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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Marathon in Paradise

More than any other race of smaller distance, I think that marathons, and the training that precede them, are a journey.  A lot of the time, running the marathon is the easy part.  I certainly found that to be true in my case.  The road leading up to the Honolulu Marathon was paved with many things.  Lots of hard work.  Some sad times.  A dab of stupidity.  And most of all, the support of tons of my family and friends.

My stupid gimpy foot

First, for the stupidity.  Normally, when it comes time to taper for a marathon, I am ultra-conservative.  I stick to a pretty fixed schedule.  I don't do anything that would put a ton of strain my body.  I never do anything out of the ordinary.  This time around however, my taper coincided with my first season of barefoot snow running.  This was a good thing, since I was still testing my limits; seeing what temps and conditions I could brave without getting frostbite, or worse.  So I would naturally be keeping my mileage down, and wouldn't feel pressure to try to go further than I could in the cold.

This was also a bad thing, for the very same reason.  I had no clue what my limits were, and since I was tapering I had a pretty low tolerance for finding out.  Not only that, but the world of barefoot snow running is filled by very few; elite in their dumbassery.  There's not a lot of experience to go around.  Kind of like the pool of people who have climbed Mt. Everest, but without as much common sense.  So it's hard to know what you are and are not capable of.  Well, three weeks before the race, I found out what I'm not capable of.  WARNING: GROSS FEET PICTURES AHEAD!

Exactly three weeks before the race I ran  my last long run with my Team in Training group.  We were scheduled to run 14 miles.  And it was a lovely 35 degree day, nearly perfect weather for winter barefoot running.  I had just completed a 6 mile run in 15 degree temps on light, packed snow the day before.  In this weather I thought I could go forever.

So I took off around the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis and completed the run barefoot.  I had an absolute ball doing it too.  The trails were a mix of light snow and smooth blacktop, so my feet felt great the whole way.  I had a little discomfort towards the end of the run in my left foot, but I chalked that up to a bit of rough terrain in that area.  By the time I got to my car, my feet felt fine. 

Then the heat came on in my car.  I had to pull over I was in so much pain.  I slowly looked down at my feet, and gasped.  It looked like I had been running on broken glass.  I had blisters on every toe, and completely covering the balls of both feet.  My feet had swollen so much I could barely get shoes or socks on.  And on my left foot, two of the blisters had rubbed raw.  I could see that the cuts were pretty deep too, going through several layers of skin.  What wasn't covered in blisters was hard and callused.  Here's a picture of my foot three days before the marathon.  If you think that's bad, imagine how it looked right after the run.

Most of the blisters were no big deal.  They healed or popped within a day, and didn't cause me any pain.  But the two raw blisters on my left foot hurt like hell.  I could barely walk on my left foot for a few days after that run.  I continued to limp right up until marathon time. 

After that run I spent the next three weeks kicking myself in the ass (with my good foot of course).  How could I have been stupid enough to injure myself three weeks before the big race?  My injury also put a big goal of mine out of reach: running my first barefoot marathon.  That hurt more than any pain my blisters caused.  I had put in a lot of barefoot miles in hopes of doing the race barefoot.  Now, three weeks before the biggest race of my life, I was just hoping that I could run at all.  It turned out to be a blessing in disguise that I couldn't run the race barefoot, but before the race I was absolutely crushed. 

Arrival in paradise

We got in to the Honolulu airport at around 10 pm.  After nearly 10 hours of flying, and the 4 hour time change, I felt like warm hell.  But we were greeted warmly by our driver and given fresh flower lei's.  It was 75 degrees and there were palm trees everywhere.  It's hard to feel sorry for yourself in surroundings like that.  So instead, I was content to feel relaxed and extremely jet lagged.  We checked into our rooms at the Honolulu Hilton and crashed. 

We woke up to this scene from our hotel room.

That's right bitches....that's the f-ing Pacific Ocean!  I could practically spit on the beach from here.  Instead, we decided to walk.  It was like walking into a postcard.  So I took a postcard-looking picture.

There's my wife in the foreground with her mouth hanging open. 

The marathon was one day away, and let's just say it wasn't difficult to keep the energy level low and conserve my strength before the race.  For the next 24 hours I became a beach bum. 


My alarm woke me up to "Santa's Island", the crappy Hawaii version of a Christmas song, at 3am.  I had to meet my Team in Training crew by the hotel pool at 3:45 am.  Waking up at 3:00 am wasn't as bad as I thought it would be though.  I was still on Minnesota time. 

Before leaving I wanted at least 30 minutes to play doctor on my foot.  I had long since gave up any notion of running the marathon barefoot.  Up until I got to Hawaii I was more than a little nervous about my ability to run even in Vibrams.  I had run some short distances successfully, but with some mild to moderate pain at the site of the blisters. 

Then at the marathon expo, a miracle came to me in the form of KT Tape.  For those not familiar with the stuff, KT Tape is an athletic tape usually used for providing support to aching muscles and joints.  People were lining up at the expo to get taped with this stuff, then walking around looking like Cirque de Soliel rejects.  I liked it because it took all of the pressure off my aching blisters without sacrificing much in the way of ground feel.  It also seemed to stay in place even in the water.  Maybe I could run this thing without ripping a hole in my foot after all. 

I covered my foot in liquid bandage, wrapped it in tape, and pulled on my Vibrams.  I felt no pain.  Everything was going to be all right. 

I usually don't spend this much time talking about my race wardrobe, but I had a couple of special things going on for this race.  First, I would be wearing my Team in Training jersey that I had earned after raising over $5,000 for blood cancer research.  My team captain Kim had given me some iron-on letters to decorate the back of the jersey, so I used the opportunity to dedicate my jersey to the memory of my dad (who, in case you didn't know, died unexpectedly this October while I was training for the race).  Since I was dedicating the race to his memory, I felt like he deserved a spot on my jersey as well.  So here's my grade-school effort at an art project.

Second, the remainder of my outfit was donated by the great folks at Sport Kilt.  They were nice enough to give me a Royal Purple kilt to match my jersey at no cost.  Both of the items worn together kind of made me look like a tool, but I was willing to humiliate myself a little for a good cause. 

That's me doing my best Blue Steel.  Or maybe this is Le Tigre.  I can never tell.

After my little bathroom photo shoot I was off to meet my TNT team.  We had another quick photo shoot, where it appears that one of my team members violated Santa's sleigh.

Like I am prone to do, I also got saucy for the camera. 

Then it was off to the race start.

The Race

A lot of things go through your head when you're at the start of a race with as much meaning as this one.  I only had one thing going through my head: "Are we in Tokyo?"  The start line was wall to wall Japanese people.  Everyone was holding signs in Japanese.  A lady was yelling things that ended with either "mashta" or "kuda-sai".  And I was a full two feet taller than anyone around me.  I could see clear to the first aid station.  I hoped that I hadn't toed up to the line of the Munchkin Marathon.  I half expected someone to call me Dr. Jones! 
There are a lot more Japanese jabs where that came from.  If you're offended, it might be best to stop reading.  And really, if you read this blog regularly what do you expect? 

I was joined right before the race start by fellow barefooter and Barefoot Runners Society-Hawaii Chapter member Eric Kenney.  He is stationed on the island while in the armed forces, and decided to sign up for the run a couple weeks prior (here's his race report, it's similar coverage with less offensive gab, if you're into that sort of thing).  We were supposed to meet next to the 4 hour pace sign, which of course I couldn't find because it was in Japanese.  I commented that was amazed that he had found me in the crowd.  "You kind of stand out."  he said.  A 6'7" dude in a purple jersey and a kilt.  I suppose I did. 

To prove his point, a few minutes later we were joined by two other members of my TNT group.  They had also found me because I was doing my best Gulliver's Travels imitation.  Well played Mr. Kenney...well played. 

I was actually pretty glad that Eric had joined me for the race.  The start line scene had left me pretty disoriented.  I thought I was like Bill Murray's character in "Lost in Translation".  Except that Eric was no Scarlett Johansson.  Not that I needed a hot, red-headed, younger version of GQ's 2010 Woman of the Year to be right with the world at that point.  Eric would do. 

The race started at 5am with fireworks over the beach.  But we didn't.  We stayed put for the next 5-10 minutes.  The Honolulu Marathon doesn't cap their field, so I learned that the race was being run with my 22,000 closest friends.  60% of those racers were Japanese.  And they were all doing what Japanese tourists do best: taking pictures.  Pictures of the fireworks.  Pictures of the starting banner.  Even pictures of the people taking pictures of us.  This was going to be a long race...

This was one of the official race photos I had to shell out $90 for.  This one was included along with a bunch of pictures of the Japanese guy running next to me that got in all of my shots. 

Side note: What do you call a bunch of Japanese tourists taking pictures on their tour bus?  A Japanese drive-by.  (My tour guide told me that joke a few days after the race)

After we finally started moving Eric and I spent the first several miles dodging slow moving runners.  I also took some time to take in the atmosphere.  I'm used to seeing costumes during a race, but this race went above and beyond in terms of weirdness.  Mostly what struck me was the utter lack of common sense in people's clothing selection (read, weird Japanese tourists clothing selection).  There were people wearing long-sleeved full-body compression tights.  There were people wearing those tights with long-sleeved shirts over them.  Some people had all of that along with winter hats and gloves. 

Eric speculated that all those clothes were a fashion thing.  I speculated that it was a dumbass thing.  This isn't like buying women's panties in a vending machine, or putting $20,000 worth of ground effects on your $5,000 Honda.  Heat stroke is heat stroke the world over.  I didn't see a lot of that weirdness the further we got into the run, so I'm assuming that common sense eventually won out over fashion.  Either that, or those fashionable people got carried away in one of the many ambulances I saw driving away from the course.
Almost immediately, the course looped down into Honolulu and Waikiki's main shopping areas.  I was glad to have Eric along at this point, as he pointed out some of the sights to me.  One cool area was the annual holiday Christmas display.  They really go all out on their decorations. 

I can dig on a barefoot Santa.  It doesn't make the whole 80 degrees and sunny in December thing feel any less weird though.

After the shopping district, we came to Diamond Head (the local mountain) at around mile 8.  Other than this section, the course is flat as a pancake.  This part is an almost one-mile climb, although the grade is pretty relaxed.  The view made up for the climb.  It was around 6:30 a.m. when I reached the summit of Diamond Head, and the sun was rising right over the mountain.  It was up by the time I got to the top.  I took a moment to get a picture of the ocean (also the only picture I took during the race).  This is also about where Eric fell behind to use the restroom.

After Diamond Head we went through a section of very expensive-looking homes.  I only mention this because I got stared down by a guy in a man-kini standing out in his very expensive-looking yard.  Dude wouldn't stop looking at me.  I'm assuming he was looking at the kilt.  I yelled, "We both have unfortunate taste in pants man!  Quit gawking!"  I turned to the nearest person (Japanese of course) and said, "Dude is standing naked in his yard, and I'm the crazy one."  They politely laughed, probably scared that the giant in the man-skirt was talking to them in "Eng-rish".

We came down the mountain and got onto the Kalanianaole Highway (try to spell that in Scrabble!) which is where we stayed for most of the race.  At this point I also started feeling the heat.  It was already around 75 degrees when the race started at 5am.  That was hot, but nothing I didn't think I could handle.  Now that the sun was out, the temp went up to between 82 and 85 degrees.  There was no shade on this road.  I started melting.  I'm not built for the heat as it is, and I always have trouble running in it.  This time I had been doing all my training in sub-freezing temps.  I had no way to acclimate to the heat before the race.

Me still looking fresh.

The kilt wasn't making it any better.  I already knew that the kilt wouldn't be the coolest option after wearing it on some hot weather runs.  I didn't wear it because it was the coolest option.  I wore it because it was free, ultra-fashionable (at least to me), and a lot more comfortable in the "neutral zone" than a pair of shorts after 26 miles.  But by now it felt like a rain forest under there.  I tried shaking it a few times to get some air up there, but that usually just produced some giggles from the Japanese women runners.  So I continued on.

By the time we rounded Hawaii Kai (at around mile 18, the official race turnaround point), I was pretty exhausted from all the heat.  I was able to keep my spirits up because of the support of the other Team in Training runners.  Since the race course was an out and back along the Kalanianaole Highway, I could see all of the runners coming the other way.  Every time I saw a TNT runner, we would acknowledge each other with a big, "GO TEAM!" (which is one of the oh-so creative slogans of TNT).  There were several hundred TNT runners and walkers, so I ended up saying that every minute or so.  That kept me going until around mile 20, where I only had enough energy to give each TNT runner a supportive fist pump. 

I also wanted to give a shout out to these guys. 

We first saw them at around mile 4, and Eric told me that they were walking the marathon in support of wounded vets.  I admire everyone in the armed forces.  I also admire anyone who walks a marathon with all that shit on their back.  Good work fellas.   

In this later portion of the marathon, I started thinking about my dad.  I knew I was pretty far off of my goal finish time of between 4:15 and 4:30.  Eric and I barely made the required split for that time at mile 6.  By now I had no illusions about PRing.  Now that I was thinking about my dad, all my other goals for the race (running the race barefoot, and beating my old PR) really weren't all that important.  Finishing the race and dedicating that moment to my father's memory was the only thing that really mattered to me now.  That's probably the way it always should have been. 

Along with the fatigue from running for several hours, all this dad stuff was making it hard to retain composure.  I was on the brink of tears several times on the Kalanianaole Hwy.  I pulled it together because almost crying was actually making it pretty tough to breath.  Then at around mile 21, a nice lady randomly said, "I bet he's really proud of you."  And that was the end of my composure.  I completely broke down right there in front of that poor lady.  "Now you got me all emotional."  I responded with as much of a smile as I could muster, and thanked her for her kindness. 

At around mile 22, Eric caught up with me.  I saw that he was now wearing a pair of Vibram Sprints.  He said that he was feeling good, except for some muscle fatigue.  He looked like he had just stepped out the door for a quick run, not a 5 hour running odyssey.  I told him that I was hurting with all the heat, but I think my completely fried appearance gave it away.  I tried to run with him for a couple of yards, and realized that I couldn't keep any pace that he set, even one where he was going "my pace".  I told him to run ahead, and he disappeared into the crowd shortly thereafter.

I sniped this picture from Eric's blog.  Hope he doesn't mind.  This is Eric still looking badass right after he left me in the dust.

Right after I lost sight of Eric, I reached the mile 23 aid station.  I walked through the station with a guy dressed as a soccer ball.  All the Japanese observers were yelling, "Soccer ball!  Soccer ball!"  I turned to him and said, "Apparently when you're walking next to a giant soccer ball, nobody notices that you're wearing a skirt."
Picture of soccer ball dude.  You have to be impressed by a dude that can run 26.2 in an outfit with no discernible arm holes.

Up until this point I had been running the whole marathon with some brief walking breaks through the aid stations.  Now I was walking the marathon with some brief running breaks.  And if I looked at a rule book, I doubt my running pace would actually count as running.  I somehow managed to muscle back up Diamond Head at mile 24, running the whole way.  But doing that pretty much killed any hope I had of running the rest of the race.  I reached the mile 25 marker and walked all the way to mile 26.

Me in walking mode.

At mile 26 the race course turned into the home stretch through Kapiolani Park.  I put on my Team in Training jersey again and tried to look sharp for the camera crew taking pictures at the finish line.  That last .2 miles felt like another mile.  I scanned the crowd for my wife, and found her a few hundred yards from the finish line.  As soon as I saw I started bawling all over again.  I told her I loved her and gave her a big, sweaty, disgusting hug.  Then I crossed the finish line with my hands pointed to the sky, hopefully right at my dad's smiling face.  I said, "I love you dad."  Then I stumbled through the finish line booths to the showers.  My official time was 5 hours, 25 minutes, 16 seconds.  I couldn't have been happier with my time.  It felt like a PR in my book. 

Me at the finish line.

As I mentioned before, I'm actually pretty glad I didn't run the race barefoot.  It's not a course I would describe as barefoot-friendly.  Most of the course is pretty smooth blacktop.  However, there are several very long spots of horribly worn and sharp chip seal.  Not only are these sections painful, but they come late in the race; starting at around mile 13 and continuing through until around mile 23.  That's not exactly the time during a marathon when you want to be dealing with intense foot pain.  Then to top it all off, the chip seal during the last .2 miles through Kapiolani Park is so rough it almost resembles a gravel road.  I could barely run on it in Vibrams. 

I'm usually not a sissy about rough surfaces.  I'm sure I could have finished the race barefoot.  But I think that the long distance, combined with the heat would have made it that much more difficult.  I would have likely compromised my finishing time even more.  I'm happy with my time, even though it was more than one hour off of my PR time.  But had I run the race barefoot, I might not have been so happy with my finishing time.

I want to pay tribute to all of my supporters for getting me to this race, and rooting for me all along the way.  I wouldn't have been running in paradise if it weren't for each and every donation made to my TNT fundraising; from the $5 donations all the way up to the $270 from Eric and Jessi Kenney (I feel like that deserves a special shout out).  I dedicated the race to my dad, but I also dedicate it to all of you guys.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart.


  1. Christian - what an amazing accomplishment. You did fantastic! With so many obstacles and all of the foot issues three weeks before the race, you couldn't have done better. I'm amazed and inspired by what you've done! And your dad would be very proud of you I'm sure. Good work! GO TEAM!!

  2. Nice blog, I'm glad I found it. I'm just across the border in SD! Hope you enjoyed the weather while you could! That was one hell of a blizzard we got hammered with last week!

  3. Well done and what an amazing race report!! Congrats :)

  4. Wow! What a hell of a story! I wanna see the pic of your foot right after the long snow run, though. That's just gotta be sick! Nice job.

  5. Well, I'm glad you got to do the marathon, and in Hawaii no less! Nice. You did it. Even minimal is quite an accomplishment. Great job, man! Proud of ya! Hope you enjoyed your vacation.

    BTW - your feet make my feet look good. At least I don't run in snow. Crazy.

  6. Congrats on your marathon in paradise! I don't do well in heat either and going from snow to that kind of heat was tough. I'm sure your dad was proud of you and you should be pretty proud of yourself. Great job! I hope your feet healed up completely!

  7. Its fun to see what other people think of when they come here, glad you enjoyed it. We kinda are Japanese Tourist Central. Makes for fun Halloween costumes though. Great race.
    I live here so I don't have to run in the snow. You did it on your own? Psh. And I gotta get me a running kilt.

  8. You're not the only one that got all emotional at mile 21. Great job.= and really inspiring.

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