Making Peace with the Marathon: Indianapolis Monumental

Indianapolis, Indiana: November, 2017

For the first time, the course left the streets of Indiana’s capitol, and instead led us through a park near the city’s art museum.  Residential Indianapolis was temporarily replaced by glowing deciduous trees, caught in that few day interlude between peak autumn foliage and drooping, empty branches. The surroundings became a monochrome of golden rust that made the low hillsides look like a still flame, coming to life only when a breeze blew by, tossing astray a few leafy embers.  The early November air may well have been controlled by the runners themselves, as if our registration fee covered an enormous outdoor thermostat set to a perfect forty-seven.  A DJ outside the art museum played Fergalicious, and even that seemed to fit well with the flawless backdrop of this race.

Mile nineteen of a marathon wasn’t supposed to feel like this.  Nothing nagging, no fatigue -and I don’t mean no fatigue for mile nineteen of a marathon, but the actual, fresh, just left on a Sunday jog kind of no fatigue.  I wasn’t even hungry. I wondered silently at the start of each mile if this was the one that would see my pace would begin to drop, quickly followed I’m sure, by the proverbial other shoe. 

I didn’t vocalize these thoughts to Dave, my friend and training partner, as he would’ve responded with a genuine yet disinterested “You’ve been training better, so you’ll run better.”  Dave was a miles guy –   He’d routinely hit seventy miles a week, not only during peak training but also well through the months leading up to peak training, adding on before and after our group runs.  Earlier in the season, he ran eight miles from his house to the start of a half marathon, completed it, albeit slowly, and then ran home.  I had the opposite strategy – I had become jaded of the marathon after running seven in the span of a year and a half, and decided to focus on the 13.1 instead, setting off to build speed and core strength.  It wasn’t until July that I had any desire to run even two steps beyond that distance, but I caught word of a new training group near home geared for more serious runners that combined strength training with marathon level mileage.  I gave in and signed up for the full race.

I arrived the night before to attend the expo.  Downtown Indianapolis looked like an amalgamation of cities with which I was more familiar – the tight blocks of Cincinnati, the flatness and corporate feel of Columbus, the architecture of Louisville.  Unlike all three though, everything was in close proximity to each other.  Outside of the trendy Massachusetts Avenue (Mass Ave) district, the nightlife was concentrated within several blocks.  This gave Indy an alive appearance, with all the city’s merrymakers in close quarters, reveling in the big chains like Yard House or Rock Bottom that have become ubiquitous with rust belt downtown revival.  The nearest cities are much more nodal, with pockets of hip separated by rolled up sidewalks in between.  The concentration was surely convenient for workers and residents, but to a visitor the downtown seemed a bit generic.  Clean and safe, but generic -as if I were dropped in any other Midwestern city with a recently revived center. 

This perception changes when turning onto Meridian Street in full view of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.  I had seen pictures of it many times – its image is on practically every piece of info about visiting the city.  St. Louis has the arch, Indianapolis has the monument.  It is even featured in the marathon’s name – locals don’t ask if you’re “Running the Indianapolis Marathon” but if you’re “running Monumental.” 

I was surprised at how tall and imposing it was in person.  At only fifteen feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty, it is an easy waypoint in the flat downtown.  Monument Circle, which surrounds the obelisk, looks more European city center than cow town crossroads.  The area is well lit at night with horse drawn carriage rides and outdoor dining around its circumference.  This area is the city’s identity, and rightfully so.

There were quite a few street performers in the vicinity of the circle, some more talented than others.  I witnessed a pickup hip hop dance show where the artists encouraged passersby to join in.  A large woman in a drug rug was playing drums and, with a jovial smile told me to “have a blessed day!”

“You too” I responded, grateful for the pleasantry. 

“If I don’t get a cigarette, I’m gonna lose it!” she said, laughing and not breaking the beaming grin.  I said I couldn’t help her there and she kept smiling and giggling as I walked away. “Gonna lose it!” she said once more. Seemed to be a bit of a belated concern. 

After grabbing some food and checking out the marathon expo, I plugged in the address for my Airbnb and discovered how easy Indianapolis is to navigate.  Meridian street runs due north past Monument Circle, through the city and well into the suburbs with just one slight bend to bridge the White River before immediately correcting itself onto its original axis.  All I had to do was to follow it for ten miles then make a left. 

I was staying with my friend Connor’s mom and her friend who had rented out this basement for the last several Monumental Marathons.  There were at least four bedrooms downstairs and it was exceptionally large and private for an Airbnb in a subdivision. The hosts came downstairs to introduce themselves and told us anything in the fridge was fair game, full of beer and food left from past guests.  This would’ve been nice had Connor’s mom and her friend not brought an entire pantry for the two night stay.  One of the hosts good naturedly jabbed that he doesn’t normally allow anyone from Ohio to stay in his house.  I wanted to remind him that he his state is so flat that if there was an ice storm in northern Indiana, a man in Fort Wayne could slide a curling stone to his brother in Gary, and that they had eight times elected Mike Pence to something, but instead I made a self-deprecating joke about the Browns and complimented his lovely home.

The morning of the marathon, it was just chilly enough downtown that I was able to wear shorts and a technical tee shirt provided I brought a throw away for the ten or so minutes that I would be waiting in the starting corral.  This came in the form of a ten year old hoody with University of Florida stitched across the front.  I’m not really a college sports fan but this hoody was a gift back in the day and it had become a sort of good luck item over the years, to the point where I became a casual Florida fan, if for no other reason than to agitate my Ohio State friends.  Tattered from use and rigid from a decade of detergent it was time to let it go.  A donation to both the cause and to a local charity.

I found Dave and Cory in the starting corral.  We had trained together and planned on running at least the first half together, as our paces were fairly similar.  Dave the attorney had a solid running career in his earlier days, winning some short distance races outright in division II college competition.  Now in his late forties and two years removed from a quarter century hiatus, he was bringing his marathon times back down toward where they were at the time, give or take 20 minutes.  Cory’s goal was five minutes behind ours, but he wanted to start off with us and see how it went.

The gun went off and we clung to our pacer, striding in lockstep with his high turnover.  We left downtown Indianapolis heading south, quickly passing Lucas Oil Stadium and turning back northward, the street side alternating between warehouses and new loft apartments.   The group passed the monument in a semicircle, lauded by spectators as we headed toward the trendy Mass Ave district.  A dancing stick figure on an LED screen welcomed us to the neighborhood.  The area was far less crowded than the previous night, when nearly every dining establishment was inundated with hour long wait times and tipsy postgrads.  Mass Ave is a fairly small entertainment center, but it is almost entirely made up of locally owned bars, restaurants and shops, whereas the downtown and Monument Circle areas are predominantly urban chains.

It was shortly after Mass Ave that Dave started to notice a problem with our pacer – a way too fast problem.  We were almost four miles into the race and had been gradually upping our pace by about ten seconds each mile.  Our group of about twenty had come up behind the pacer ahead of us.  His sign, with attached balloons bouncing up and down with each step, towered over an even larger group displaying a much more ambitious goal time.  I wasn’t particularly concerned as my ideal time was somewhere between the two conjoining pacers, but those who were more enthusiastically striving for a specific and consistent mile split were rightfully perturbed.

Dave was one of the perturbed.  Twice he questioned the pacer, receiving at first a stock “oh, my bad.  I’ll slow down.”  The second time the pacer responded that he liked to go well ahead for the first several miles and then fade for the second.  Banking minutes.  Nobody seemed too thrilled with this but around mile seven he did as promised and began to slowly drift back to our desired pace.

This continued as we headed north down a wide street flanked with old money homes.  The urban surroundings had given away to a bronze-leafed residential area almost without my noticing.  With few natural features to suggest a changing area, Indianapolis neighborhoods appear to begin and end at random, flowing gently from one extreme to the other.  My Airbnb was near the northernmost point on the course, and also very near the halfway mark in the neighborhood of Meridian-Kessler. The race is almost an out and back in that the furthest point from the finish is mere steps after the 13.1 mile mark, after which we would run south in a roundabout manor back to downtown Indy.  It’s unlike an out and back in that, save for a couple miles between miles 23 and 25, we never along the same stretch of road twice.  The route is nearly parallel to itself in the southernmost and northernmost portions of the race, while much wider in its midsection.  This makes the course map look like a giant foam finger pointing towards Carmel.

“Look at this guy over here!” I heard from my left.

Cory brought me out of my map-related stupor as we rounded the finger and ambled toward mile 15.  Pedaling up from behind us in the open lane was the head coach of our running group, recording a video on his phone and paying little attention to what was in front of him.

“He thinks he’s faster than us!” Cory teased again as Coach Alex passed by, phone still firmly in place.  He asked how we were feeling, to which we all said “good” or “not bad” or whatever.  We were telling him the truth and he pulled us steadily away from the pacer while recording us for an awkwardly lengthy period of time.   Once he had peddled onward we found ourselves speeding up each mile.

By the time we hit Butler University’s campus, Dave and I had dropped our pace about twenty seconds and carried with us a small breakaway group who had done the same.  I looked back to see how Cory was doing and saw that his stride had lengthened.  “Go on!” he said with a gloved thumbs up. 

Our group was down to seven including Dave and myself.  A young couple from Cleveland were pacing a girl who had given up marathoning for fifteen years and signed up for Indy on a whim.  With them was a man in his late sixties who claims he had run sub 2:40 in his youth.  Given the pace he was running today, I was inclined to believe him.  The only name I got in our motley group of strangers was Marty, who was enthusiastic in the most enterprising sense of the word.  He was constantly shouting encouraging aphorisms into our weary ensemble.

 “All downhill from here!” he exclaimed after running up the one and only hill of any size on the course.  After this, we were treated to “Can’t stop, won’t stop” and “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take!” and the like.  I think he was just getting around to “Live, laugh, love!” when the young couple dropped back, unable to keep pace with the girl they were intending to pull along, though perhaps they had simply endured too many clichés for mile seventeen of a marathon.  Marty’s intentions were good, but if I weren’t having a good race it would be all downhill from there with my patience.

He was nice enough though, and knew interesting facts about every inch of the course, passing miles seventeen and eighteen with Indianapolis history.  When we entered the auburn-canopied park surrounding the art museum he blanked and had no idea what the Victorian era building surrounded by gardens was used for.  Dave was getting pretty well finished with Marty but it was at this point I experienced the often strived for ‘runners high’ as we quickened our pace yet again through the leafy urban refuge.  We crossed the final checkpoint and I knew that everyone would receive a text alert that I wasn’t simply on goal, but well ahead.  The second verse of “Fergalicious” being played by a DJ near the museum’s exit only served to enhance my euphoria.  Runners high is a strange and wonderful thing.

Mile 20 was my fastest of the entire marathon, and even then I was waiting for the crash.  Even the first signs – sudden hunger, general malaise, and lengthening stride – had not yet presented themselves.  I started to calculate what I would need to do from here on out to hit a new personal best, and as the miles ticked by it became more and more absurdly doable.  By mile 23 I realized I could actually walk the final 5K and still have my fastest marathon.  Not wanting to give in to that type of thought I attempted to keep up that same pace.  “One step at a time!” said Marty to nobody in particular.

We were back on Meridian Street, heading south this time and after traversing a tiny bowed bridge the downtown skyline was in view, a distant Soldiers and Sailors monument our beacon to the finish.  This area was more crowded with spectators and the excitement of a quick finish was palpable. 

“Let’s lose these young guys” the gray-haired said to Dave, who had started to pull away from our group.  Dave’s high mileage was beginning to show these last few miles.  I looked at my watch as they pulled away from us fairly quickly yet I hadn’t slowed at all.  Dave told us later that he had run his last two miles almost a minute faster than his goal pace indicating he could’ve run this whole race a lot faster than he did.  I was ready for Marty to remind them that it was “a marathon, not a sprint” but instead he attempted to follow.  Our splinter group had been passing other runners with astonishing frequency for the past six or seven miles but now it was becoming even more commonplace.  Even at our pace, which ended up being within the top 10% of finishers, a plurality of runners around us had become walk-runners.  Considering when I exceed 20 miles that is normally me, it felt pleasantly foreign to be on the passing side for once. 

During the final mile I was running alone.  A few of our makeshift pace group was up with Dave, the rest had dropped back and were presumably still running strong.  I passed several friends from my training group who had run the half, offering high fives and wearing comfortable looking jackets with medals swinging around their necks.  Ah to be them, legs frozen in place, bodies fully saturated with coffee.  Maybe they had even eaten something.  Yes, I was sure they had eaten something.

The blocks in downtown Indianapolis seem longer than most, though I’m not sure if they truly are.  The finish line area includes two turns that finally break the long, flat straightaway where I had spent the better part of the last twenty minutes.  I was finally ready for it this race to be done – yes, it took longer than normal for that feeling to creep up, waiting until around mile 24 and a half, but it had finally arrived.  I turned onto the last block of the race, and heard Lauren cheering for me – usually I can’t find her or anyone else in the crowd during a large race like this but it gave me a boost and I kicked it into the finish line on nitro.

I went straight for the fence, HeatSheet tied around my neck and draping down my back, which I’m sure made me look like I was Professor Snape in gym shorts. I needed a quick breather, and just happened to run into my friend James, another guy from my running group who finished about ten minutes ahead of me.  Volunteers were everywhere.  That’s a neat medal, thank you.  Ooh and a winter hat too, wonderful.  Yes, I’d like a banana. 

It’s difficult to consider my thoughts on the marathon without taking into account that I ran my fastest time by 28 minutes.  I was about a minute behind Dave, and about seven ahead of Cory.  I couldn’t honestly assess the course without at least a little bias.  Yes, it was flat.  The weather was perfect, and I don’t use that word lightly.  Also, the autumn leaves, when in view, were magnificent.  There are more attractive cities than Indianapolis, and less attractive ones as well.  I was honestly surprised by how tree-covered the entire city is.  Organizationally, I loved the wave start and that they were rather strict with the corrals – nobody enjoys flat tiring a walker at the start of the course when the gun goes off and you come up quickly on someone out for a stroll.  One problem, which bothered Dave particularly, was that this did happen at some of the water stops.  Several were situated at bottlenecks or immediately after turns, causing runners to screech to a stop to avoid rear-ending someone who has yet to learn the art of grabbing a paper cup on the fly.  That aside, I will never be able to think about the Indianapolis Marathon without remembering that feeling at mile 19 – that I can keep up this pace and enjoy full marathons again, that my new training group had tapped into a closeted elation that I had experienced during my first few attempts at the distance, but had since lost.  I had run the second half eleven seconds faster than the first.  Behind me were the days of the infamous runners’ wall and swearing off running more than twenty miles at once.  I won’t be running three fulls in three months again anytime soon, but after Indianapolis, I know I don’t need to.  I don’t care how perfect the conditions were, I’ve made peace with the marathon.  Now give me coffee, beer, and Netflix – in whichever order they come.

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