Lost Shoes, Gained Perspective: Two Columbus Marathon Stories

Columbus, OH: October 2014/October 2019

The morning of my first attempt at the Columbus Marathon, I woke on Derek’s couch at five AM and immediately began slinking around trying not to make much noise, a difficult ordeal in the dark even with the foresight of attaching the bib to my shirt the night prior.  Chomping on granola bars, tripping over my luggage, and forgetting to turn off my subsequent alarms must have sounded to Derek like the Columbus Orchestra chose his studio apartment for a dress rehearsal. Somehow, he was able to sleep through the entire performance, at least until the grand finale in the form of a trifecta of expletives, two adjectives and a noun, when I went to put on my running shoes.  Now, I know runners can be an obsessive bunch, treating any race day apparel faux pas as an overblown incident – dressed too warmly, watch won’t sync, didn’t bring sunglasses – but shoe issues are the one element that can truly end a race before it starts, so I felt the language was warranted, and this particular shoe problem was urgent even by these lofty standards:  They weren’t there.

Not only were they not there, they weren’t even in this city.  I was a half hour from starting a race in Columbus and my shoes were in Cincinnati.  Had I realized this last night I could have bought a cheap pair at the expo or drove back to get them but nope, this big reveal planned its timing and waited until two minutes before I was heading out the door to the starting corral. A quick assessment into the situation: All I had was a pair of boat shoes, still wet from the previous night’s rain.  Barefoot running would be out of the question even if I wouldn’t be traversing the Short North on a weekend morning.  I guess I could drop out of the race and just cheer on my group – This would be the most sensible option but I’ve never DNFed before and didn’t want to start now.  I was leaning toward just walking it in boat shoes when I looked over at my mead-groggy friend sleeping in the corner.

“Hey!” I whisper shouted.

He kind of half-turned and fumbled for his phone, saying nothing.

“I forgot my shoes.” I said, trying to sound calm.

“Your car’s downstairs, right?”  He said.  “take my keys for the elevator.”

My car was downstairs, yes.  I explained to him how that would unfortunately do me no good.

“Do you have anything I could run in that are better than these?” I held up the soaked Sperrys.

With a deep breath he got up and perused the closet with minimal expectations.  Now, Derek is a pretty decent runner these days but this was back during the pinnacle of his post-college sloth, the icy midst of the frozen pizza era.  I wasn’t sure he would find anything and he wasn’t optimistic either.  I realized then I didn’t even know his shoe size. 

“Hold up, I might have something in here.”  He said, pulling mounds of clothes off a plastic blue storage bin.  “I never unpacked this.”

The lid collapsed on him and he fell in bottom first and suddenly we had a bit of a flipped over turtle situation on our hands.  After a moment of deciding whether to laugh or become further stressed about the race, I opted for the former and helped him out of the bin.  He reached in and pulled out what I would run my marathon in: a size too small pair old pair of basketball shoes with grass stains where the tread should be.  This would not be a PR but at least I could try and finish.

Derek went back to sleep and I walked to the starting line, running a few short strides in his shoes to determine if I would end up with merely a planar fascia issue or if it would be full blown tendonitis.  They felt okay but I assumed that would be fleeting.  I met up with Brad and informed him of the morning’s events, but he was nonplussed.  He was coming back from injury and just wanted to try and run a four hour marathon and I told him I would pace him if he wanted since any time goal I had was completely thwarted.

Brad ended up dropping out at the half marathon finish when the course circled back through downtown and I finished the race with negative splits, only about a thirty minutes slower than my normal pace.  My feet had warped to the shoes somehow, and I was able to run the entire second half, through Ohio State’s campus and the city’s east side, without stopping to adjust them.  There was some lingering pain for a week or so thereafter but for the most part I escaped my shoe miscue unscathed.  I had this incident in mind five years after that first Columbus Marathon, as I returned to the starting line along the Olentangy River, this time with my own footwear, for my first Boston Qualifier attempt.

I chose Columbus for several reasons – flat, ideal mid-October conditions, Derek’s couch – and after adequately training for the first time in a couple of years I felt I could at least feel decent at the BQ pace for twenty miles and then ride coattails. 

I arrived a day before the race and my impression of the city was as it has always been when I visit Derek’s downtown studio, and it’s that Columbus is nice.  That’s the best word for it.  It’s the kind of nice that is described to you prior to a blind date about a companion that may not be particularly attractive, or have the most interesting stories but is generally inoffensive.  It’s a clean, fairly safe for a city for its size, and has restaurants that make food that tastes good.  It has young urbanites walking down High St with other young urbanites to decent bars with above average service.

Indeed Columbus is nice; but something is missing.  It doesn’t feel like an actual city, more like a halfway house designed to ween twenty three year olds off of their cul-de-sac upbringing before they make their way into the real world – a trainer city.  Columbus is the kind of place to live if you seek in-vogue urban adulthood but still want to do laundry at mom and dad’s.

Though the city may be vanilla, it’s at least French vanilla, a touch of progressive spice sprinkled in by its relatively young and growing population.  The new Columbus is tech startups, vegan food, and one of the Midwest’s largest pride festivals.  It lacks the history or culture of Cleveland or Cincinnati, but a quiet crossroads it is not.  At times it feels more like an oversized college town, and the nation’s third largest university two miles north of downtown absolutely adds to its vivacity, siphoning the educated from other parts of the state and trapping them there with Beyond Burgers and a functioning economy.   Remove Ohio State from Columbus and it could still thrive, but you would be left with office towers and corporate cuisine, a gaggle of taillights each evening.  You would have a purely functional city, the means to an end.  You would have Indianapolis.

Walking through Short North was like riding a conveyor belt of low-rise restaurants, each with a stock late-2010s interior of industrial chic, long tables, and living walls.  Servers with big glasses and polychromatic hair purveyed homemade gin cocktails and expensive tater tots.  This is certainly far more palatable than chain food delirium, but in Columbus the contemporary kitchens are so mimeographed that they tend to run together after a few blocks.   With the crowds and the traffic lights, a walk through the Short North takes about a half an hour and gives an impression that the city is much larger than it is, all the while employing a ‘Don’t look behind that door’ development strategy, the deception being the fact that it is just one street. A block off High in either direction is mid-density housing and little else. If you took every street in other cities’ entertainment districts and stacked them end to end, they would look a lot like High Street through the Short North.

The night before my second attempt at the Columbus Marathon, Derek and I enjoyed one drink from Brothers Drake Meadery, in the far north of Short North, much as we did five years ago before the ill-fated shoe incident. I woke on time, on the same couch in a different apartment in the same building, and once again sleepily walked westward, following the sound of the race emcee and thousands of jittery voices. This time, instead of Brad, I would be running with my friend Teddy, who was also attempting to qualify for Boston. He had trained more thoroughly than I did, so he would ideally serve as both company and pacekeeper for the next three hours.

There were restrooms in the corrals, for which I must eternally compliment the race organizers.  I waited in the front of the first group with Teddy and a few others from our group.  Fireworks marked the start, accelerating dawn’s illumination and drowning out Born To Run.  The blasts continued for nearly a mile, as did the white temporary fencing alongside the course, giving the feeling of an extended opening chute pushing us eastward from downtown.  By the time I felt we had actually started racing, the first mile marker was behind us and the three hour pacer was well ahead.  Teddy looked at his watch, and we were significantly faster than ideal speed yet the official pacer was noticeably pulling away from us. 

“Let him go” I said, “we’ll see him later.”

There was always the possibility, however, that our watches were losing satellite in the tall buildings and the swarm of runners, and we were slower than we thought, in which case we’d better go get him.  Ultimately, I erred conservatively, choosing to play catch up later if needed rather than flaming out on the first straightaway.  We did beginto reign them in, slowly, as the first five miles ticked off through the inner suburb of Bexley.   I don’t recall what Teddy and I talked about other than the typical “That mile was 6:42, watch out for that pothole/rock/dead bird.”, but it was mostly abbreviated and serious, a distinct change from the clowning that takes place during training runs.  Through tunnel eyes, I noted how quickly urban Columbus gives way to the suburbs, often still within city limits.  I noticed how the old trees in Bexley had begun to take on their autumn hue, contrasting the avocado green of those at home in Cincinnati, which were mostly unchanged but had a few dry spots from an extended August.  But mostly I paid attention to the pendular rhythm of my legs, absorbing miles, metronoming cadence, making the wide loop back toward downtown.  From miles six through eight, we were alongside the runners heading eastward, the later corrals, allowing waves and good cheer from other members of our training group before turning to run through the narrow streets of German Village.

We passed the half marathon finish line as we zipped back through downtown and up a steep (for Columbus) little knob of a hill that took us out of the river valley and among the office buildings. It was our fastest mile of the race at 6:30-something but as the half marathoners veered left, our already thin herd became a trickle of footsteps, and I felt the first difficult breath make its way through my lungs after the frenzy of the downtown section was behind us. We crossed the halfway point a minute ahead of pace, despite the three hour pacer’s location a half a mile ahead, and I filed away the signs of trouble for another couple of miles.

They resurfaced around mile fifteen as we headed north through the Victorian Village toward Ohio State University, and the pace stopped feeling natural. I knew then that three hours would not happen that day, and told Teddy as much, but that I would hang with him for a few miles longer. Goal pace should feel like lower effort until at least mile twenty, at which point hanging on to it for 10K is reasonable, but if the pace starts taking extra effort little more than halfway through than it is time to reassess.

My first foray with Columbus featured the course heading straight up High Street through the Short North, giving runners a variety to look at and a several mile respite from any sort of topography. Victorian Village was attractive in a vacuum: Queen Annes with corner turrets and other brick century homes that bring to mind older cities like St. Louis, enough amber-tinted trees to shade from the rising flatland sun. However, as a runner quickly approaching the autumn of his own reserves, it appeared repetitive and empty. I needed the groups of twentysomethings, coffee in one hand, phone in the other, screaming off a hangover on High to at least put a few more miles in the past. Even the campus was relatively empty, itself too spacious and auto-centric to collect what few students were awake at this hour into one stretch of the course, and I meandered through parking lots and past large lawns that displayed in earnest that the largest university in the state opted for quantity over quality when it came to aesthetics.

Around mile eighteen, I told Teddy I was slowing down to save a bit and finish around 3:05. I wished him luck and he was several hundred feet ahead in moments. I kept him in sight as we ran along a major road away from campus, up a slight grade that seemed to continue for longer than I recalled. The last third of the marathon was a blur of little neighborhood crossroads and right-angled streets flanked by brick houses with front porch swings, following a long and indirect route back to the city center. At one point I almost caught Teddy again, who had stopped to stretch a calf. I shouted out something that to me sounded encouraging but probably came out exasperated and intelligible, and he muttered something in response and took off again, watching Boston quickly slip away around the corner for him as well.

Mile twenty-six featured a ‘U’ shaped trough dipping underneath a road before emerging into the park at the finish. After the downslope, Coach Alex was running people in and eyed my slow, loping form, doubtless rethinking his career if the end result of his training was the right side favoring, left side of the evolution of man poster in running shoes that he saw clogging up the hill.

“You look good!” he said “did you cut the course? No way you just ran an entire marathon.” He was exaggerating of course but several people afterward told me the same, that I looked incredibly smooth, or the opposite of how I felt.

“I certainly feel like it” I said, allowing it to sink in that my last few miles had been closer to 7:45 than 6:45.

“You’re killing it though. Go get 3:10! Go!” Coach Alex needed no microphone. I accelerated with everything I had to try to meet a goal that was five minutes slower than the goal that was five minutes slower than my goal, but would still be a substantial personal record. I crossed at 3:08, a PR by ten minutes and made my way through the fenced in chute where they give you bananas and warm chocolate milk. I found Teddy, who had only finished a few minutes before me after nursing the calf for the final stretch. Neither of us had qualified for Boston but neither could be totally disappointed with our efforts. I appreciated Derek’s company, Teddy’s pacing, and of course Coach Alex’s encouragement during the last mile. After a granola bar and some beverage whose name I don’t recall, the initial disappointment began to wane. Coach saw me talking to Derek and Teddy and asked if I was happy with how the race went.

“At first, no. But if you don’t count a ten minute PR as a good day than you’re in the wrong sport.”

Coach Alex agreed and went to run in some of the others, and I went over to the PR gong, which you hit if you ran your fastest time that day, and gave it a bittersweet whack.

It was getting warm and there was mead to drink, so Derek and I ambled back to his apartment. We got into the elevator, stepped over the spilled beer from his neighbor’s previous evening, and pressed the ‘6’ button, waiting for the doors to close. But they didn’t. Dismayed, we walked over to the stairwell and I told Derek to go on ahead, as I would be a minute – there was no shame in second place. I put one foot forward, medal swinging around my neck, staring up at a smirking Derek, just happy I had my shoes.

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