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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9 Lessons Learned at Ragnar Del Sol

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Ragnar Del Sol 2015 was a challenge of a lifetime. A voluntary testing of physical limits and mental toughness shared with thousands of like-minded people. Basically, a unique blend of crazy that I brought on myself.

That much I knew going in. What surprised me was how much I would learn about myself my others.

After running Ragnar Del Sol, I know …

Runners are good people. We get to the first exchange point under total darkness. Then, with runner 1 in and runner 2 out, we hop in the van to head to exchange 2. Turn the ignition and nothing. Click-click-click. Our battery died an hour into the race. Two teams came to our rescue, one to lend us a cable and one to give us a jump. In a time when I normally would have been losing it, there was a sort of calm. Somehow, I knew my fellow Ragnarians would hook us up. And they did.

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Arizona scenery can be gorgeous and boring as hell. We’re having our van jumped at exchange 1. The sun is coming up, finally. Runners from all over have their cameras out, taking pictures of the spectacular sunrise. I’ve lived here almost 20 years, and Mother Nature’s daily fireworks display still gives me goosebumps. Fast-forward an hour to my first leg, a 7-mile straight stretch of Vulture Mine Road in Wickenburg, and I can’t get away from the mind-numbing monotony. Hardly a car on the road to make it interesting. Give and get.

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Our bodies can do amazing things. Ragnar conditions can be harsh. And running was the easy part! Harsh is running 7 miles and then hopping right into a van so you can jump ahead to cheer on your teammate during his leg, leaving your sweaty self to cool down and collect thoughts on the way. Harsh is running 9 miles, or any miles, on two hours of half-sleep.

With the right mind-set, it’s possible to turn a bad run into a great one. My second leg ventured off the streets of Peoria and into the sandy, rocky, godforsaken Agua Fria riverbed. The conditions were treacherous—with my headlamp insufficient to show the way and no street lights in sight, I literally had no idea what I would encounter with each stride. I tweaked my ankle twice and stubbed my toe once. Not surprisingly, my attitude went south. Finally, out of the wash and back onto sidewalk, I had a choice: I could either continue to grumble and gripe or I could ditch my negative thoughts and focus on the 5 miles ahead. I chose the latter. I regained my footing, steadied my pace, focused my breathing, boosted my confidence and finished my leg strong.

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Headlamps are not for show. Ragnar requires a head light for night running, and for good reason. They want you to see and be seen by drivers on the open streets. I prefer hat clips over headlamps, because I’m already used to running with a visor but otherwise hate having things on my head. Turns out my meager two-LED hat clip works well in the familiar confines of my neighborhood but not in the pitch black of the Agua Fria riverbed. If you know of a bright clip light, hit me up.

There is no camaraderie quite like 2 a.m. camaraderie. With runner 6 on the course, our van was nearly finished for the night, so the six of us could finally break and (try to) get some sleep. We’re at Anthem Community Park. It’s so late, and it’s so freakin’ cold. But I’m there, and my teammates are there, to support our runners in the exchange. Runners from both vans getting together, swapping war stories. These are the moments I’ll remember.

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When people tell you to dress warmly, you need to dress warmly. Ragnar was all like, “Bring a blanket” and “Bring a sleeping bag,” and I was all like, “Pssh, it’s cold but not THAT cold. I’m from Arizona. I know better.” I did not know better. What Ragnar knew that I didn’t was the amount of time I would spend in the dark and cold not running—waiting for my teammates and cheering them on.

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Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep every night to function properly. The operative word here is properly. I edit healthcare publications for a living, so I’m well aware of the National Sleep Foundation’s recommendations. At Ragnar, I did not heed them. Trying to curl my 6-foot-4 frame on the middle seat of a 10-passenger van, I couldn’t. If Ragnar had been one day longer, I would have been in real trouble. Thankfully, I lived to sleep another day.

Ragnar is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you’re going to want to do it again. I figured going in that I would enjoy myself. I had no idea what kind of hold it would have on me. A week removed from the finish line, I can’t get my mind off Ragnaring.

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What’s Next?

Ragnar Relay has a sister series, Ragnar Trail, and there is a trail race in McDowell Mountain. It’s in my backyard, and if that weren’t tempting enough, Ragnar is offering a double medal for anyone who finishes the Phoenix-area Relay and Trail in the same year. I’m so doing this.

There Are No Comfort Zones at Ragnar

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On Friday, I’m going to take turns running 205 miles across the desert with 11 total strangers. I’m so excited!

That is, I’m running Ragnar Del Sol, a two-day, 24/7 relay race from Wickenburg to Mesa, Arizona.

And I say I’m so excited, but I’m also uncomfortable. Sometimes, discomfort is part of the appeal. I’m not talking nagging-foot-injury discomfort. I’m talking way-out-of-my-comfort-zone discomfort.

Physically, I’m feeling good. I’ve trained well, and I’m particularly amped up for what awaits me on the desert roads.

How Ragnar Works

Each team comprises 12 runners, divided equally between two vans. Runners 1–6 take turns getting out of the van and plodding a predetermined distance (a segment or leg), anywhere from 2.3 to 13.5 miles each. When one runner finishes, a baton is passed and the next runner begins. On the sixth exchange, runner 6 in van 1 passes on to runner 7 in van 2, and runners 7–12 take it from there. Eventually, runner 12 in van 2 passes to runner 1 in van 1. And so on. (Ragnar explains it much cooler than I do in this 60-second video.)

My three legs are 7.1 miles, 7.6 miles and 9.0 miles. I’ve run all those distances. I’ll be running these legs around 7:30 a.m., 9 p.m. the same day and 7:15 a.m. the next day, respectively (depending on the collective pace of my team). I’ve run at those times.

When I say I’ve trained well, I mean I went so far as to simulate my legs, running this past Saturday morning, Saturday night and Sunday morning—not the whole distance, mind you, but enough to give me an idea of what I’m in for.

The conditions are nothing new. The race is on an open course and will consist of sidewalks and shoulders and side-stepping traffic. Been there, done that, got the technical T-shirt.

The question is …

Can I lighten up and just have fun?

Given my affinity for comfort zones, I’m a wee bit anxious about joining a whole team of people I’ve never met. Literally, they’re all flying and driving in from out of state today and will return from whence they came after it’s all over.

Given my respect for prerun regimen—like eating certain things at certain times, warming up, cooling down—I’m preoccupied with being at the mercy of five other people in my van who probably have their own prerun regimens.

Given my inclination to keep to myself, I get twitchy thinking of all the high-fiving and other close-quarters bonding that is to come.

Given my desire to look into something as much as possible before I leap, my answer to a lot of questions about this weekend has been “I think” and “Actually, I don’t know.”

One common denominator I have with my teammates-to-be is we’re all crazy enough to do this thing. I need to give myself permission to have fun with these 11 strangers. Based on everything I’ve been told, they won’t be strangers for long—36 hours cooped up in a car has a way of breaking down the walls of personal space.

So I’m trying to loosen the reins a bit and be OK not knowing all the answers about my Ragnar weekend. As long as I’m at the start line on time (alarm goes off around 3 a.m., BTW) and have my running gear on, everything else—well, a little mystery never hurt anyone.