Top 7 Running Experiences of 2017

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It’s hard to look back on a year—whether it’s running or anything else—and not measure it.

(How many miles did you run? How many books did you read? How many pounds did you lose?) That’s how many of my annual reviews have gone. (OK, so I ran 1,202 miles and averaged 8:02 minutes per mile, I read about 1,096 books if you count the children’s variety, and I actually gained a little weight—can we talk about something else, please?)

But running, like life, is so much more than numbers. It’s what happens between the GPS data points—the people you talk to, the scenery you take in, the deep places you dig to find the extra oomph you need to get where you want to go.

Here are my top seven running experiences in 2017. Were you there for any of them?

7. Instagramming.

Instagram is, well, Instagram. If you’re reading this, you probably you have an account and know what it is for you. For me, it’s an outlet for relatively safe, running-focused expression—a place that I can put my too many selfies and actually get support for running at 4:30 a.m. instead of getting eye rolls. (Well, maybe the eye rolls are happening, too.)

I’m proud to have extended my reach in Instagram in 2017,  connecting with some super-interesting people and growing my account by about 30%.

6. Running Ragnar Chicago.

Well, the actual running part of this was awful—I had GI issues the whole time. But the overall experience was memorable, as always. Plus, I ran with TEAM PAWS Chicago, my charity running group, and got to know some pet-loving people better.

5. Cheering on friends at the Chicago Marathon.

I planned to spectate this race instead of run it, and doing so surpassed my expectations! What an amazing feeling supporting my TEAM PAWS Chicago teammates and other friends among the 45,000 participants. I did stand in one spot and yelled for five hours, which might have been as exhausting as running! Plus, I still have PTSD from the cowbell I continuously clanged near my ear. Worth it.

4. Rocking an ice beard at the Frozen Gnome 10K (Crystal Lake, Illinois).

I’m only partly kidding when I say I grew a beard for this express purpose. I’m still not sure why the ice beard was so glorious when the conditions were similar to what I’ve run in before. I haven’t been able to duplicate it since.

I’m glad a race organizer was around to take the picture (and later send it to me), because my phone had died from the extreme cold. (I joke that my phone is acclimated to Arizona.)

3. Running Ragnar Michigan.

I owe my presence at this event to an unserious comment to a runner who lives 1,700 miles away. I’d already run Ragnar Chicago a few months before (see #6 above) and scratched my Ragnar itch for the year. But I wanted the Double Medal for running a second relay around the Great Lakes. I heard that a friend from Arizona was captaining a team going to Michigan, and I asked about an opening. Sorry, it just filled. Then, not long after that, she said a spot opened up, and, after some leaning, my wife was gracious enough to let me go.

I have experience jumping on Ragnar teams with strangers. I’ve heard from others that doing so can be a crapshoot, that one bad seed can spoil it for everyone. I’ve been lucky to avoid that in all of my Ragnars so far. (It helps to not be the bad seed, just sayin’.)

What I loved most about this one was our van. Cool people! The six of us were from five different states, yet we fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

2. Crushing a PR at the Phoenix Marathon half (Mesa, Arizona).

I’m calling this my best. race. ever.* I ran my fastest half-marathon by more than two minutes. I felt I could have gone even faster, but I’m not upset about it. Shoot, it was just plain fun. Shouldn’t it always be like this? I trained hard, and it paid off.

I remember carefully managing my pace throughout, then getting to the final miles and accelerating. I didn’t worry about burning out, because I knew I had enough left to get me to the end. Heck, I pulled my phone out and took a selfie, which I definitely don’t do when I’m struggling or worried that I might. After the race, I felt great, like I could have run another half (or something like it). Perhaps that meant I could have gone faster. Well, I can test that another time. The bar has been raised.

The *asterisk* here is my gross underestimation of waiting in the cold before the start. They had lots of heat lamps, which was fantastic. But it wasn’t enough to keep me comfy in my singlet and shorts. Why the guy who moved from Arizona to Chicago to come back to Arizona unprepared for the cold is beyond me. I spent 45 grueling minutes in 35 degrees, standing in one spot, clenching my arms around my body, gritting my teeth. No joke, I was worried all that time spent shivering would drain my energy. Thankfully, it didn’t.

1. Running the New York City Marathon.

How could this, the largest marathon in the world, not be on the top of the list for everyone who ran it? It was epic on so many levels.

First, it was my first trip to the city. First romp around Central Park. First trek to Times Square. First skyline view from Top of the Rock. First look at Lady Liberty. First (and, ahem, second and third) time getting lost in the subway system. That’s all before race day!

Race day’s epic needs no explanation.

I saw a shirt that said “Took a train to a boat to a bus to run 26.2 miles.” Just getting to the start line on Staten Island from my apartment in Manhattan was an accomplishment! (I’m glad I’d gotten lost earlier so this key commute went smoothly.)

The race moved me more than I ever thought it would. Through every borough—Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, Manhattan—people lined the streets in droves to support us. People of all abilities, nationalities and ethnicities cheering on runners who were equally as diverse. All in an amazing pursuit of human achievement. It’s overwhelming in the best of ways.

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I can’t stop thinking about this race—and really, this moment. I enjoyed my strongest 20 miles ever at the @nycmarathon and felt as though I unraveled so much in the last 10K. To see this strong, composed runner crossing the finish line, after all of that, boosts my confidence greatly. . . . BTW, a PSA: This is one of my fave race photos ever, and I almost missed out. It wasn’t in my original official shots from the race—it was in the miscellaneous bin! Peeps, always check the misc bin. There might be a gem in there … . . . #running #run #runner #runchicago #runchi #marathon #marathoner #marathonrunner #training #igrunners #runstrong #werunsocial #instarunners #instarunner #instarun #runnersonig #runnersofig #runnersofinstagram #runitfast #runalways #gorun #runitfast #monthlymiles #novembermiles #tcsnycmarathon #nycmarathon #nycmarathon2017 #gomattmorgan

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Why This Runner Sets the Alarm for 4:30 in the Morning

430am

Ding ding dong dong. The bell tower alarm goes off, like it does almost every morning. Only it’s 4:30, not my usual wake-up time of 5 or 5:30. That half-hour makes a lot of difference, and at least right now, I’m really missing it.

Eyes half closed and brain still half struggling to comprehend what’s up, I fumble to press “snooze.” But there will be no more snoozing. When I have my wits about me, I focus on the phone, swipe a couple of times to shut off the alarm, and roll out of bed.

For runners like me, these are moments of truth.

Three days a week, I wake up and lace up and head out the door. What started years ago as a means to an end—I ran primarily to perform well in an upcoming race but didn’t really enjoy any of it—morphed to become an indelible part of me. I identify myself as a runner now as much as a husband, a father, a churchgoer, a creative director.

Even with my love of running, I need a goal to maintain motivation. Usually, it’s a race. These days it’s to finish the New York City Marathon on Nov. 5. No—not just finish it. Set a personal record. And like my shoes won’t put themselves on my feet, this goal won’t happen by itself. You can either do the work when it needs to be done, or you can continue snoozing.

My training plan calls for 8.5 fast miles on this particular weekday, as it did the previous two weeks. Those last two efforts, however, did not go well. They weren’t total failures, but they weren’t successes, either. Started out too fast? Didn’t eat well enough beforehand? Or was it that I didn’t eat well enough the night before? Did I not hydrate properly? These questions rattle through my mind as I allow my body to ease up, about halfway into the run. This happened two straight weeks. Ugh.

The plan has this fast 8.5-miler for six of seven weeks, so if I want to hit my goal for the workout—heck, if I want to hit my goal for the marathon—I’d better figure it out. I can either deal with this demon or give in. And I’m not getting up at 4:30 to give in.

The day before the third, pivotal session, I hydrated well and ate a carb-tastic dinner (chicken and ziti). When I got up, I scarfed more carbs and good fats (whole-wheat bread with peanut butter) in addition to my usual banana. Perhaps as important as these food and drink tweaks, I prepped my head to be in the right state to wrestle a run I’d repeatedly struggled with.

After a check of essentials—headlamp, watch, water, gel—I venture out.

These fast paces seem easy for the first few miles. That’s nice, I tell myself, but stick to the program. Rein in the pace. Keep the breathing steady and relaxed. The hard stuff is coming, and you’ll need those feel-good reserves. I often visualize my body as a steam engine, with the carbohydrates in my system serving as coal in the fire, and like a shovel-wielding train engineer, I’m continually assessing the fuel situation and ready to react: How’s the power right now? Need anything to keep it up? No? OK, then, let’s push on!

Some days, the stars align and I have a fantastic run. Other days, even when conditions seem to be the same, things can go well and then very suddenly fall apart. I might have an inkling why, or I might not. Experience has taught me to appreciate the good days and not agonize (too much) over the bad ones.

This particular day, at oh dark hundred, the stars aligned. The first few easy miles gave way to a gut check in the middle stages, and then a push past halfway—over the hump!—until I could sense the downward momentum and practically feel myself finishing strong, well within my time goal.

With the sun only starting to peek through the trees in the neighborhood, I cross the imaginary finish line at the end of my street, and I stop my watch. Resting my sweaty hands on my fatigued, sweaty knees, I exhale forcefully a few times to slow my heart rate, then I straighten up. Endorphins flood my system. As I turn to walk home, I reflect on what this success feels like. I savor it.

People ask me why I do this. Why I run crazy distances at crazy paces at crazy hours. Why I run at all. This is why. I’ve hit a high point for the day, and for all intents and purposes, the day hasn’t even begun. It’s worth setting the alarm for 4:30 a.m. now and then, knowing you’ll be missing a precious half-hour of sleep, and getting up in the black of night, to test your limits in pursuit of something you want. You should try it.