Carmel Half Marathon: On the American Super-Suburb and a Return to Running Normalcy

Carmel, IN: April, 2021

I had a difficult time describing Carmel, Indiana over the phone. I sat on a bench made to look like a book open to the first page of Little Orphan Annie in front of a Free Library housed in a fire red London phone booth talking to Lauren as she deplaned from a trip of her own.

“It’s just…strange” I said. “Not in a bad way. Or in a good way. Just a weird place.”

Carmel is the ‘it’ suburb of Indianapolis, lies a county to the north, and is experiencing such rapid growth that each year’s iteration of the Carmel Marathon is seemingly run in a different location despite an identical course to the one prior. (Or, in this case, two years had gone by between runnings, but we’ll get to that later.) I spent a crisp but sunny April evening walking around the Arts and Design district, picking up my packet at a park outside the Palladium, a neo-neoclassical domed performing arts center that looked like it belonged at Ceasar’s Palace in Las Vegas or Jefferson’s Monticello but was built just a decade ago. The grass around the park was so manicured and precisely cut that it looked like the verdant carpet at Tropicana Field.

There is no town center in the common sense of the term, but instead a lifestyle center, one of those multi-decked outdoor malls that have Pottery Barns and upscale taverns, was built into the existing street grid. The buildings were so unbelievably clean and meticulously designed that the entire center looked like a movie set, as if the exteriors were used to film a street scene in Stepford Wives, but were actually empty shells. Everything was white, gray, or tan, except for one restaurant that had six-foot tall pink mushrooms growing out of its front courtyard like leaning palms. Much of the area was still under construction, adding to the temporary feel of the entire enterprise. If degree of design is horseshoe-shaped, Carmel definitely had slipped to one end where too much attention to detail came precariously close to haphazard chaos. The other unique thing about the town center was that, even on a relatively pleasant Friday evening, with an influx of out-of-towners here for the races, there was absolutely nobody around.

A lack of parking would not be the issue, as it is completely free on street and in the garages at all times. There was also no shortage of outdoor dining areas, but they were as unpeopled as the other common areas downtown. Even the brand new walking and bike path, a pleasant paved strip right through the heart of Carmel called the Monon Trail, was empty save for one man in a Cubs hat pushing a stroller. One could suggest blaming the emptiness on the pandemic, which was still going on despite significant waning, but I had been to several places in worse weather during the more critical days of 2020 that had found a way to look relatively alive even with social distance restrictions. Also, as I would discover, suburban Indiana is not the most cautious place in the country when it came to appropriate protocols.

It seems then that Carmel, like its equivalents across the US, is what it is – a super suburb full of high end chains and enough local-ish businesses and breweries to give it character. What it does differently, however, is that the planners intentionally made it look like Boulder or Burlington, cramming what would normally be a sprawling mess into a pretty outfit. In a way, it works. It’s far more pleasant to park in a free garage and spend the day walking from shop to shop as if I were in an actual city than to drive around a treeless gully between two massive, nearly empty lots. Traffic snarls are practically a nonissue as nearly every road crossing is a roundabout. In fact, Carmel has more roundabouts per capita than any city in the world. However, upon further inspection, Carmel still functions exactly as these drive and park exurbs do, just with more visual pizzazz.

I spent the night at a hotel about a mile and a half from the town center, enjoying half an order of shrimp pad thai and one local IPA. I consumed the pair while watching something on History Channel, a rare treat in which I can only partake at hotels that offer basic cable. I considered taking a walk but the parking lot of the next hotel over, two roundabouts so close together that they looked like a pair of eyeglasses in satellite view, and a vast business park were not particularly tempting to the wannabe flaneur. Many of my friends and acquaintances with whom I would be racing wouldn’t be arriving until the following morning, but I enjoy a quiet night at a hotel far more than rushing around and driving two hours at five in the morning. After learning on tv about the conspiracy that Mt. Rushmore was a coverup, I closed the curtains, set multiple alarms, and was ready to wake for my first race morning in over a year.

It had been a strange year for the luckiest, traumatic or worse for others. I was fortunate enough to escape 2020 with gripes about missed events and a sunken social life, and I recognized the privilege I had which allowed me to pin a bib on a tech shirt the following spring and to tow a starting line with others in a very non-virtual, barely socially distanced way. I jogged back to the town center, Carmel’s impeccable planning treating me to a wide asphalt multi-purpose trail through an otherwise uninspiring business park. Approaching the Palladium, the warehouses were replaced by rows of brick townhomes that looked like they were plucked from Metro London as well as massive apartment complexes in that ubiquitous 2010s style that began in revitalized city centers and then spread like minimalist wildfire. The crowd, heading in the same direction as I, had thickened as well, and runners and spectators alike found ad hoc parking spots and joined me on the trail.

Near the starting corral was the runners’ village area, with tents set up hawking brands of whatever, and I found my team at our meet point in a corner away from the commotion, wanting to avoid the crowds for as long as they could. Ellie and Greg were waiting for me there with Mark, my co-coach, who was running the full marathon. The rest of us would do the half, including the others who we were meeting us in the corral.

“You ready?” Mark asked, and I lied and told him I was.

“And how about you? You’re running twice as long.”

We discussed how weird/great it felt to be surrounded by so many other runners after how the past year turned out. I had PR’d in a 5K on leap day 2020, ousting my longest standing personal best on a chilly late-winter morning before spending the day drinking beer in a tent. In the middle of what was turning into my best training season yet, I had signed up for the Carmel Half Marathon a couple weeks before the world was shuttered. First, the event was postponed until June, then indefinitely, and by midsummer I had altered my outdoor activities to bike riding or hiking, leaving running on the backburner until late autumn, when I abruptly decided to begin anew. So abruptly, in fact, that I blew up my left foot, leading to my first ever running injury in over a decade of long distances. It was during a two month period of nary a stroll that Mark had told me they were restarting the training program for winter/spring 2021 and would I be interested in coaching? I told him I was, assuming I could run by January. I figured that I physically could and that it would give me accountability to wake up at six in the morning after nearly a year of work-from-home snooze buttoning, but when the first day of coaching arrived, I had only built up to a few miles.

Throughout that winter, I coached a group of four who had a goal to run 13.1 miles in less than an hour and a half. A year prior, I could do this without issue but it seemed now that I would generally be learning with the students. However the season went surprisingly well and two of the four were here to give it a go. Now, amidst a growing crowd hanging out by gear check, and with ten minutes before gun time, we made our way to the corral a year late.

Nothing about the starting area was any different than at races prior to the pandemic except that most runners donned a mask or pulled a gaiter over half of their face until they began moving. Lanky collegiate subelites leaped and stretched their calves within feet of my left side while gloved hands at the end of bare arms wriggled in an attempt to keep warm on the other. It was both convivial and contradictory, as I felt uncomfortable yet elated, seemingly like no time had passed yet an era away since the last time I was there. The anthem was played and we were off, quickly at first, but soon I realized the pacer was banking time and slowed down. Mark, his white baseball cap covered in pineapples and cartoon alligators, slinked away during the first few miles.

The map of the half marathon is fairly simple – one long loop that is shaped like somebody took a bite out of Utah, and the first several miles are due south without a turn. As we left the center of town, the scenery became near-rural and surprisingly bumpy. Gone were the identical mega-complexes and beige brick boutiques, replaced by wide yards and mid-century ranch homes, giving us a look into what all of Carmel probably looked like just a few decades prior. I latched onto the three hour marathon pacer once his group had dialed it back after a blistering first mile and remained on its edge. Half-vaxxed and not wanting to come up limping so to speak during the last mile of the hell race that was this past year, I did my best to keep distance from others, avoiding the saliva and snot rockets discarded by some less than courteous runners. It was a small thing, but becoming far less cavalier about where I would spit while running was something I had subconsciously learned to do with recent training even when alone. Others, it seemed, had not put this into practice.

The miles ticked by and the hills, small for just about anywhere but Indiana, rolled on. We circled many of Carmel’s famous roundabouts and weaved in and out of pleasant new-build neighborhoods with lawns covered in daffodils and Easter flair. Groups tantalizingly enjoyed mimosas and coffee or played music at the end of their driveways, cheering on the strangers running down their street. When the halfway timing mat appeared, I stepped over and glanced at my watch, which informed me I was a minute under pace, banking enough time, I hoped, to factor in the inevitable fade that comes with a couple of lost seasons.

Some weeks ago, Mark had asked me which aspect of getting back into consistent running was taking the longest to return. Was it speed that was being stubborn, making mile repeats heart-pounding misery? Or was it endurance, ramping up into double-digit mileage for the first time in more than half a year? I had thought a moment before selecting none of the above and giving a different answer, something that had come to mind during a midseason time trial on a particularly ugly February morning. The hardest thing to get back was the ability to be uncomfortable.

Running, save for those rare perfect days, is by nature uncomfortable. It rains, it’s humid, cars don’t stop, shorts ride up, foot blows out. And races are especially so – the second half as much a battle of the mind as it is of body. If there’s anything I had lost from my running repertoire in 2020, it was my ability to keep going when I was uncomfortable. If it rained, I wouldn’t run. If it was too humid, I wouldn’t run. If I’d rather open a beer and sit on the back deck you can imagine which activity won the day. And when I was in the middle of a run and it started to suck, I slowed down. So, it was for this reason I chose the oft-ridiculed banking time and hanging on strategy for the Carmel Half. Each mile that went by under pace was a little bit more I could ease when it ceased to be fun.

After the timing mat though, miles seven and eight were my fastest yet, the latter including a reasonably steep grade into another subdivision full of morning revelers. I smiled as I passed them, still jealous of their coffee but not yet of their stillness, and had a thought that seemed impossible even a half hour ago: This could actually end up being one of my fastest races.

I saw Mark’s pineapple head bobbing up and down in the distance once we were back out onto an access road. His stride still looked strong but he had clearly slowed a bit. As I reeled him in, I began to realize his sub-three hour marathon goal was likely slipping away. We talked for a bit and I reminded him of our conversation about being uncomfortable. He stayed with me a bit but soon his responses were breathy shouts and I felt him fall back. The pacer was a few minutes behind us and he said he would try to cling on to them when they arrived.

Now into the lonelier miles of a smaller race, the field had spread out and I once again watched members of my team gradually come into focus before pulling next to them a quarter mile later and then beyond. After mile ten, which was my fastest of the race, we turned right onto the Monon Trail and the closed-in woodland was immediately silent compared to the road. Some of the shorter shrubs and bushes had begun to sprout neophyte leaves but otherwise the canopy was barren, welcoming in the bright sun and allowing me to feel warm for the first time. The trail took a sharp turn and passed between some luxury condos and alongside a baseball diamond and soon I could tell we were nearing the town center once again.

I ran by niche shops and a few restaurants and suddenly Carmel didn’t look so empty. Groups held signs and rattled cowbells like it was 2019, outdoor diners in thick jackets raised pints and ‘woo’ed, and a race official informed me that there were only two turns to go. After the first, I could hear the finish line area and see the onion-domed Palladium peek up from over the Matt the Millers. What a beautifully designed town I thought as I ran up a hill and felt a blast of wind. How was I so down on it last night? Carmel had managed to safely put together an event of this magnitude with community support. They managed to create a central gathering place in the middle of sprawldom, chose arts and recreation over parking lots and chain delirium, and proved once and for all that traffic lights are the worst. It may not be my idyll, but I would be lying if I said I couldn’t see the attraction.

The finish line straddled the main road and the final turn revealed a hoard of people on either side, screaming into the electric ether. Some had finished their first race in over a year, others were just happy to be somewhere, doing something with more than a small group. It probably wasn’t safe despite high degrees of masking, and as a nation we are not out of the woods yet – not quite – but we just may be at mile 12, sun on our faces and wind at our back, ready to make two more turns and sprint into a joyous crowd of friends and strangers.

Carmel ended up being my second fastest half marathon to date, and even with trying to bank time I ran negative splits by nearly a minute. Mark called it after half and finished not too long after I did, but he was less than bummed, thrilled as I was to just be there. Ellie and Greg didn’t quite hit their time goals either, but they were close, and the four of us were in good spirits on our way to the beer garden. Others from our group began to filter in with stories of their own – some ran well, others not, but all were equally of positive mind. I had a checkout time and lunch plans with my cousin, so I didn’t stay in the finisher’s area long, but the familiar exhausted/elated hybrid that comes from a good race remained for the day. The smile didn’t leave my face until I was halfway home and realized I had left the other half of the pad thai in the hotel fridge.

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