Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Queen for a Day

It’s Friday, October 14, and I’m at DIA, walking to the gate for my flight. The signs above the gates are a virtual tour of the marathons that I’ve run over these past ten or so years. Chicago, my second state and first Boston qualifier, so many years ago. Kansas City, where I ran my first ultra along the Little Blue River just a bit east of KC, cheered on by my mom and my cousin Janet. Las Vegas, where Melissa and Michelle and I celebrated my 50th birthday (with the men in our lives) after running the stark and stunningly gorgeous Valley of Fire Marathon. Dayton, where I stayed with friends Jim and Jonni, and ran the Air Force Marathon in London-like pea soup fog, bringing home an age group award that was especially sweet since it was awarded by marathon greats Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar. Boston, where I've had an amazing ten-year streak, running a dream on Patriots' Day in April every spring since 2002. Nashville, where I met Michele and Paul and David and Lynne and Rhonda and Trent and Ian and Kathleen and Ben and….well, let’s just say a bunch of friends, to take on the challenge of the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon. (We all survived, but the food poisoning that followed made the trip home from that one a plane ride I’d rather forget.) San Diego, where I ran my only RocknRoll marathon, one of my slowest but also my only true family affair, running with my cousins Kerri and Stacey.

Aha, finally: Grand Rapids, Michigan. It seems that maybe it’s the only destination on this concourse I haven’t visited yet. That must mean that it’s time for my 50th state. Can I be at this point already?

Like so many of the marathon weekends I’ve had in the past few years, this one is all about sharing the experience with friends, and – like so many other marathon weekends of the past few years – this one starts with Leann picking me up at the airport late on Friday night. Leann and I are sharing quarters at a Comfort Inn on the north end of the city, where Michele and Melissa will also join us tomorrow. Over the years, I’ve shared hotel rooms with Leann and Michele and Melissa, people I’ve come to value as some of my best friends. I’ve roomed with v-teamers and TMers and people I’ve barely met beforehand and friends of friends: Rita and Rhonda and AnneMarie and Shelagh and Carolyn and Amie and Dawnie and my dear friend Theresa and my cousins Kerri and Stacey - and there hasn't been anything but a great experience yet. I’ve been hosted by some of the most gracious people in the world: Sunflower Mary and Leann and Michele and Melissa and Karen and Nan (in three different homes!), and by Jim and Jonni, and by Lynn and Jim. Mick and I stayed in the same Boston B&B three years running, in a different author-themed room each time. I've made road trips on a couple of occasions with my coach Benji and his wife Amie, who have also - over the years - become some of my best friends. Once, in Idaho, Leann and Melissa and I shared a rustic cabin that backed up to Yellowstone. In Hawaii, John and I stayed at the very luxurious Hyatt Regency at Kaanapali overlooking the Pacific channel with views of Molokai; in Alaska, Benji and Amie and Melissa and I all stayed in the rustic Reluctant Fisherman Inn, where the rooms were plain and spare, but the views onto Prince William Sound were stupendous. In Newport, Oregon, I shared a cool house just steps away from the beach with Betsy and a group of Marathon Maniacs that included Mary Hanna, the winner of the women’s masters division in that race. Just once, I spent a night in a hotel with my sister Sue. My mom provided the housing the night before my Iowa marathon, and my brother Stan provided quarters the night before my Omaha marathon. Only a couple of times have I spent a pre-marathon night completely on my own.

On Saturday morning, the great diner that Leann had scoped out for us is closed, so we go with Plan B and head to IHOP. That’s okay: we’ve done this before, and IHOP always comes through with plenty of carbs. Having dealt with breakfast, we turn our attention to the other thing that marathoners obsess over: weather. And there’s plenty to obsess about here: the weather is absolutely atrocious.

Now, the thing is, you can’t do anything at all about the weather, but right up until the starter’s signal, it’s always a topic of conversation. You would think that after 65 marathons, it would somehow fade into the background, but it just doesn’t work that way. I’ve run marathons in snow and rain and heat and blistering sun and high temps and cold temps and high winds and just about everything in between. My first marathon was in Steamboat Springs in June 1999, and we ran in a snowy wintry wonderland. For Melissa’s 40th birthday celebration in Madison, Wisconsin, we ran in temps so high that the race director was forced to end the marathon early (thank heavens I finished before the black flag went up). My first Boston was a marathon-perfect cool and drizzly day; the next three years, Boston set heat records for April. In New Jersey last March, the run along the Atlantic Ocean started with 29 degrees and snow flurries. In Austin, I walked out of my hotel into freezing rain and promptly fell in the icy parking lot. The heat and headwinds in Tucson, Arizona, apparently didn’t affect my ability to turn in my fastest time ever. In Tulsa last November, the ferocious headwinds between miles 15 and 21 were enough to stop you dead in your tracks. I ran St. George, Utah, twice: once with full sun and 80-some degrees at the finish, and once with a driving rain that had me so cold that I seriously considered dropping out. Both were among my fastest races.

The forecast for race day has vacillated wildly these last two weeks. Today, the conditions are lousy: it’s rainy and cold (not in itself all bad for a marathon), but the wind is howling. Absolutely howling. The forecast for Sunday is not any better. So. The weather will be what the weather will be. And still, Leann and I find ourselves wandering the aisles of the local Target and Meiers stores looking for throwaway plastic ponchos, even though I’m sure I have one (or maybe two or three) in my suitcase.

The next pre-marathon ritual takes us to the expo at the YMCA in downtown Grand Rapids - where the race will start and end – for packet pickup. We’re working also on getting our logistics straight for tomorrow, and it’s a good thing, too, since our navigational skills this morning are a bit off. Still, we get to the expo without incident. It’s a small expo, so we make quick work of it, stopping to take photos of the unconventional pace group signs (among them: Al Gore's Inconvenient Pace Team - 4:58 - and the Pi Pacers - 3:14 - and Dubya's Running Mates - 3:44). We take note of the sign pitching the pickle juice aid station, but opt to not sample any. We meet up with Michele and Melissa, who come to the expo directly from the airport. Together, we check out all the stuff, but in the end – other than free t-shirts given to us when we buy a few gels – we make it out of the expo without accumulating a bunch more stuff.

Of course, it’s not like we need more t-shirts. It's easy to accumulate stuff at marathons over the years, and it all starts with the t-shirt, which is the standard giveaway for any race. After 65 marathons, I could start a thrift shop with race t-shirts. I have cotton t-shirts and tech t-shirts, short-sleeves and long-sleeves, plain old uni-sex shirts and nice fitted gender-specific shirts. I have shirts of almost every color of the rainbow: blue and yellow and green and purple and gray and red and black and lots and lots of white shirts - but just one pink shirt. I've gotten t-shirts at almost every race I've run; a couple of times - in Austin and in Tulsa - I've gotten two shirts for the same marathon. I have shirts I've never worn, and shirts that I wear almost every day. My favorite shirt is my Mardi Gras shirt: a white long-sleeved shirt of a tech fabric, with a simple fleur-de-lis logo on the front. Or maybe my favorite shirt is my Shires of Vermont Marathon shirt: a short-sleeved black fitted shirt with a pretty green logo that I wear to Pilates. Or maybe it's one of the ten Boston shirts that I have: the Boston shirts are a history of the art of marathon t-shirts, starting with long-sleeve uni-sex cotton shirts, colors changing every year, to nice fitted gender specific shirts in a good tech fabric. When they come to clean out my place when I've passed on, they may just find me already buried in a mountain of marathon race shirts.

But not all races give out t-shirts; or at least, not *just* t-shirts. I have a blue wind-shirt from the Mount Desert Island Marathon in Maine, and a yellow wind-vest from the Mississippi Blues Marathon in Jackson. I have a great quarter zip black tech long-sleeve shirt from Fargo, and a thick, kind-of-ugly sweatshirt from my Indiana marathon. I have hats - a red one from Rocket City in Huntsville, Alabama, and a white one from Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky. I have goody bags of different weights and sizes and colors and designs, all the rage these days, whether shopping-bag or backpack-type, all useful. My goody bag in Idaho was a potato sack, something I now regret that I didn't save. I have a very cool beer glass from my Delaware marathon, something I fretted about getting home intact. There's a mug from the Leadville Trail Marathon I ran many years ago that my friend Nattu picked up for me, but that somehow I never retrieved. Myrtle Beach gave us all gigantic red beach towels. I have posters from my first marathon, and from my first Boston, and from a bunch of other races. I have big extravagant race programs from every Boston, and more modest ones from a handful of other marathons. Once, in the only race I've ever won - the tiny Blue Springs 50k - I got a pair of socks as a prize; today, in addition to the blue short sleeved t-shirt in my goody bag, there's a pair of Grand Rapids Marathon Socks.

The other thing I'll take home is a magnet. Somewhere along the way, I started collecting refrigerator magnets from every marathon city or state. I have some doozies. A football magnet from Marshall University, where I ran my West Virginia marathon and finished by carrying a football the length of the football field before crossing the goal line. A pink flamingo magnet from Florida, a great magnet with articulating arms and legs. A tornado-shaped magnet from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the winds made for a very tough race. My Boston magnets are always a part of the packet; plain and simple, an annual gift from the Newton-Wellesley Hospital. I have no fewer than four moose-themed magnets, although the only place I've actually seen a moose was in Alaska. My Hawaii magnet is a surfboard; my Georgia magnet is a peach; my Arizona magnet is a kachina. Here in Michigan, as in some other non-touristy places, finding a magnet is a bit of a challenge. Leann helps me in the quest, and we finally land in a book store where they have a small selection, and I choose a simple rectangle with a picture of the city that says "Grand Rapids". Sometimes simple is best.

After all of these rituals, we don't have much time for sight-seeing. This is not really a destination we chose for the scenery, so we make do with a tour of the local store with tons of Michigan apples on sale, all at 49 cents a pound. That's okay, since I've managed to take in tons of sights along this fifty state journey. I've seen national parks galore: Yellowstone and Yosemite and Acadia and the Redwood Forest and the Sequoias and Zion and Bryce Canyon and Cape Cod and Capitol Reef and the Grand Tetons. I've visited incredible historic sites: Antietam and Plymouth and Santa Fe and Charleston, SC and the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. I’ve toured of more covered bridges than I could imagine would exist in Vermont and New Hampshire. In my New York marathon, we actually crossed the International Peace Bridge from Buffalo into Ontario, and finished at Niagara Falls. I spent a weekend in New Orleans, and was treated to all the sights there, from the French Quarter to the above-ground cemeteries to the Garden District with the attendant trolleys, but I also got to see the sobering visions of a post-Katrina world. In South Dakota, I saw the Crazy Horse Monument and the beautiful Black Hills. I've had the good fortune to make vacations out of many of my marathons, spending extended time in Hawaii and Alaska and once, a grand driving tour of the entire Western part of the United States.

But this trip is about a celebration, and the people and parties are the main attractions. Soon it’s 6 p.m. and the four of us (Leann, Melissa, Michele and I) are at the Bistro Bella Vita, a swanky Italian eatery recommended by my Grand Rapids friends Len and Alan. The restaurant is accommodating to our group that grows to include Benji and Amie, who have just arrived from Colorado, then Len, then Rhonda (up from Indiana), John and Carol (Michele’s friends from the Hal Higdon running board, where we all first met), Phil Bush (another original v-teamer and good friend, over from Chicago for the event), and my Iowa pal Randy Koch. Randy and I have been friends since sixth grade; he lives in Grand Rapids now, and it’s a pure gift to me that he’s able to join the party. We eat and we drink and we have a grand time. My face is already getting sore from smiling so much.

But we’re not just here to party: we have a race to run. After a short night, it’s race morning, and it’s déjà vu all over again, but in a good way. When I got up at oh-dark-thirty for that first marathon in Steamboat Springs so many years back, Rome and I were at the home of his friend Mark, in a beautiful log home just outside of town. My first order of business was a trip to the bathroom. When I returned to our room, Rome asked me if I had looked outside yet. No, I replied, why? Well, you might want to check outside before you get dressed for the race. Oh yeah? So I went to the window, and found the thing that I least expected: a winter wonderland. Snow, and a bunch of it. It had started in the middle of the night (it had been sunny, cool, and windy the day before), and was still coming down, big white flakes. “I can’t run a marathon in the snow!” was the first thing in my mind. And then I realized that I really didn’t have much of a choice: if I was going to run a marathon that day, it would be in the snow. Oh boy.

So this morning, I come back to the room from my trip to the WC, and Leann asks if I’ve looked outside yet. Uh-oh. Um…..what up? Rain, says she, rain. So I go to the window to look for myself, and sure enough, there’s a light rain. At least this time, the precipitation is not a surprise. But then I look to the flagpole, and I’m heartened, seeing what Leann hadn’t noticed yet: almost no wind. Yesterday, the flag was whipping around furiously. Today, it’s just hanging there. Hallelujah Jordan!

There’s been a twist in the plans for this morning. Originally, I thought that Leann and Melissa would join me for this 26.2-mile journey. But that’s not to be, as Melissa is nursing a bum knee and Leann is recovering from the crud. Actually, to be completely accurate, Melissa is having knee surgery in a week or so, and Leann sounds like she belongs in an oxygen tent. They are quite a pair. They’ve elected to take the early start, and are saying that they will walk the distance. This means they need to head downtown a bit earlier than Michele and I. They take off, and I’m left in an oddly quiet, solitary room to finish dressing and eating my stale bagel and drinking hotel room coffee. It’s a pretty alien sensation, after so many shared pre-marathon rituals, and I spend a few moments thinking how blessed I am to have found such great friends to share this experience. But I’m only alone for a scant ten or fifteen minutes before Michele shows up, ready to go.

This morning, Michele and I head out - in the darkness - to a rental car for the drive to the race start and finish. Logistics for this race are pretty easy, since the race is essentially a big loop, starting and ending at the same point, so we can drive into downtown and park nearby. The easiest races are the loopy ones where you walk out of a hotel and are right at the starting line; that's a rare treat, and something I did most recently in Providence, Rhode Island. Most of my favorite races have been point to point courses, and the logistics have been more tricky. I've ridden yellow school buses from a finish line to a start for more races than I can count. On a few occasions, I've had bus rides on nice comfy tour buses. In Tucson, they transported us on nice buses and let us stay on board until the race start, and I took a nice little nap in the warmth of the bus. Is it a coincidence that I ran my fastest time that day? At St. George, Utah, they bused us on yellow school buses and dumped us at a higher elevation, but made up for the cold conditions at the start by building nice big bonfires so we could keep warm. Twice I walked to race starts in downtown Denver, just a few blocks from home. In Boston and Atlanta, I rode subways to get to the race start; in Deadwood, South Dakota, I rode on a little old-fashioned trolley. The bus to the start in Cordova, Alaska, was the most colorfully decorated bus I've ever seen. For my first Boston, Mick dropped me off on a back road in Hopkinton, and I walked backwards along the course the rest of the way to the starting corrals, a pilgrimage made more poignant by the quiet and solitude imposed by the fog on the oddly empty roads.

This morning we drive to downtown Grand Rapids, and we get to the start area just in time to see the early starters off. It’s especially ironic to see Melissa and Leann in their Boston Marathon jackets lined up with the walkers. Rhonda also makes it here for the early sendoff. We finish up the last pre-race rituals (i.e., multiple trips through the bathroom lines – in this case we actually get to use the indoor facilities at the Y, something of a marathon treat), then Michele and Rhonda are off to warm up. They are both running the half, so will line up and run independently of me. Michele promises to come back to mile 23 or so to escort me to the finish.

Now I start looking for Benji and Amie in earnest. When Melissa and Leann opted for the early start, it was a loss, but I didn't mind too much because I knew that I still would have Amie as a running partner. But now, as the minutes to start time count down, I realize that I screwed up in not setting a specific meeting place. We run roughly the same pace, though, so how hard will it be to find her? Well, the unexpected answer is: plenty hard. I scan the crowds, but with 3000 runners in the combined marathon and half marathon, there are just a lot of people here. It seems weird – and a little bittersweet – that I will start my 50th state marathon just like I started my first ever marathon – completely alone.

As far as race starts go, this one is pretty low key. Over the years, there have been many memorable race starts. The Star Spangled Banner is nearly ubiquitous, and I’ve heard lots of versions; let’s just say some have been better than others. In Iowa, we were sent on our way by a couple of people clad in togas (the Marathon to Marathon, naturally), and with a surprise greeting from Tom Vilsack, then the Iowa governor who also went on to run the race. (Happily, I can report that it’s one race where I beat the incumbent.) In Austin, after waiting around in freezing drizzle, two deer bounded across the roadway just as we started running. On Maui, in the darkness of a January morning, we were treated to a traditional Hawaiian blessing. Chicago was my first big marathon, and I can never forget the arc of clothes being thrown to the sidelines when the crowd started to move. At my last marathon in Alaska, there were only about thirty of us lined up at the start line – 26.2 miles outside of a remote fishing village – so for once, I was able to hear the starter call out “Ready – Set – Go”. My biggest surprise in my first marathon was the fact that the (relatively) small crowd started to move, and I had never heard a gun go off. That has happened over and over again on this journey, and today is no different. Without any fanfare, we start to move.

I learn very quickly, though, that someone wearing a shirt announcing that this is my 50th state – in bright red and blue letters on my back - will never be alone. I’m surprised and humbled by all the people who make a point of running with me and congratulating me. It’s a non-stop stream of well-wishers. How could I think I was alone for this milestone day? The truth is, it surprises me that I've run with so many friends in marathons over the years, when I've always thought of myself as a solitary runner. I've run several entire marathons with Leann, talking about and solving the problems of the world along the way, in places as diverse as New Orleans and Burlington, Vermont, and Missoula and Wilmington, Delaware, and Providence, Rhode Island. I started one marathon with Melissa, in Denver, but I couldn’t keep up with her pace beyond mile 8; somehow, she slowed down enough to stick with me in Alaska for the entire 26.2 mile journey earlier this year. I've run portions of many marathons with Michele - most notably the first 15 or so miles of the Maui Oceanfront Marathon last year. I've run large parts of marathons in Tulsa and Ashton, Idaho, with Amie. In Little Rock, I ran nearly the entire race with Denise from Chicago, someone (I thought) I just met that morning in the starting corral; around the halfway point of the marathon we realized that we had run a part of the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon in South Dakota together a few years earlier. Once, in Boston when I was struggling in a very hot year, Mick hopped out onto the course and ran 5 miles through the hills of Newton with me, helping me get through the toughest part of the day; never mind that he then had to run the 5 miles in reverse to get back to our rental car. Along the way, I've run stretches of road or trails with Shelagh and Lynne and Mike McKenna and Trent and Kent and Kerby and Dan Schwarz and Betsy and Rhonda and Sunflower Mary.

The early miles tick by. The first five miles of the marathon are, according to the race map, a big loop around downtown Grand Rapids, but to be honest, I don’t see any of it. All I see are the faces of the people who run up to offer kind words. It’s disorienting – I don’t have any sense at all of where I am. Over the years, I've run in just about every setting imaginable, and have seldom felt as lost as I do now. I've run in cities: Boston and Chicago and Atlanta and Seattle and Denver, in the shadow of tall buildings. I've run along the water, from Tampa Bay to the Niagara River to Myrtle Beach to the Maine coast and the Oregon coast; along the shores of Lake Superior at Grandma's Marathon and Lake Champlain in the Vermont City Marathon, and among glacial runoff in Alaska; along the Pacific Ocean in Maui, and along the Atlantic in Rhode Island. I've run past college campuses in Boston - Wellesley and Boston College - and through college campuses in Austin and Madison and Providence and Seattle and Moorhead, Minnesota, and Huntington, West Virginia. I’ve run on military bases in Dayton, Ohio, and in Wichita. In New Jersey, I ran along a boardwalk on the ocean. I've run past state capitols in Austin and Madison and Jackson and Denver and Little Rock, and past that grandest capitol of all in Washington DC. Seldom have I been as unaware of my surroundings as I am here today.

Phil is acting as official photographer today, so in addition to continuing to scan the runners around me, I’m scanning the side of the road for Phil. He told me where he would be, but as I’ve completely lost track of time and space, I have no idea where to expect him. Then I see him, and I feel connected.

Ed from Chicago falls into step alongside me, and we cover much of the first seven miles together. Ed has finished the 50 state circuit himself, and now is working on a second time around. He’s great company, always somehow finding me again after each aid station.

At mile seven, as I’ve settled into the marathon zone, with Ed providing steady companionship while other well-wishers come and go, Amie comes sprinting up beside me. I’m thrilled! She tells me that she has been trying to find me, describing me to folks along the way, and finally somebody said, yes, I’ve seen that woman, she’s up ahead of you just a little ways.

Now, it’s not exactly hard to guess how anyone spied me today. I’ve run in shorts and tights and running skirts in the past. I’ve run in singlets and short sleeved shirts and long sleeve shirts and jackets. I’ve started races in throwaway shirts, picked up for a few bucks each at the local Salvation Army. I’ve started races with garbage bags and ponchos to ward off cold and rain. I’ve sported red-white-and-blue 50 States Marathon Club gear and I’ve worn yellow-red-and-black Marathon Maniacs gear. In fact, I’ve worn most of the colors of the rainbow, favoring pinks and blues and purples. I’ve worn hats and headbands and visors and sunglasses, and I’ve held on to (or thrown away) gloves along the way – black and white and red, and – my favorites - purple. But today is the first time I’ve worn a costume.

As far as costumes go, it’s not that showy, but for me, it’s an event. Melissa tried to outfit me in a red polka dotted running skirt, but in the end I opted for my trusty red Nike shorts. For a top, I decorated a white short sleeve shirt with red and blue stars on the front, and a 50 States Club logo on the back, along with a painted “MI=MY 50th STATE” message. My arms are clad in sky blue arm warmers with giant white stars. And the piece de resistance? It’s a red-white-and-blue sparkly tiara. And just to complete the look, I’m carrying a little American flag. You could say I’m styling.

So I guess it’s really no surprise that Amie is able to find me. It’s great to finally be back among my old friends, even though I greatly appreciate the new friends I’ve been making along the way.

Amie and I have barely had a chance to start chatting when, at mile 9, we see Melissa and Leann. I think uh-oh. When we did the math, we estimated that if we were all on track with our plans for the day, we would pass Leann and Melissa around mile 12. Seeing them moseying along here at mile 9 means that they are pretty seriously behind their game plan, since I’ve been running pretty steady ten-minute miles. We shout greetings to each other, but then the moment is gone.

Somewhere along the way, we’ve moved from running on city streets to running on a nice wide asphalt bike path that meanders through some open space south and west of downtown. With the fall colors just past their prime, it’s a very pretty setting. For a few miles, we’re in a fairly open field, skirting a small pond. Surprisingly, this urban course rivals some of my more rural and remote courses for scenery today. After all, I've run in the Rocky Mountains of my home state of Colorado - in Steamboat Springs and in Leadville, and in view of the Grand Tetons, and in the shadow of the Montana Rockies in Missoula. I've run in the stark desert beauty of St. George, Utah, and the Valley of Fire in Nevada, and the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. I've run on asphalt and concrete and trails - oh, those tough trails - from the Tecumseh Trail in southern Indiana to the Appalachian Trail and the C&O Canal Towpath in Maryland to the Land Between the Lakes Trail in Kentucky and the wonderfully forgiving soft crushed gravel path of the Deadwood Mickelson Trail in South Dakota. I've run up hills and down hills, too many to even begin to mention. The single hill in the course is along this stretch, and at this point, Amie and I lose Ed, who had been with me for so many miles.

The course has several out-and-back sections, and around mile 14, we head into the longest of these, and Amie and I start to see people whom we either know or will see a few more times along the journey. There’s Phil on a bridge, taking photos again. There’s a wedding party running altogether – a very interesting and enthusiastic entourage. There are relay runners, and there are charity groups pushing wheelchair racers. And now – right around the time that we pass the Pickle Juice aid station for the first time – there’s Benji, many miles ahead of us. He looks strong, and we shout greetings to each other.

Up ahead, we cross under a roadway, and standing along the side of the path is Len. He shouts my name, and I’m thrilled. It’s a party! In fact, I’m so caught up in the celebration that I somehow miss him after we make our 180 degree turn up ahead. Next up: Leann and Melissa. What the heck? We figure that they must have seriously picked up the pace. And finally, there’s Rita, heading the opposite way as we head into the second, shorter, out-and-back leg upwards of mile 20.

I’ve been having fun, but all the talking has taken a toll, and I finally tell Amie that the only hope I have to maintain any semblance of this pace is to quit talking and concentrate on running. So we run along companionably, Amie providing color commentary from time to time, and me grunting responses. I think everyone else is in the same shape, as the congratulations have slowed to a trickle. It’s all a good reminder of what it’s all about: that running 26.2 miles is never easy, and never to be taken lightly.

We retrace some steps over already-covered ground, and then finally we can see the tall buildings of downtown Grand Rapids in the distance. I’m starting to look forward to seeing Michele at mile 23; at this point in the race, every intermediate goal grows in significance, as I think “if I can just make it to ____”, then I can worry about getting to the finish line after that.

Michele is not, however, at mile 23. Somehow, I like this; it gives me yet another intermediate goal. First it was mile 23, now it’s “where in the world is Michele?” Time and distance is ticking away. Amie is inching just slightly ahead of me; it’s clear she has more gas in her tank than I do.

At mile 24, there’s Michele. Yeah! Amie tells Michele that I’m not able to chat anymore, but that she should entertain me. I tell Amie that she should take off and have a good strong finish to her race. So she leaves me in Michele’s capable hands, and Michele starts talking me through the final 2.2 miles of this 50-state journey.

Michele is naturally a Chatty Kathy, and she’s rarin’ to go since she’s been done with her half marathon for a couple of hours now, and she takes over. She’s perfect for the job. She keeps up a running commentary, telling me about her race, and about where the mile 25 marker is, and about the little obstacles between here and the finish (a curb to step off; a large water puddle to avoid; railroad tracks that might be slippery). It's easy to understand why Michele seems a little worried about the possibility that I'll fall and break something, since I have a bit of a history breaking things throughout this 50-state journey. In the months leading up to my first Boston, I fell in an awkward way on a ski slope and broke a rib. It made for some painful training. Then two years later, again right before Boston, I stubbed my toe in the middle of the night, and so ran Boston that year with a broken little toe. Just a little over two years ago, I stepped badly on a rock on a trail section of the Mesa Falls Marathon in Idaho and ended up with a stress fracture in my foot. In an effort to give my foot time to heal, I took some time off running and increased the time I spent on my bike. You can see it coming: I wrecked on my bike and broke my wrist. Not quite a year later, I tripped in a parking lot and fell hard on my knee, cracking a bone in my leg. Then, of course, earlier this year, I fell and smashed my nose in a Kentucky trail marathon. You can understand why someone who knows me would be concerned about me breaking more things. Today, amazingly, I manage to stay on my feet.

Part cheerleader, part coach, Michele tells me “you’ve got this” and “you can pick it up now, you can do this thing”, and her words spur me on. Somewhere in this last mile, she reminds me of the people who have helped get me here today, starting with my mom. But there’s not time to go through the entire list of people I need to recognize, so I just offer up a small silent prayer of thanks.

And then it’s mile 26, just 385 yards to go. So many races, and so many finish lines. In the Marine Corps Marathon, we had to climb a steep hill to the finish in Arlington National Cemetery. In Seattle and Huntington, we finished on football fields. In Fargo and Omaha, the finish lines were, oddly, inside buildings. The Wichita Marathon finish was on cobblestones: ouch! In Vermont earlier this year, after a race entirely in rain, we had to run across a squishy wet field to cross the finish line. In Wyoming, the finish line was up a steep climb; in South Dakota, the finish was at the end of a nice downhill stretch. Some finishes come up suddenly, where you make a last turn and there’s the finish line right in front of you. Boston is the opposite: you turn onto the final stretch long before you hit mile 26, and it feels like that huge finish line with the yellow and blue balloons and the gigantic arch keeps moving further and further away. This finish line in Grand Rapids is – like almost the entire course today – blissfully flat, and it seems to come at just the perfect point in this day.

Over the years, I’ve wondered what this stretch would feel like, and since I’m the biggest crybaby in the history of the world, I’ve been pretty downright certain that the moment will include a lot of tears. In my first marathon, there was a marker that said "1 mile to go", and as I passed it, I started to cry, only to learn quickly that crying and running aren't very compatible. Over the years, I’ve learned that one of the best cures for a crying jag is to go for a run. So, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that the tears I expected today don’t materialize. Today I’m running the last .2 miles of this journey with Michele at my side, and she is shouting to people that I’m finishing my 50th state, and I’m waving my little plastic flag, and all I feel is joy. Pure joy. Then I’m crossing the finish line, and Don Kern, the race director gives me – sweat and all – a gigantic hug. Joy, pure joy. Pure euphoria.

Benji and Amie are both there to share the moment, then they take off for warmth and showers. The rest of the party starts to reassemble just outside the finish area. There’s Phil, offering to get me a soda. Rhonda shows up, showered and refreshed after the half. Leann and Melissa are done soon, forced to confess that they started running somewhere in the middle of the race, running a huge negative split. Rita almost walks right past us, looking fresh after her finish. We hang out briefly, but the weather – which has been about as perfect as it could be today, cloudy, cool, and barely windy – is looking quite ominous with dark clouds gathering. Besides, we have a party to attend.

Most of us reassemble at a brewpub called Hopcat just a few hours later. Like the race course which was a gigantic loopy thing, this seems fitting: Hopcat is just a few blocks down from last night’s pasta feast. There’s a long picnic table just inside the front door of Hopcat, and we commandeer the table for our gathering. Nearly the whole gang is here: Leann, Melissa, Michele, Amie, Benji, Phil, Len, and Alan. The Jam family – unable to make the trip from Chicago – very graciously stands us a round of celebratory drinks. We have red-white-and-blue streamers and Mardi Gras beads and I wear my tiara again. It’s everything that I dreamed it would be – but so much more.

Monday morning arrives, and we’re all winging our way back to our respective homes. I’m hearing the song “Closing Time” by the group Semisonic in my head: “time for you to go back to the places you will be from”. And I’m not really sure what comes next. After chasing this goal for somewhere around ten years, it feels odd not to have a new next big thing planned.

When I get off the plane in Denver and walk down the concourse, I see again the virtual tour of my past marathons. Albuquerque, where Mick rescued me by bringing ice cubes to me on a sunny, hot, unshaded bike path along the Rio Grande. Omaha, where we ran through the Henry Doorly Zoo in the early hours of the morning, and I saw my mom and sister Sue and brother Stan and his family multiple times in the second half of the race, my two young nieces running the last hundred yards with me. Washington DC, where I spent a last long girls weekend with Theresa, and we both ran: a marathon for me and an 8k for her; before we knew her cancer was back, before we knew that it would be our last trip together. It seems that there’s nowhere left to go.

But then I have to wait a few minutes at the baggage carousel, and the list of arriving flights flashes in front of me. Grand Rapids: bags not in yet. But other cities show up here, too. Orlando. Hmmm. I have not yet run the Disney World Marathon. Knoxville. Is there a marathon in Knoxville? Exactly where *is* Knoxville? The words from the song continue in my head, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” And I’m reminded that there are worlds of possibilities.

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