I attempted to run a marathon distance yesterday, and ended up accidentally running my first unofficial ultramarathon. Before the ultramarathoners who follow us come at me, I will refer you to the Google definition, which is any marathon that goes beyond 26.2 miles. So, like, when I ran Aspen Valley last year, and then ran an extra 0.53 miles (maybe I started my tracker early, maybe I didn’t, you may never know), that was 26.73 miles. An ultra.
I’m careful not to call this a marathon or an ultramarathon. Runners who have been doing this longer than I have are quick to point out that one should not use the term “marathon” if it is unofficial, not chipped, not on a carefully designed and measured course, and not with place finishings. I accept this, so I am calling my Run(s) for Justice unofficial marathon-distance runs.
As always, and as I had planned, I started early. Up at 4:45 AM to eat some oatmeal and drink some water, and get my gear together. As I was not participating in an established, official race, I had to take on some extra pieces, like ensuring that I had water, energy gel, Gatorade, even screenshots of my course with me. There would not be recovery stations at every mile, like when I ran the New York City Marathon in 2017; there would not even be the intermittent recovery stations that, though their locations were not predictable, they were there eventually, like at Aspen Valley in 2019, and there would not be the predictable routes or crowds of people, either suffering with me or cheering from the sidelines, like when I ran Colfax the same year. I was on my own.
Though I had been shaking with some weird combination of dread and anticipation since the night before, there was no starting horn (start guns are becoming increasingly rare in sanctioned races), no announcer to shout us out, no singer to sing the national anthem to make us listen to in silence. Just my spouse, who struggled to get up early, snapping pics of me and my Black Lives Matter flag, and my mom, who was my mobile recovery station. This pics were very flattering (I learned from my fifteen-year-old daughter that Golden Hour can be morning or evening), and I set off, nearly forgetting to start my tracker and put on my hat.
I started slowly, as was the plan. One cannot sprint into 26.2 miles, and one cannot run at top speed for that long. I had learned that if my plan works, which is to run multiple marathon-distance runs, I will need to be able to recover quickly for the next one. These runs come faster than what my mind and body are accustomed to, but for the first time in my running life, I needed to be able to keep going, take care of myself to the greatest extent possible, and come back as well as I can.
The first supporter outside of my family that I saw was my buddy Joe. He timed it perfectly, and we connected at an intersection just inside the first three miles. I got so excited that someone else was supporting me that I wanted to hug him, but settled for a light fist bump. Perhaps not the smartest thing during a pandemic; I hope that I didn’t pass anything to him. I’ve handled my business during this time to the best of my ability, but I know that I haven’t been perfect.
For the first 10 miles, it was overwhelmingly positive. People honked from their cars, raising their fists and cheering. Not a ton of folx, and that is definitely different from what I am used to in my experience running official races within the structure of racing. I reflected on how even though I have run in races that had some benefit to the community, mostly they used our registration fees for overhead and costs to run the race. The $100-200 per marathon probably didn’t entirely go to people in need, but allowed the organizations to do the work. Even though I was doing this solo and in relative anonymity (though at this writing the Facebook page has close to 200 likes), every penny raised for this effort has gone directly to organizations with no strings attached.
There were some minor challenges immediately. Things come up on runs of this distance, and one just needs to adjust. I had ordered this Black Lives Matter flag from the internet, and at the time, 3′ by 5′ didn’t seem like much, but it turns out that 3′ by 5′ is 3′ by 5′. It had little ring-encircled holes but there wasn’t an obvious way to put a flagpole into it. I also didn’t have a flagpole. I rooted around the garage and found a plastic broomstick with the broom part broken off. I had broken it trying to sweep my Gorilla workout mat, and the grip of the mat was such that it just snapped the broom. But between the stick, a couple of produce rubber bands, and the soft rubbery grip, it was working!
But then my music started glitching out. I had a JBL bluetooth speaker in my Camelback, and it seems that it was positioned in such a way that the skip button kept being hit as I ran. I adjusted it once around Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Steele, but the music kept pausing and skipping randomly. Then, a couple of blocks before York, I realize that my phone, which was in my flip belt, was turned in, touching my skin, and with the lock screen activated, was skipping. I stopped. The broomstick still had the plastic loop to allow it to be hung from a hook, so I clipped my speaker to that loop. It dangled there a little, but was easy to ignore. I moved the phone into the Camelback, screen out, and the problem stopped immediately. Though I had a plan for this run, I also kept in mind that things never go entirely according to plan.
Running down Colfax was very different from running in the Park Hill area. People impacted by homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and mental health challenges made up most of the people I came into contact with. Some looked confused, most were focused on other things as I passed. One man drove past and yelled “F*ck that flag!” My mom wanted to respond, but I told her that it probably wasn’t a good idea. A person feeling aggressive enough to yell abuse at a runner might find it rational to escalate.
I continued running.
I arrived at my school, the Denver Center for International Studies, passing Denver West High School almost without noticing. My friend Brady, once my student teacher, then my colleague and closest friend at DCIS, had said he would be there with his family to meet me. You never know whether a person will actually make it to an appointed meeting place; he has a young son, but still, I was excited to see him. When I got within a half block of the school, I could hear cheering. Not only was Brady there with his wife, Alejandra, and their son, four of my former students were there as well. They had signs, gatorade, and oranges. They took pictures and were all smiles (I could tell, even though they were all wearing masks), and I wanted to stay and hang out. But I remembered that I had a run to finish.
This was the most difficult part of the run. It was the longest distance, the least populated, and even Google Maps didn’t have enough familiarity with the area to be helpful. There was broken glass in a number of spots, no sidewalk in others, and scarcely a soul to be seen. It was lonely and I wondered what the point of this was. But I kept moving. I wanted to get to Abraham Lincoln High School to see if anyone would meet me there.
My mom had made the decision to stay with me on her bike the entire way. I had told her she could just meet me at checkpoints, but a wiser person than I, she just did what she thought was right. I am grateful that she did, even if I hadn’t asked her to. Around the Home Depot, which gave money to the Tr*mp campaign, the road simply ended, despite what Google said. She rode ahead and returned, informing me that it was just railroad tracks, and that we were probably better off just heading back to Alameda, where we could catch the bike path. We probably added at least a mile to our journey, and I made a mental note to slow down, because there was a chance that I would need to run more than 26.2 miles.
In these situations, I had to maintain an affirming and honest inner-monologue. I am a proud and competitive person, who struggles with insecurities daily. I can run fast over long distances (fast for me, anyway). I ran the NYC Marathon in under four hours, I ran a 5K in 21:35, and ran the Turkey Trot at a 7:11 pace one year. I had to remind myself that this was different. I didn’t have the energy of the crowd or fellow runner to energize me. And now, because I didn’t know what I needed to know, I may need to be ready to do more than 26.2 miles.
At the bottom of Ruby Hill, I came across my second detractor. Speeding past in his blue sports car, he yelled “F*ck that flag, homie!” I gave him a thumbs-up. I expected some hostility, and my biggest fear is not to have someone attack me, so that isn’t so much what bothered me. I was actually more concerned that someone would try to hurt my mom. Now, she’s a tough lady, isn’t scared of anyone, but it would be hard for me to know that I got her into a situation where she got hurt. As for my own reaction to the man’s angry admonishment, I found myself weirdly unrattled. I just knew that I was out here, running with a purpose. I knew that people would experience misunderstanding or hostility, even though all I was doing was carrying a flag. In fact, I got the idea after I saw a shirtless man running with an American flag. I rolled my eyes, as nationalistic jingoism isn’t my thing, but then I just figured, maybe I’ll just wave a flag that represents my values.
Near the Taco Bell between Jewell and Evans on Sheridan, a young man in glasses leaned out his window, pumping his fist, screaming WOOOOOOO! I’m pretty sure it was a dude we call “Messi” at the school, and it brought a smile.
My wife and daughter were at Lincoln High school waiting, and it was really nice to see them. They brought bananas, gave me more water, even gave me their own, made a little video for Instagram, and sent me on my way.
My mom, greatest race marshall/sherpa/cheerleader I could have asked for yesterday, encouraged me that “It’s all downhill from here,” and I found a little extra bounce.
I was losing energy quickly by mile 19, and was drinking more and more water than I had planned. This has definitely been my experience of running marathons, that as you near the finish line, you find yourself struggling more to keep pace. My goal in a marathon has always been simple: try not to be a person who needs to be carried off the course. Finish the race on your two feet, and finish strong. Slow running is still running. Slow miles are still miles.
I was reminded of my friend Shawne’s words before my first marathon. He warned me that “when you get to mile 21, remember that you’ve never seen that before, and it will be different.” And when the race erroneously placed me in the first corral, with the faster runners, I called him in a panic. “Bro, I ain’t a Wave 1 runner!” He calmly said to me “Yes, you are. You are in Wave 1, so you are a Wave 1 runner” That gave me peace and focus.
At this point, I had seen the other side of 20 miles. Seven or eight times to be exact. None of this was new. Just keep going. One foot in front of the other. If I worried too much about how I was going to do another 8.2 miles in this state, I would be doomed, consumed by exhaustion and worry. But if I just concerned myself with moving my feet, I would progress. I would reach my destination if I just kept moving.
Running along Broadway was smooth and flat. It was nice to be done with the hills that were behind me. A car passed me with a woman calling out “ALL LIVES MATTER,” and at this point I just smiled to myself. Shoot, I’ve run 24 miles, is there anything you are running for? A contrarian is imprisoned by disagreement and negativity; I thought of a line from Talib Kweli’s “New Leaders,” “You talk about what you don’t like, that’s clear, but what do you love?”
Passing through the Five Points area, it was definitely different from the neighborhood that I grew up in. There are murals commemorating the extensive Black History along Welton, as White residents pass by, barely noticing the murals, and somehow not noticing me and my giant flag, which I had managed to carry the entire race.
At Manual High School, my alma mater, there was one lone supporter. He had been there around the time that I had predicted but I was running way behind. “I had to go back to the house to get my daughter down for a nap, so I was worried that I missed you.” I nearly broke down, this dude had waited in his car as temperatures rose to give me support. The Manual parking lot was the official 26.2 miles, so he was technically at the finish line. He took some pics, wished me well, smiling the whole time, rockin his DCTA shirt.
I had asked my mom if she was doing okay physically. Kind of a silly question, she has made epic bike trips all over the country, across entire states for days at at time. She said “well, it’s hot, and I’ll know that I was out today, but I’m fine.” SIDE NOTE: she texted me two hours later to make suggestions for the next one.
I entered City Park a little after 11:00, about an hour behind schedule. I wasn’t even entirely sure where the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial was, but I just followed my mom on her bike. As I came around the bend, I saw my four former students gathered under the shade of a tree. Then I saw my daughter run across the road, phone in hand, to record my finish. And ahead, I saw my wife and stepdad, just in front of what is one of Denver’s most beautiful memorials, holding a ribbon between them. They had made a finish line. The ribbon had hearts all over it. I kicked up my pace for the last 500 feet and for the first time in my life, I got to break a finish line. I looked at my watch. 27.47 miles. A personal best for distance, as well as a personal best for slowness. But I got there.
I won’t be running another 26.2 today. I am resting and recovering. But I will be ready for the next one.