Running Stories

Out of the Vortex

Lost Dutchman Marathon
Apache Junction, Arizona
February 16, 2014

According to Wikipedia, a polar vortex is a persistent, large-scale cyclone located near either of a planet’s geographical poles. The 2014 polar vortex created a North American cold wave and an unusually cold Michigan winter that had actually started in November of 2013.

This was my 11th winter in Michigan. In the past, I had often commented on how January was “balmy” as it averaged 22 degrees with little wind. Snow and lots of it was common but wind and cold were not. Sometime in January, we eclipsed our previous year’s snowfall of 103 inches and entered snowfall depths upwards of 160 inches. Shoveling the driveway had become the morning workout.

With a 6 day-a-week training schedule, the polar vortex left me no choice but to focus on the treadmill during the week. I would shovel in the morning and get in my runs in the evening on a treadmill at work or in the home basement. I suppose I could have gone outside in the dark, cold and wind but I wanted quality runs. Poor footing and meandering snowplows just don’t allow for quality runs.

Outdoor workouts on Saturday and Sunday were mandatory. With an 8 a.m. start, I at least had some daylight. I also had a good running partner on the weekends, Dean “The Dream” Bott. He was always up for whatever the distance. One can’t roll over and let the polar vortex win if there is a friend waiting for you on the outside.

We even got lucky on a couple of the longer 16-mile runs when temperatures were in the high 20s. More often than not however, we paid the price by enduring snow-covered roads, wind, and some below zero temperatures. Rarely did we talk about the polar vortex without adding a few adult expletives.

While the weather certainly made this training cycle unique, I also added something else to the daily training when Mary and I joined Weight Watchers in November. We weighed in, set our goals, went to weekly meetings and tried to adhere to our daily point goals.

The Weight Watchers program allows you to eat whatever you want as long as you track the points assigned and stay within your weekly point total. I got 9 extra points for each 4 miles of running. This allowed me some extra food but I still learned that I could run on far fewer calories than I had imagined in the past.

Too often, I had used my running as an excuse to eat everything in sight when I returned home. I left high school at 155 pounds and finished my previous marathon slightly more than 190 pounds. I was hopeful that if I could drop some weight, I could add some years to my knees and better complete my 50 state goal.

At the last weigh in before we were to leave for Arizona, I had exceeded my 15-pound goal by 2 pounds. Mary had lost almost 30 pounds. More important than the weight was the fact we were eating healthier. Fruits and vegetables are zero points in the WW program. So, instead of chowing down on high point value foods with little nutrient value, we were piling on the fruits and vegetables.

Late in the afternoon on February 11th, we lifted off the runway in Traverse City a combined 45 pounds lighter (seems like the airlines could have a fuel saving incentive of some kind?) and in dire need of an escape from the polar vortex. We both were really looking forward to some sunshine, warm temperatures and time away from our favorite snow shovels.

Late in the evening on Tuesday, February 11th, we landed at the Phoenix airport with temperatures in the 70s. We were giddy at the prospect of waking up in the morning and not seeing any snow. We made the short drive to my sister Debbie’s house in Tucson and crawled into a bed at her house before midnight.

We enjoyed a lazy morning around the house before heading over to Tombstone, Arizona. Tombstone is your typical Western tourist trap but having never been to Arizona before, we felt “obliged” to check out the O.K. Corral and Wyatt Earp’s hometown. We enjoyed a nice lunch in Big Nose Kate’s Saloon.

Back in Tucson, we had a good time visiting with Debbie’s daughter Michael who was living with her mom while attending college. Later, we all joined Debbie’s other daughter Morgan, her husband and their two young boys for dessert at a local restaurant.

Michael and Morgan are close to the same age as our boys, Andrew and Zachary. We have video of them together at my mom’s when they were small kids. Separated by thousands of miles of geography, it had been a decade or more since we had seen the girls. We smiled out loud when Michael showed us her pet turtle. Our Andrew had always been fond of turtles. Perhaps it runs in their genes? It was good to reconnect with Debbie’s kids albeit for a brief time.

Thursday, February 13th, Debbie took us out for breakfast at a Tucson favorite mom and pop café called Frank’s. It was old and worn but reminiscent of so many similar places we have stopped at across the country on our 50 state journey. There were locals, regulars and one timers scattered about the mismatched chairs and tables. Our waitress had been working at Frank’s for almost 40 years. It goes without saying that the food was great and the price very reasonable.

After that, we said our good-byes to Debbie and headed out for a daylong loop tour through Arizona. We went through Benson and stopped in Willcox to meet up with Curtis and Julie Nolan. Curtis and I were serving on the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association board together.

While Julie prepared lunch, Curtis gave Mary and I a tour of his local area. We stopped at a large pecan tree orchard and a newly planted pistachio tree field. He showed us the sprinkler systems necessary to keep the trees growing and producing in the dry desert climates. He took us through some mountains and camping areas as well.

We enjoyed a good home cooked meal back at Curtis’s house. Julie was there with several grandchildren, one daughter and one daughter in-law. We had a good time visiting and I took some ribbing for wearing shorts in the Arizona wintertime. We quickly corrected them on exactly what wintertime really meant. I felt like I had “earned” the right to where shorts in 70 degree weather and was adamant that I didn’t care what season they were in. I was in shorts season until my plane landed back home!

We left the Nolan family and headed north through towns like Safford, Globe and Superior. At Curtis’s recommendation, we stopped at a bar/restaurant in Superior called Los Hermanos. He suggested getting some of their homemade flour tortilla shells. They were so hot and fresh the waitress had to carry them in her apron to the checkout counter. I wanted to dive into them right there but Mary insisted we wait until dinner that night.

We arrived at the end of our little loop tour in Phoenix where we would be staying with my cousin Shawn Anderson, his wife Shauna and their kids – Maya, Isiah and Will. Shawn and I are separated by 11-12 years in age. This is very similar to the difference in ages between his dad, John, and my dad, Gordon. Shawn and I had not met in person since sharing a meal on the plaza in Kansas City, Missouri before I ran that marathon in 2007.

Having never been to Phoenix, we trusted the GPS to take us to the proper house. When I rang the doorbell, I was a bit surprised when an elderly gentleman answered the door.  I started to stammer out an explanation thinking I had the wrong house then I saw the smile on the old guy’s face. It was my Uncle John from the Kansas City area. Nobody had told me he would be in town. After a quick handshake and a longer hug, the shock wore off and I immediately thought, “BONUS!” Shawn and his family PLUS Uncle John, I was so very glad we had made the trip.

Over a nice evening dinner that included the heavenly tortilla shells from Los Hermanos, we caught up on years past. Uncle John shared some stories about my dad. I had known he was hell on wheels and always pushing whatever he drove to the limit from other comments by family while growing up. What I didn’t know was the fact that he had been in 14 car wrecks over a 14-year period. This means he was pushing the edge since the age of 14! Ironically, he wasn’t behind the wheel in the one that ended his life.

John shared other stories about his father and my grandfather, Russell “Rusty” Anderson. Grandpa’s ability to ride and break wild horses has been an oft repeated family legend. For me, it never gets old because each one brings back the face and smile of the man we all miss.

One story I had not heard involved an airplane barnstormer who had made a stop in the Timber Lake area. Grandpa Rusty gave him $5 for a ride commenting that he hoped to get his money’s worth ($5 was a big deal in the 1960s). After multiple barrel rolls, stalls and recoveries, the pilot returned him to the ground. When asked if it was worth the $5, Grandpa simply nodded in the affirmative. He was never one to talk a lot! The fact that such a thrill ride left him seemingly unaffected tells me that maybe my father’s love affair with speed and excitement was handed down directly from his father.

Up early the next morning, I found myself in the kitchen with Will. At age 5, he was the youngest of the 3 kids. While mom and dad were busy with the other kids, I talked to him about his day. He was excited because it was Valentine’s Day and per tradition, there was a class party planned. I fixed him a bagel with honey while thinking about my grown up kids.

Shauna, a personal trainer, took us to her place of work after the kids were off to school. Mary got in a workout with some of the locals and I enjoyed a lazy 4 mile run outside under sunny skies. It was above 70 degrees with no wind. I thought to myself, “This is were Michigan summers go for the winter!”

At lunch, Mary, John and I met up with my cousin Shane Dikoff and his son, Mathew, for lunch. Shane is the son of one of my dad’s sisters, Sharon. He is a couple years younger than me but we spent countless hours together while growing up. His family left South Dakota sometime in his junior high years. Over the past 25 years, we had probably only seen each other once or twice. No matter the span of time, I don’t think family can ever really become strangers. It felt great to sit across the table from him once again. Getting to visit with his son a little was also a special treat.

Shane had chosen the location not knowing Mary was with me (he never asked). The venue he chose was a bar/restaurant establishment called Twin Peaks. Being Valentines Day, the waitresses were somewhat “scantily” clad in a variety of Victoria Secrets type attire. To say the least, Shane, presently a bachelor, was a bit embarrassed due to Mary’s presence. So, I don’t know what his thought process was because he did know his Uncle John, a part-time preacher, was coming. Regardless, it made for some good-natured ribbing as we focused our eyes on each other and not on those who were waiting tables. (I was unsuccessful getting Mary to return there the rest of the trip!)

Friday evening, we attended a picnic in a park just a short walk from Shawn and Shauna’s house. It was an impromptu get together of younger couples and their kids. We played a little sand volleyball with a mix of adults and kids from 6 to 11 years old. A couple dads had a small group engaged in a game of football on the grass. Others were simply around the pot luck table eating, having an end of the week beer or glass of wine and enjoying an evening of visiting on a beautiful night in the desert.

Around the table, Mary and I were the “relatives from out of town” and hung to the edges. We were introduced to everyone and enjoyed the “why are you here?”, “where did you come from?” and “how much snow do you have up there?” questions. Mostly, we just relaxed and fondly remembered the time when we were the ones with young kids, tight budgets and surrounded by good friends in a similar state of exhaustion and stress.

I don’t think any parent ever regrets having kids but outside the love and enjoyment, let’s face it – kids are a ton of work. Every generation has needed a night in the park to let the kids run and the adult conversation flow. Staying connected with adults our own age is just a natural desire. Looking around through the lenses of an empty nested 50 something year old, it made me feel good about all the great friends Mary and I had in our lives in the past and also in our present.

As it got later some of the kids started to drift back to the house to play inside, Mary and I volunteered to go with them so the parents could stay a little longer. We sat together on the couch, listened to kids playing upstairs and put our feet up. We talked about having “aged out” of the parents with kids crowd and transitioning into the grandparent role. It felt good. We were going to be “okay”.

Some time later, the young parents made their way into the house. We slipped off to bed as their conversation cranked up. Just has it had done in our times of decades past, the wine and beer had created a louder conversation and debate over the status of their present lives. One wanted to go out to a bar to “live a little” and others wanted to just stay where they were. I fell asleep next to the mother of my 3 great kids with a smile on my face and thinking how I had been on either side of that argument at one point or another.

Shawn and Shauna were somewhat apologetic the next morning because they had worried that the loud conversation had kept us awake. I think they may have been a bit embarrassed about us thinking they had friends who might drink a little too much at times.

I assured them we had slept well because it was the truth.  Tired from traveling, Mary and I went out like the grandparents we were becoming. I also let them know that we had had “one or two” friends in a similar state of drunken debate over the years. The little after party at the house was nothing unique to their circle of friends. We were grateful for the hospitality, felt at home with family and thankful for the time we were able to spend with them.

It was now Saturday and time to move on. To unwind, relax and get my “game face” on, I had reserved a hotel room closer to Apache Junction for Saturday and Sunday night. We also wanted a little “alone time”. Traveling and staying with family is priceless but a couple relaxing nights in a hotel with one’s wife isn’t all bad either! We said our goodbyes and agreed to see them after the race on Sunday.

We drove over to Apache Junction and took in the small race expo. Apache Junction sits to the east of Phoenix and has a mix of retirement living – trailer parks, condos and homes with beautiful views of the desert and Superstition Mountains. Many of the local retirees were helping at the expo that, while small, was very nice and smoothly run.

For lunch, we drove over to the Tempe marketplace to eat with Shane and his girlfriend, Terri. We talked about being kids together, the children we had raised, trips we had taken as adults, family, work, hobbies and politics. We basically crammed as much as we could into an awesome 2 hours or so.

I looked across the table and thought about the kid I once knew. I was genuinely happy for my life and the decision to run marathons. It had led me here. It was making this reconnection with family possible. I couldn’t help but wonder, “Would I be sitting here had I not grown up without a father, moved to Michigan or joined the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters?” I don’t even care to have an answer for the question. I was truly in the moment with a friend and cousin and happy to be there regardless of the path fate had built to get me there.

We got up from the table in agreement that we couldn’t let so many years go by before we got together again. I told him I would let him know where the marathon travel led in the future in hopes he and Terri could join a future trip. We hugged and traded “I love yous” without hesitation. Ever the older cousin, I whispered in Terri’s ear, “Take care of him for us”.

The rest of the day involved a soak in the outdoor pool at the hotel, some TV and a little nap. Resting and relaxing prior to a 26.2 mile run is as necessary as eating and drinking. Over the years, I had been learning not to ignore the mental aspects of the sport. Food is important but getting your mind right is crucial to marathon day enjoyment and survival. Soaking in a warm pool under sunny Arizona skies while escaping the grip of the polar vortex made the mental preparation very easy!

The Lost Dutchman Marathon is a point-to-point route. Buses to the top of Superstition Mountain left the finishing line area at 5 am. Stepping off one of the first buses, we were greeted by hundreds of small single log campfires burning in the early morning darkness. There was a mat that fit 2 sitting runners on either side of each fire. It was a unique feature and welcome warmth on a 50-degree morning.

Runners began chatting around the fires, sipping on their liquid of choice and nibbling on some solid fuel while taking pictures for each other. It was a relaxing way to spend time while waiting for the sun to come up and the clock to reach 7 a.m.

I wasn’t sure if the desert sunrise was always beautiful or if I was just sun deprived after slogging through a more unkind than usual Michigan winter but it made me feel great. The first 6 miles were on a gravel road called the Peralta Trail that led us down from the mountaintop start.

I tried to focus on not going out too fast. It was a little difficult. As people passed me I began to size them up. A twenty something girl with long legs and a flat footed stride that made my knees hurt, a thirty something young man with a shirt that read “Just F-ing Run”, a 40 something man wearing a University of Michigan cap and a 50 something Arizona native who I had met on the bus – they all passed me. I looked at their faces, checked their stride and critiqued their dress. The competitor in my head said, “You can beat them”.  The veteran marathon voice in my head said “Patience, patience”.

The course transitioned to pavement around the 6-mile mark. I was near an 8:30 pace. The downhill grade made it feel easy but I worried that it was still too fast. The sun was out and the temperature was climbing into the 70s. Seventy isn’t hot unless you have spent your time training in a Michigan winter. Pavement isn’t so hard unless winter has pushed you inside to the treadmill far more than you would have liked. I knew that there were hills and 80-degree temperatures up ahead.

I was carrying a bottle of Succeed energy drink in my hand. On my belt, I had 2 small bottles of Coke that I had tried to take the fizz out of over the previous few days. I also had some gel packs to take every 3-4 miles. The Succeed provided protein and carbs. The Coke was simply for some caffeine and sugar energy. The gels would replace the all important glycogen stores. On the run fueling had always been a hit or miss personal chemistry lesson. This was my 28th attempt in a never-ending search for the right combination.

I saw Mary for the first time near the Peralta Trails Elementary School. I wanted to fill a Coke bottle but she wasn’t ready for me. In no mood for a delay (I had people to catch!), I quickly told her to keep the bottle. I would be okay. There was no way I was getting upset with the one person who had always been there for me! I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer but that much I knew!

A mile and half later, I was running down the shoulder of US Highway 60 and heard Mary shouting, “You want your Coke now?” She was driving in a slow line of one way traffic next to the course with her window down. She had refilled my bottle with Coke and had it in her outstretched hand. I veered over and reached inside while barely breaking stride. I tucked it into my belt and thought, “She’s a keeper that one!”

Shortly after mile 8, the course turned off the highway and began a tour of some very nice Apache Junction neighborhoods on streets like Kings Ranch Road and Superstition Mountain Drive. I began to shop for homes that I could retire in! I passed the 14 mile mark still near my 8:30 pace.

I had also passed the 30 something young man with the “Just F-ing Run” shirt near mile 9. He was walking and not looking very good. I was not surprised. Big, baggy basketball style shorts are a dead giveaway. They scream “rookie” and “no respect for the distance”. “Been there, done that” I thought as I moved past in my $70 ultra light, semi-too-short, non chafing trail running shorts from Patagonia!

Between mile 12 and 13, the flat footed 20 something young lady began to fade. I left her behind with a wry veteran smile. You can’t slam down your feet so hard at such a pace for 26.2 miles. Sometime in the future, she will learn to take shorter strides. My kids think I run like a funny old man. I describe my stride as short and efficient.

The desert views were really spectacular all day long. I quickly began to envy the view from all the homes on Kings Ranch Road and Superstition Mountain Drive. The “territorial” style adobe houses looked like the way to go! The no maintenance yards were also very appealing.

Shortly after the 14.5 mile point, the course left the “ritzy” part of town and headed back down U.S. Highway 60 for another mile. I was hanging on to my goal of an 8:30 “ish” per mile pace as I turned onto Mountain View Road. A steady then steep incline started as I twisted and turned on city streets. I went over the 9 minute mark for the first time on Broadway Avenue as I ground my way up a short but steep out and back section.

Somewhere between mile 19 and 20 as I tried to get my legs back from 3 miles of climbing, I shouted out a feeble “Go Blue” as I passed the guy in the Wolverine cap and long shorts. I wasn’t feeling strong but he was suffering and fading fast.

The elevation chart I studied prior to the race indicated that the final 6 miles were “relatively” flat. Well, after 20 miles of hard running, I was facing the “reality of relatively” and it wasn’t flat nor were the hills a desert mirage. While not huge, there was seemingly one incline after another. I had convinced myself that if I held my pace to the big hill at 19 miles, I would be able to “relax” on the decline of the final miles. It was mentally defeating to find out that there would be no relaxing on this day.

The last pass of my starting line compatriots occurred on mile 22 when I slowly chugged by the Arizona native. I thought about just settling in and visiting with him to the finish but I still had a shot at getting in under 4 hours. We exchanged friendly “how ya doings” and quickly separated.

The always dreadful “double digit” times arrived on mile 23 and 24 with respective splits of 10:21 and 11:07. The 11 minute mile woke me up a bit and I started to reach down for the remaining gas in the tank.

Right about that time, I noticed a young woman and 3 kids walking on the side of the road on Lost Dutchman Boulevard just after the parking area at the rodeo grounds. They looked familiar then I shook off my 3+ hour running haze to realize that it was Shauna and the Anderson kids! It felt great seeing family and the excitement of having a “crowd” at the finish line spurred me to a 9:33 mile.

I found Mary in the crowd as I turned down the short stretch into Prospector Park. I did my best “people are watching, get this over” sprint and crossed the finish line. Looking down at my watch, I saw a very respectable 3:54! I thought, “Dam, 3 marathons in a row under 4 hours!”

I sat down on the curb until the Anderson clan all gathered. Uncle John was there first. Shawn arrived from the parking lot area. Shauna and the kids finished their stroll down the final mile of the course. We all met in front of a local character dressed like a 1880s prospector who was accompanied by his mule, Daisy. We got a great group picture that remains very special. This was the largest contingent of family to ever see me complete a marathon.

On a beautiful day under the 80+ degree desert sun, I walked away with family. It was not just Mary and I this time. My dad’s brother who I had looked up to as a kid was smiling. My cousin who I had babysat for almost 40 years earlier was herding his young family along. Shauna was looking down on the kids as they chattered about. Lives go different directions and paths barely cross as the years slip by us but it felt good and normal in a way that is hard to describe. They were OUR family and we were theirs.

We enjoyed a great meal and a few beers near our hotel. I was sweaty and dirty from the race but we all knew our time together was ending. I could shower later. I could feel sore and tired later. There were only a couple more hours to be with family. Finally, it was time to trade good-bye hugs and promises to not let so much time go by again.

Later that night, I got a call from United Airlines. Due to weather, they were cancelling my flight the next day. Chicago was experiencing multiple delays due to a winter storm. After cursing the polar vortex in my head, I convinced them to put us on a Delta flight. I was feeling pretty lucky when I found out we would be home earlier than our original United flights.

Well, we landed in Detroit the next morning and one delay led to another. After a few hours, the Chicago weather arrived. I got that sick feeling in my stomach when they rolled out snacks and beverages into the airport waiting area. Sure enough, a short time later, the flight was cancelled. We were 4 hours from home but they couldn’t get us there for 2 days! “Dam polar vortex”, I cursed again.

The scramble was on for rental cars. We had made friends with a salesman from Troy, Michigan and a computer trainer from Minnesota while waiting during the delay hours. The 4 of us teamed up and decided to make the drive north in the snowstorm.

There was not one rental car to be had however. I cursed the vortex once again. Ultimately, the salesman from Troy had his wife and a friend drive a car over to the airport. So, we jumped in with 2 total strangers and made a white knuckle drive on snow covered roads. The 4 hour drive took almost 6 hours!

Mary and I crawled into bed at home well past midnight. When we left, we had been giddy with the prospect of leaving our snow globe world behind for a short time. The polar vortex got the last laugh as our heads hit the pillows knowing we would be shoveling its latest production in just a few short hours.

What about the race results? I ended up 65th out of 336 finishers and 50th of 194 men. In the 50-55 year old male age group, I was 9th. I had fought the toughest winter of our time in Michigan toe-to-toe for 16 weeks with a combination of treadmill runs indoors and many layers of clothing when outdoors. I was pleased with my results and satisfied the vortex had not won the war.