it was tasty and inexpensive and the staff was super-friendly – score. We walked the mile and change to the expo at the Italian Community Center – I was a little nervous about all the time on our legs (we’d already put down a few miles hoofing it around in airports). We picked up our packets and bought a few throwaway long-sleeve tech tees ($3.50 at the expo, $20 here – again, score!) We ran into Aaron and learned that he wouldn’t be joining the Mayes and us for Italian carb-loading as he is a pre-race-meal steak kinda guy.

Audra made dinner reservations at Zarletti where we enjoyed some tasty, albeit expensive, pasta carb-loading. Laura and I drank a couple of Peronis each, or as Mr. Ulrich has dubbed it, “Italy’s Budweiser.” I didn’t care – I needed some nerve-calming beverages.

After dinner, Laura and I walked another two miles or so in search of food for breakfast in the morning since we’d be getting up well before the hotel started serving. We found a convenience store where I paid something like two-hundred bucks for some steel-cut oats and a jar of peanut butter.

We were back in the hotel by 8:30 but it felt like 1:00 or 2:00 AM. I tried to watch a little TV to settle down but I was still pretty amped. Laura went straight to bed. It felt like 90 degrees in our room and no amount of fiddling with the thermostat seemed to make any difference. I wanted to call the front desk but didn’t feel like dealing with some two hours of hassle so I just opened a window and hoped for the best.

And then it was go time. My alarm went off at 4:30 – we had to be on a bus by 6:00 to get shuttled to the point-to-point race’s start at Grafton High School. The typical race-day morning scramble ensued – “Do you have pins? Where are the gels?” I made coffee and Laura took our oatmeal downstairs to heat in the microwave. When she brought it back, I took one look and declared, “I can’t eat that.” It looked like the breakfast you’d expect from the Gulag Archipelago. I had visions of gagging if I even tried a bite – I opted for a few spoonfuls of peanut butter instead.

We made the mad dash around the corner to Aaron’s hotel, one of the official race ones, to hop on a school bus to the starting line. We met Adam in the lobby but with no sighting of Aaron by 5:55 or so, I started feeling panicky and told the gang I was getting on one of the buses lined up out front. So Adam and Laura and I started boarding sans Aaron when he came running out of the hotel and joined us and probably less than a minute later, the bus headed down the road.

I chatted with Mr. Linz and Mr. Mayes while Laura, in the seat behind me, chatted with her seatmate. She later relayed to me how he confided to her that he had been injured during training and his longest run to date was 6 miles. Ouch, very ouch – I feared that dude was in for a very long day.

The bus dropped us off at the high school where we made our way to the cafeteria to await the start, still an hour or so away. And miraculously, they had food – I spotted a giant pile of bagels. But when I approached, I saw a sign listing prices. Okay, no biggie – I had a credit card. But of course, as my luck would have it, when I asked one of the volunteers if they took cards, she replied in the negative. Sigh. But when the lady saw how crestfallen I was, she said, “You know what, take one. Just do something nice for somebody. Pay it forward.” Hurray! I snagged a bagel and it kept the two teaspoons of peanut butter in my belly from feeling so lonely.

We were rapidly approaching the start time so we stripped down and I bag checked our layer of warm clothes (including my $3.50 tech tee – I liked it too much to throw away!) I realized too late that I had probably prematurely checked our bags as, in nothing but split shorts and singlet with some 20 minutes to go, I was freezing – the weather, high-40s and overcast – was perfect running weather, but it was cold standing-around-and-waiting weather.

Laura and I lined up to use the port-a-johns one last time and I pulled her against me in a desperate attempt to keep both of us warm – she, even with arm sleeves, was shivering pretty significantly. In the line, we struck up a conversation with a lady who told us she was trying to qualify for Boston so shooting for a 3:40 to make sure she got a nice cushion under her 3:45 qualifying time. We finished up our business and then made our way to the starting corral.

We spotted the 3:25 pacers so lined up close to them as that would be right in our wheelhouse. I figured I was not fit enough to hit my handicap time, 3:21, but Laura had a great shot of nailing hers, 3:27, which also synced up pretty nicely with my Boston qualifying time. With a BQ time of 3:30, I figured I’d better shoot for at least 3:28 to have a realistic shot of getting in – this year qualifying had been 2:28 under the mark so I needed to at least be in that ball park. I told Laura we’d just run low 7:50s pace for as long as we could and let the chips fall where they may.

In the starting corral, Laura, as she is known to do, started crying. “Save those electrolytes!” I said as I pretended to chastise her. She’s so emotional, bless her heart. The announcer said a few words, someone played the national anthem, and finally we were running.

As usual, I wanted to start out a little slower than goal pace, for the first mile or so, then lock into race pace later. Laura’s Garmin was not in sync with mine, which she was finding disconcerting. “What’s your watch say for pace?” she asked. “8:15”, I answered. “Mine says 9:05! What do we do? Split the difference? Speed up?!?” She sounded a little panicky so I tried to calm her. “No, we’re good. Relax.” We were cruising comfortably and the pace felt right. We came through the first mile marker right around 8:10. Perfect. I sped up the slightest bit in an attempt to get us locked in around her handicap and my BQ pace. We made our way past a giant cow pasture where the cows mooed loudly at us – that was pretty funny. Were they cheering? Begging for food? We may never know.

We cruised along right around the goal pace, Laura still panicky at our watches’ marked discrepancy while I continuously worked to reassure her. “We’re right on pace. We’re good. Trust me. Relax.” I did not feel this same confidence for the lady we chatted with earlier in the port-a-john line. We passed her somewhere around mile 5 which means she was very substantially under pace through 5 miles or so – not the greatest of race strategies in this man’s humble opinion.

My usual fueling strategy entails taking a gel around every 40 minutes, or ~5 miles, depending on where the water stations are. We ran through mile 5 – no water station. Mile 6, nada. By 7, I was starting to panic. “Where’s the GD water stop?!?” Finally, at nearly mile 8, I spotted the station up ahead as we ran through the lovely campus of Concordia University on the banks of Lake Michigan.

I finished taking my gel and saw a garbage can along the curb. When I went to step up, I twisted my ankle and subsequently dropped a huge F-bomb. But it seemed none the worse for wear so I kept on soldiering along.

I felt great. The weather was as close to perfect as one can hope for as we even had a tailwind – it was race-day dream weather. I cursed myself for not being a little fitter because this day had PR written all over it if only the fitness were there. Sigh – I was one piece shy of the race-of-your-life-perfect-storm scenario.

Laura and I, still side-by-side, came through the half right at 1:44 and I got a little nervous – I was afraid a 3:28 wouldn’t be good enough for a Boston qualifier. So I ever so slightly started picking up the pace.

For quite a while, Laura had been telling me she was having a hard time. We ran past somebody’s house where a large group of people had gathered to tailgate and watch the race. It was a big crowd and they had a fire pit and canopies and smoking grills and the waft of deliciously grilled meats found its way to my nose. I pointed to the scene and told Laura, “That’s the way to do it right there.” “Huh?” she asked. I repeated my statement. “What?” she inquired. I said the same thing for the third time but she still hadn’t heard me. Frustrated, I grumpily replied, “Never mind.” To which Laura said, “Please be nice to me. I’m struggling here.”

By mile 15, I was chomping at the bit to speed up. I couldn’t stand it anymore – I took off. After a few seconds, Laura asked, “Hey, what pace do you have?” and I looked down at my watch and saw 7:20. I didn’t want to freak her out so I answered, “Seven-twenty-something.” To which she said, “That’s too fast for me – I’m not doing that. Just go.” I took off and just cruised at low-seven-twenties-pace and still felt great.

I should know better – if you haven’t run more than a 15-mile long run in a training cycle, you really shouldn’t expect to feel great through 26+ miles. I know this. But in the middle of a race, sometimes we tend to get a little optimistic, which I did.

I soon realized that my eyes were faster than my legs when shortly thereafter maintaining 7:20 didn’t feel so easy anymore. I backed down to something more akin to goal pace, always trying to stay ahead of my Boston qualifier. Even in my loopy long-run state, I knew that if I just ran 7:50s the rest of the way, I’d finish significantly under.

Easier said than done – I did a lot of watch checking. Things weren’t completely unraveling, but there was a string hanging off my sweater and somebody was pulling at it. But I was managing – whenever I checked the watch and I realized I was running slower than 8-minute-pace, I was able to speed back up and dip back into the 7:50s.

And the course was very obliging. Around mile 20 or so, some guy called to us runners, “It’s all downhill from here!” I prayed that he meant this literally and not metaphorically.

It turns out he was being literal. With few exceptions, the course was down to flat after mile 20. Luckily, I was able to maintain goal-pace thanks in very large part to the course.

At the mile 23 marker, I glanced over and saw Adam seated on the sidewalk. I cried out, “Dude! No!” but he gave me the thumbs down and called out, “I’m done.” But he also cheered me on which was very nice of him under the circumstances and made me grateful to have him as a friend.

At this late stage in the race, I was beginning to struggle, and yet not like so many of my past marathons – I was fading, but it wasn’t death. ‘The Darkness’ as I have affectionately referred to the bonk was more like “The ever-so-slightly Dimmer.” I was tired, but not destroyed.

I was pretty locked in at race pace and just sort of zoned out. I was a little frustrated at the narrow half-lane that was coned off for us as much of it was the declined-slope part of the road and therefore difficult to run on. And as I was passing hordes of folks who were walking/cramping/puking (oh how grateful I was not to be one of them!), I spent a lot of time running just to the right of the cones, on the level part of the road, moving back inside when a race official yelled at me to do so and/or when I was faced with oncoming traffic. I approached some running doofus who was intentionally weaving in and out of every other cone – I have no idea why. When he nearly plowed into me as I passed him – I said, and did, nothing – that was my $2-bagel-pay-it-forward moment. You’re welcome, dude.

Around mile 24, two guys passed me, and one of them said to me, “Come on guy, you can finish!” which broke me out of my little just-hang-on-and-qualify trance and, the truth be told, pissed me off a little. The guy’s statement felt condescending – it wasn’t like he blew past me running 5-minute-pace and it wasn’t like I was walking. If I was running 7:50s, he was running 7:49s. So I sped up and passed him back. And then he and his buddy passed me back. And there was a girl, Kristen, wearing a singlet with “Eagles” printed on the back, who was in this mix as well. The four of us took turns passing each other. I had a new goal – beat these three.

Then just past 24.5, a spectator cheered, “Go Allen! Go Laura!” and I turned around to discover my wife was directly behind me. We both started laughing as she cried out, “Damn it!” and I yelled at her, “You are so sneaky!” And then she dropped me like she was a Pentecostal poisonous-snake handler at that moment when he realizes he’s bitten and thus forsaken by his god. I was the snake in case you’re having a hard time following this metaphor.

I tried to go with her. But she was rolling. I felt like somebody had set me up with all the “I’m really struggling” talk early in the race. Because she was clearly not struggling now. I was. But how could I be upset? After all, I’m her coach. Maybe I’m just a better coach than runner.

I was so grateful to see what I thought was the last mile marker up ahead. When I got to it, I cursed because it read 25.5. Who puts up a twenty-five-and-a-half mile marker?!? Why?!? Aaron and Laura both told me later that they really appreciated that marker which led me to the conclusion, “Only people that are running and feeling really well past mile 25 appreciate a 25.5 mile marker.”

Laura buried me, putting over a minute gap between us in about a mile and a half. On the plus side, she dragged me past the little group of three that I was racing prior to her arrival. She finished in just under 3:26 and I was just over 3:27. She beat her Boston qualifying time by nearly 20 minutes and came in under her handicap by a minute and change. I was under my BQ by right at 3 minutes, but was well over my handicap.

Aaron finished in more than two minutes under his handicap, only 6 seconds shy of the top master which would have won him $100. He now owns the official title, “Beast of Milwaukee”.

That afternoon, after a couple hours of recovery football-watching/napping, etc., we all met up at the Milwaukee Ale House for food and brew. As fate would have it, the race director along with a big contingency of Badgerland Striders, the running club who puts on the race, were celebrating in the same venue. We hung out with those guys and had a great time drinking, chatting, chowing, and cheering (the Packers game was on).

And while I continue to give Kahn much shit for organizing and then bailing on us, I am grateful to him. I would never have decided to run this race on my own. Who would ever pick Milwaukee as a race destination?!? But it was an awesome experience and one I’ll relish forever.


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