Thursday, August 15, 2013

50 Shots in the Dark, or How I'm Picking Marathons without Having Run One

(Uh oh, time for some real content since I took last weekend off from racing and have nothing to recap. You have been warned.)
Lucky for you, accounting has left me with a small vocabulary.
When I started looking for my first marathon last fall, I became BFFs with Marathon Guide. I don't even remember having any sort of criteria; I just wanted a "cool" race. I found a race in Maine that involved a short section in Canada, which I eventually tabled in favor of the Bayshore Marathon. Again, I have almost no recollection about why I picked Bayshore, but I realized right before putting in my credit card that I had a wedding that weekend and couldn't go.

At some point, I pushed my potential race date to the fall. (In the end, I'm so glad this happened. If I had tried to train while working in the spring, I think I would have actually died of sleep deprivation.) I ended up finding the Sleeping Bear Marathon, and I was suckered in by the medal design. Seriously, it's adorable.

Please ignore that the mother bear is dead in the legend because then it's sad instead of cute.
Once I decided I wanted to do the 50 States, I started to read reviews for countless races. I started with states that have very few marathons (looking at you, North Dakota!) to make it less overwhelming. That's partially a lie; I ignored the Eastern Seaboard for a long time. For anyone who's not familiar with it, Marathon Guide makes a dot for each race proportionally sized to its number of participants. Nothing can escape the tyranny of a Major marathon blob.
They probably just got confused when the NYC Marathon swallowed New Jersey.
I didn't go into this search with any set criteria either. When a state has less than five marathons, it's pretty easy to decide which one will be the best. One or two will probably be bad to barely mediocre, and it's easy to compare the remaining ones mentally.

However, some states have a lot more choices with no clear-cut superstars. For example, I skipped the horror of California by choosing Big Sur based on its reputation, but Texas is still making me a sad panda. Because I'm an accountant, the obvious solution is to make spreadsheets.
Because the folder of marathon spreadsheets I've already made is clearly inadequate.
However, to actually set up a useful spreadsheet for my remaining states, I needed to suck it up and clearly define what was important to me. I've tried to separate these factors into three categories: Hardline Rules, Other Notables, and Red Flags.

Hardline Rules

1. No RnR or Disney races.

I wrote an entire post about why I will never do a RnR race. I hope it at least gave you one laugh, because I can't turn around without Facebook suggesting yet another RnR race to me. It causes me physical pain. 

I'll refrain from doing a whole rant about Disney races, but just imagine something similar to my RnR post, only with a little less hate. Suffice it to say that I loved Disney as a child and still have strong nostalgia for certain movies (I'll watch The Lion King if I happen to see it on TV), but I really don't understand adults who want to run a race to take pictures with the characters. I know the experience must be designed for adults instead of children, but I still think it's sort of creepy.
I also refuse to pay $160+ to get up at 2 AM to run on some service roads.
2. There must be a medal.

Okay, hear me out on this one before I get crucified for putting race bling second on my list. I'm not sure yet what exactly I'll do to showcase my 50 States races (because that involves using Pintrest and pretending to be creative, aka certain failure), but I do know that I would at least like to have 50 medals to work with. I might just get some simple medal hangers, but I want the option to do something really cool.

I'm willing to compromise on this if something could be made into a medal. I think one race I looked at gives small wooden plaques at the finish; I would be fine drilling a hole and getting my own ribbon to make a DIY version. I will try to be 99% nitpicky instead of 120%.
My only saving grace is other swag is unimportant. Great if it's there, fine if it's not.
3. The course should be scenic or unique.

On one hand, I can understand why people are drawn to easy courses, since most of them are chasing a PR or the all-important BQ. On the other hand, if I see another course described as "fast and flat", I think I might slam my head into the wall.
Please don't even think the phrase "net downhill" in my presence.
If I'm going to take the time and spend the money to travel around the country, I want to see really awesome things during my races. I'd much rather run significantly slower and have a cool experience, instead of setting a PR while being bored. (I have no plans to chase a PR during any of the 50 States; if one happens, great, but that's not my purpose.) When I'm narrowing down the field for a particular state, I really focus on what I'll be able to see, especially if it's unique to the state. For example, Sleeping Bear will showcase northern Michigan during peak fall foliage. I wouldn't want to do Detroit because the idea of seeing downtown isn't particularly appealing.

I'm also willing to accept a unique course, rather than a scenic one. States with few races don't necessarily have any scenic ones. My tentative plan for Oklahoma is to run Route 66. Reviews indicate, as you might expect, that it isn't exactly visually stunning, but it involves running on the historic Route 66 and offers a fun detour to the "Center of the Universe". 

However, there are some caveats. I want my races to be scenic (or unique), because that will make them fun. But there is not a 1-to-1 ratio of these characteristics. While I'm sure the Pikes Peak Marathon would blow my mind with natural beauty, I would probably die. I just have no way to adequately train to run up a mountain at altitude. Feeling miserable is not fun, and I don't want to become some sort of race martyr.
Besides the scenic-not-stupid criterion, I only eliminate courses if they have weird nonsense I wouldn't run on in a shorter race. I read reviews for one marathon with three miles on gravel. At first, I thought, hmm, that's not a big deal, 23 miles wouldn't be on the gravel! Then I realized I would never run an all-gravel 5K, so I ultimately decided against it.

4. The information I need is easily accessible. 

There's not a lot to say here beyond the obvious. If your marathon doesn't have a website, forget it. If I can't find out basic things like the start time, a course map, or the time limit, that's also a big no. I'm fine to wing it a little in shorter races, but if I'm spending hours running your race, I worry what it will be like on race day if you can't even throw a website together.

5. The race is a reasonable size.

I haven't set a hard limit here, I just have a general concept in my head of what "too big" is. While I want medium to small races because they seem logistically easier and more in line with #3, I mostly want to avoid this.
File under: also no.
I have what I can only describe as people-claustrophobia. I'm not sure if there's a real term for this, but I feel extremely uncomfortable if I'm in a mass of humanity without a clear exit. It's not like I have a panic attack or something severe like that, but I certainly can't relax and have fun. (This is why I cry when people describe one of the Majors as being "fine, because it clears out after 10 miles.) I know some people worry about getting lonely at races, but I do almost all my running solo; I have no problem doing it at a race as well.
60% of the time, it's 100% true.
 6. The proceeds go to charity (or the race is a non-profit).

In general, I try to only run races that raise money for charity. This seems to be the majority of middle-distance events out there today. (Hooray for helping people!) I understand that isn't always possible for larger events that have huge costs, such as marathons. However, if that's the case, I would like the race organization itself to be set-up as a non-profit. It's your race, so you can decide if you want to break even or charge more in order to make a donation, but I don't want anyone in charge walking away with my money at the end. (And before anyone gets cranky, NFPs can totally pay their employees; the RD getting a salary for their work is completely different than a business trying to maximize profit.)
Magically delicious.
 Other Points of Note

Unlike my hardline rules, which are specifically ordered in terms of importance, this is simply a collection of other factors I pay attention to when finding races. They're still important, just much more flexible.

1. The race is actually a marathon.

Hang tight there for a second. I know that sounds incredibly stupid on the surface, but the Marathon Maniacs have rules about longer races "counting" as a marathon, i.e. you can still count a 50K towards your total, because it involves running 26.2 miles. I understand the rationale here, but it seems a little silly to me. If I run an ultra, you better believe I will tell everyone how I ran 31 miles (or more), not 26.2. My personal rule is going to be to define a race distance by how I would describe it to someone the next day. If I would use any other word besides marathon, it doesn't count.
For reals, if you do an Ironman, shout it from the rooftops.
2. Don't pick a race just because everyone does it.

I'll be the first to admit, I can be one of those people that doesn't like some very popular things. This is because I try to actively question something before falling in love with it, not (usually) because I'm secretly a cranky old person.
Cranky old person in disguise is much better than the alternative, though.
Off the top of my head, two states that suffer from this syndrome are Montana (Missoula) and Alaska (Mayor's). I was 100% honestly surprised to find these states had other well-liked options. I had assumed out of the limited selection, those must have been the only truly good races in those states, because I hadn't even heard of any others in passing. Come to find out Montana has some other really cool choices, and the reviews for Mayor's aren't all that fantastic. Now, I have no problem doing either of those races if I decide they fit my other criteria the best, I just want to make sure I look at all the other options for states where I have a preconceived idea of the "best" race.

3. Are there other interesting things to do near the race?

Branching off the rule above, I discovered in my Montana research that the Two Bear Marathon has great ratings and is extremely close to Glacier National Park. I've taken almost all my vacations to National Parks since I was 7, and my family has always wanted to go there, but it's a long trip with nothing else around it. Two Bear would give me a great reason to invest the time to go out there for a week. I'm also leaning towards a race in southern Utah, even though the most popular races are around Salt Lake City, because it would give me a chance to go to the Four Corners region again.  

4. Only repeat races for good reasons.

This is the one rule that basically goes against ever other facet of my introverted personality. I happily eat at the same restaurants, watch the same movies, and listen to the same songs on repeat, but I have almost no desire to repeat races. I do my local turkey trot with Eager Feet Dad every year, but otherwise I don't think I've ever repeated a race.
There will obviously be some exceptions to this rule. Michael isn't coming to Hatfield-McCoy since it's for a bachelorette weekend, but he'll still need West Virginia. I know some people working on their 50 States go back to favorite races and take longer to finish, but I can't see spending tons of money to re-run a race if neither Michael or I need the state. I want to stay focused on my overall goal. Maybe when I finish I would consider doing a repeat.

5. Do I have to fly, or can I drive?

I have a set a relatively arbitrary limit of 10 hours as the time I'm willing to drive before I fly. I won't automatically fly if something is 10 hours and 5 minutes away, but I'm not up for any cross-country road trips either. This might have to change based on race dates and what PTO will look like when I start work full-time, but driving is significantly cheaper.
Even if it does feel counter-intuitive.
I would hate to skip a race I really want to do because it falls outside the 10 hour zone, but I have to be realistic. If I can save hundreds of dollars in plane tickets and the other options sound good, it makes the most sense to save that money for when it's necessary. (Hawaii, you might want to really consider secession. Take Alaska with you.) 

6. Does it conflict with anything else?

Pretty self-explanatory. However, I need to remind myself to keep major events in mind, even if they are far in the future. Like with the wedding and Bayshore conflict, it's easy to forget about events months and months in the future.

Red Flags

As the name implies, the following are rules for what to avoid, rather than what to seek out. If a race violates any of these, it's almost always taken out of consideration. (The exception is small states where I might not really have a choice.)
I know your state is the size of a thimble, but is having three options too much to ask for?
1. An open course with little protection.

I'm certainly not opposed to races open to traffic. My first half was on open roads in a rural area, but I saw maybe two or three cars the whole time, and they had plenty of room to pass safely. However, I find the idea of fast cars not paying attention to be extremely stressful, especially if I'm trying to run a marathon at the same time. It doesn't help that long run brain kills my knowledge of traffic patterns.
This is your brain on long runs.
If anyone mentions feeling uncomfortable with traffic, especially if they define themselves as "slow", which honestly tends to be anything past four hours, I get out of there as fast as possible. I don't want to deal with the fear of getting hit during a race. If the definition of slow is left ambiguous, I assume it will encompass me, because, let's be honest, that's not exactly going out on a limb.

2. A confusing course.

While I will definitely be near the back of the pack at my marathons, there's a real chance some might be so small that I'll end up flying solo. I also have probably the worst sense of direction ever. If I haven't driven or run somewhere multiple times, it might as well be in China for all I know. (The only reason I know my cardinal directions now is because I can always orient myself to Lansing and East Lansing, not joking. I'm still clueless in my hometown.) Having to worry about running too far or getting totally lost makes my palms sweat just thinking about it. 

Just like above, any time a person says they had to spend significant time by themselves during the race to guess where to go, I flee as fast as possible.

3. A significant chance of awful weather.

I know there are people out there who want to challenge themselves at extreme races, but I'm not one of them. One blogger I follow did the Running with the Devil Marathon, meant to mimic Badwater in terms of heat and sheer misery, and reportedly spent a lot of the race crying because of the conditions. I'm sincerely happy she felt accomplished at the end, but I don't want to sign up for something that will automatically result in tears. Sure, it's hardcore, but like I said, misery is not fun.
They're wearing those hoods so you can't see how much fun they're actually having.
One marathon in Texas apparently suffers from chronic dust and wind storms, also no fun. I know weather is variable and might not be what I hope for when I register, but there's a difference between that and purposefully choosing pain.

4. No food at the end.

This seems to be a problem at races with a half and a full that run concurrently, letting most or all of the half runners hit the refreshments first. Considering how cranky I get without eating after a long run (or any other time, really), I might have a meltdown if I finished a marathon with nothing to eat at the end.
I felt a profound sense of joy when I learned the word hangry.
Final Rule: Have fun!

I know this sounds horribly, embarrassingly cliche, but I do have a valid point here. I listed to a podcast interview with the youngest woman to finish the 50 States, and she mentioned how stressful it got. I know her situation was different because she was operating under a hard time limit, but there was nothing on the line but personal satisfaction; she always had the option to opt out with no repercussions. Awesome that she did it, but I can't imagine not going home for a whole month to fit in all my races.

Another blogger I follow has mentioned feeling a little tired and burnt out, and she only runs about one marathon a month. Yet another blogger talked about running through illnesses and injuries to fit in her races.

I'm way too Type A for my own good, so I want to be conscious of the fun factor. The whole reason I want to do the 50 States is to travel to new places and see new things. I don't want it to ever become stressful or cause unhappiness. Running is the one thing I can count on to always keep me sane, and regular doses of racing are a great supplement. I would hate to lose that joy.

In other words, I want to give myself the freedom to take a step back at any point, if I think it will make the whole thing more fun. Whether it's a month, six months, or a year, I want to keep this exciting and wonderful, not a chore or an obligation to anyone other than myself. There are other goals I want to tackle, like PRing my half marathon or tackling an Olympic triathlon. I don't want to give up everything for the 50 States, I want it to be an extension of what I already like to do. I want it to be a motivating goal, not a definition of who I am as a runner.

This all sounds great on paper before my first training cycle is even over. (But I'm more than halfway there! Scary and exciting.) I'd like to revisit this post after my first two races and see if the actual experiences change what I want in a race. I hope my previous racing experience and my self-awareness (introversion is really awesome, guys, I promise) mean I did a fairly decent job.
At least I hope so. 

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