He conquers who endures.
The Boss dedicated an album to it. Academy Award nominee and noted ultrarunner Bruce Dern starred in a movie about it. On game days, its college football stadium becomes the second-most populous “city” in the state. And it’s widely regarded as America’s Heartland, although technically speaking relative to the nation’s geographic center in Kansas, it’s more like America’s appendix.
But if Nebraska is indeed America’s Heartland, then given the current state of the nation I shouldn’t have been surprised by the PA announcer’s words as we gathered in the first light of daybreak outside TD Ameritrade Park.
“There’s been a shooting over on Cuming, we’re going to have to push back our start time 30 minutes to an hour.”
After the initial shock subsided—a shooting? At 6:30am on a Sunday in Omaha?—a murmur of uncertainty rippled through the modest crowd. Now what do we do?
An important footnote for non-runners: delaying the start of a marathon isn’t the same as rescheduling lunch with a friend or pushing back a work meeting an hour. It’s not even the same as a rain delay at a baseball game.
As athletic endeavors go, marathon preparation is the most meticulous of its kind. For most runners this means 16+ weeks of dedicated training that culminates on race morning with an elaborately choreographed ritual of mental and physical preparation. Alarms chime before the crack of dawn, allowing time (but not too much time) for breakfast to be eaten and digested by a nervous gut, while leaving time (but not too much time) for the body to wake up and warm up to face the day’s daunting challenge.
More than anything, though, race morning is about steeling the mind for the 26.2-mile battle ahead, so that by the time you toe the start line you’ve mentally retreated to your happy place, poised and focused on the task at hand.
For many runners, then, delaying the start of a marathon is like trying to shove toothpaste back in the tube. Don’t get me wrong—running a marathon ain’t rocket science. But as seasoned runners can testify, the key on race day is to control the process and limit the number of variables that can go wrong. The more variables that are out of your control, the more likely one of them will go haywire and short-circuit your day. And this semblance of control is one reason so many Type A personalities are drawn to running.
So then delaying the start of the race an hour introduced several new variables beyond our control, which I’ll touch on shortly. Ironically, aside from the necessarily convoluted pre-race machinations of a Boston or New York, small-town Omaha already was one of my more eventful races—and it hadn’t even begun.
Before landing in Omaha, what I’d known about Nebraska could have fit on a kernel of corn—think “Warren Buffett” and “Cornhuskers”. But then again, what does anyone know about our 37th state? “I want to askya about Nebraska,” I imagined myself saying to the young Bieber wannabe working the front desk at our hotel. But I refrained, afraid that his violently forward-combed hair may rise up like Medusa’s and turn me to stone for flaunting my ignorance.
Nebraska. The word had conjured up visions of deafening red seas of college football chaos, of sweeping golden plains and expansive green stalks of corn swaying gently in the breeze and stretching unimpeded to the infinite horizon. Wyoming would be visible to my left, Iowa to my right, with the marathon start line behind me and South Dakota directly ahead. Big-boned, salt-of-the-earth types would greet me with a firm handshake and look me in the eye when they spoke, unaware that on their smart phone at that moment, a much more interesting conversation was no doubt taking place.
So I’d admittedly been excited to leave behind, for two short days, the Hollywood pretension and urban angst of Southern California for the more tranquil open spaces of America’s Heartland. And a pre-dawn shooting to start the day definitely wasn’t sticking to the script.
Like the other anxious runners milling around us, Dan and I had no choice but to resign ourselves to the situation. We planted ourselves on the sidewalk, wandered through the crowd, hopped back in line for the porta-potties, all the while glancing frequently at our watches and hoping this watched pot would boil sooner rather than later. Because speaking of boiling, mo’ delay meant mo’ heat, and pushing the start back an hour meant we’d now be finishing closer to midday, when the mercury would top out in the mid-80s.
Finally the PA system crackled to life with the promise that the race would start promptly at 8:00am, one hour behind its scheduled 7:00am start. Unfortunately, due to the shooting—which I’d later learn involved a fellow firing a handgun at passing cars before being wounded by police—the course would have to be re-routed, meaning the organizers could no longer guarantee its certified status as a Boston Qualifier. So now, faced with the reality of qualifius interruptus, many runners had no choice but to reset their expectations. Luckily, neither Dan nor I had arrived in Omaha expecting anything more than a new race in a new place.
I’d also arrived in Omaha without Katie, the first time in four years she wouldn’t be joining me for a race. Not since the Griffith Park Trail Half Marathon in 2012 had she sat one out. With a previous commitment filling her weekend, and with no known acquaintances in Omaha, it hadn’t taken much arm-twisting from Dan to convince me to join him in coloring in Nebraska on our 50 states map.
8:00am arrived at last. Restless runners took their place in the start corral as an instrumental rendition of the National Anthem played, accompanied by the presentation of colors by the Marine Color Guard. I glanced around out of curiosity, seeing nobody on one knee doing their best Colin Kaepernick impression. With a countdown and police siren we were off, running east directly into the morning sun rising inexorably over downtown Omaha. The race was on to get back here before that same sun had its way with us.
“We don’t coast, we set the pace”
Through downtown Omaha we cruised, along gently rolling streets and past quiet industrial sections, before transitioning to more residential neighborhoods. A sign proclaiming “BLACK VOTES MATTER” greeted us from the lawn of a stately looking residence. Within two miles Dan’s long, relaxed strides had carried him out to a significant lead, and I let him go.
My training since May’s Hatfield McCoy Marathon had been strictly aerobic (meaning plenty of slow runs while wearing a heart rate monitor) with minimal speed work, and so I was determined to keep my heart rate under control and my pacing in the mid-8:00/mile range as much as possible. Given the impending heat, my main goal for the day would be a nice round sub-4 hours, with a sub-3:45 in the back of my mind depending on how things played out.
Looking at the course map before the race, I’d been disappointed to see the route would 1) be an out-and-back covering 13.1 miles, and 2) not pass through either the Creighton University or the University of Nebraska Omaha campus. I’m not a fan of out-and-backs, particularly in road races where there’s no shortage of potential routes, but I am a sucker for a good college campus, so this was already (maybe unfairly) two strikes in my mind. On the other hand, as we ran along tree-lined residential streets I realized the shade here would be very much appreciated on our return trip 2+ hours from now.
At every road race, amid the predictable “RUN NOW, BEER LATER” and “WORST PARADE EVER” signs, there’s typically at least one spectator sign that’s memorable for its wit. Sometimes, though, the best humor is unintentional—and my smile mile would come early in Omaha, courtesy of a spectator sign gone wrong. As we made our way north still feeling fresh, four young kids stood elbow to elbow, each holding a sign which collectively formed a message of support—or at least that was the intent. Instead, their piecemeal message read:
Or maybe, I considered, they’re just being honest? Unfortunately the moment passed before I could think to stop and snap a picture, and we continued on our way without further amusement, legs churning away over asphalt streets interlaced with cracks.
The green oasis of Miller Park in mile 6 offered a momentary reprieve from the treadmill monotony of residential Omaha. With its block after block of bungalow-style homes and chain-link fences, the town reminded me very much of—well, pretty much every other small town in America. This could have been Jackson, Mississippi. Or Mobile, Alabama. Or my own childhood hometown in Texas. I could have sworn I’d been here before, just as I knew I’d be here again.
In mile 8 the course emerged from residential streets onto an exposed stretch of asphalt that paralleled rusty train tracks. As the sun continued its ascent overhead, the next 10 miles of unshaded trail promised a gut check for a lot of us.
Roughly half a mile later we were directed on to the Riverside Trail, a sidewalk that paralleled the main road and which led past Power Park, an unusual collection of youth sports fields overlooked by the park’s skyline-dominating power plant on a backdrop of gleaming transformer towers. One wooden footbridge later we were turning away from the main road toward the Missouri River (mile 9-11) and Carter Lake (miles 12-13), each of which doubles as the border between Nebraska and Iowa.
Life was good, I’d knocked out the “gotta get through these” early miles, and I looked forward to seeing how much ground I could make up on those ahead of me. Watching a steady stream of runners returning from the mile 13.1 turnaround, I realized there would be serious work to do. Naturally I assumed that at least a few of these runners would fade in the intensifying heat, and I just hoped I wouldn’t be one of them.
Turns out I had NO idea.
Approaching from the other direction and looking composed, Dan responded to my question of “How you feeling?” with an ominous “Feels like mile 22 already.” Not what I wanted to hear, but I assumed he would—as he had so many times before—find his third or fourth wind in time to rally down the stretch.
I reached the turnaround point where a few spectators waited to cheer us on, and continued back in the opposite direction at my comfortable Goldilocks pace—not too fast, not too slow, but juuuuust right. With a nod to Iowa across the water I stepped up my pace ever so slightly and focused on my mission of passing as many runners as possible.
Running along the water on the exposed trail, it struck me—unlike most runners who avoid the heat of the day, I love running in peak temperatures. Most of my weekend long runs happen at midday along a shade-free beach path under cloudless skies. Granted our SoCal summers don’t compare with the heat & humidity of a Boston or Dallas, but still given the choice, few folks will choose to run 20 miles in mid-80°F temperatures without the benefit of shade. So in that sense, these 10 miles in Omaha were no different than my typical Sunday long run, minus the ocean view.
I don’t envy you, I thought as a female runner dressed snugly as an ear of corn passed in the opposite direction, reminding us all that this was the Cornhusker State. I would’ve followed, but didn’t want her to think I was a stalk-er.
Apologies for the corny humor.
Miles 11 and 16—the segment leading from the Missouri River to Carter Lake and back again—bordered Eppley Airfield and was predictably the most drab section of the course. With little more than concrete and chain-link fences for scenery, I focused instead on my breathing and on encouraging the occasional runner still approaching in the opposite direction. These are the toughest runners out here, I thought, commiting to a 5+ hour marathon on a day like this…
Passing what looked to be a concrete mixing plant, the noxious stench of petrochemical waste clashed with the soothing sound of crickets chirping in the tall grass alongside the river. Petro-triggered memories of stifling summer days spent growing up in the suburbs of Dallas rushed to my brain—all I needed to crystallize this nostalgic interlude was a few nasty chigger bites.
Looking ahead as I passed the mile 18 marker just before Power Park, I saw a sore sight for eyes, one that I hoped was nothing more than a heat-induced hallucination. But it wasn’t hot enough to be seeing things, and sure enough there was Dan’s sleeveless white tee and lime green Sauconys some 50 yards ahead of me. This sucks, I thought, crestfallen to see his head drooping and his stride reduced to a labored shuffle.
Having now experienced it, I can say without a doubt that nothing I’ve endured as a runner—not the kidney-punishing heat of Diablo, nor the food-poisoning fiasco in Mobile, not even the nauseating pain of running the last 9+ miles in Nevada on a severely sprained ankle—could compare to the abject helplessness of seeing a friend struggle mightily. And especially not with 7+ miles still to go. Were it possible, I would have gladly siphoned off half of my remaining energy and IV’ed it straight into his bloodstream. But the inconvenient truth was, Dan was the only one who could pull himself out of his unexplained tailspin. And so, with a few words of “Hang in there”-type encouragement that rang hollow in my own ears, I put my head down and plowed ahead.
Whether sympathetic or not, my own stride felt a bit more labored as I followed the Riverside Trail back toward downtown Omaha. Of course, this being the last 8 miles of a marathon on a hot day may also have contributed to my mounting fatigue.
The hotter it gets, the less my body craves calories, and I’d been training specifically for months (via dietary tweaks and frequent fasted runs) to take advantage of my body’s fat stores and reduce its need for supplemental calories on race day. So I took in zero solid calories during the Omaha Marathon nor did my body crave them, even refusing the one Clif Shot Blok I popped in my mouth in mile 16. My only in-race “nutrition” other than frequent water stops was a couple sips of Heed, the sports drink favored by masochists and runners born without taste buds. The stuff remains as unpalatable as I remember it from the otherwise amazing Moab Trail Half Marathon four years ago. On the bright side, it didn’t eat through the paper cups.
I’m sure too the folks at Hammer Nutrition sponsoring the race would have appreciated hearing the volunteers yell “GATORADE!” at every aid station while holding out cups of Heed. Apparently nobody had instructed the volunteers on what was actually in those carbuoys.
In mile 23 I nodded to a couple of cheering spectators, one of whom called out to me, “That’s the first smile we’ve seen in a while!” Unless I’m really suffering I try to smile as much as possible, if for no other reason than to Jedi mind trick my brain into thinking “This is not the fatigue you’re looking for.”
This year’s marathon was at 1/3 capacity with 332 finishers… though after mile 20, that number seemed about 300 too high. A war of attrition was playing out as we retraced our steps through the tree-lined residential neighborhoods of Omaha. Runners became increasingly sparse and I passed each one in succession, many of them valiantly jogging a few steps at a time before giving in to fatigue and slowing to a walk.
One fellow sporting a bright yellow Marathon Maniacs singlet chugged along, his arms pumping furiously. Grunts of exertion escaped his lips, sounding like something I’d expect to hear on the other side of my hotel room wall. His snorts & groans acted like second-hand fatigue, threatening to sap my own energy as I hurried to pass.
Coming down the long straightway of N. 19th St. in mile 25, with an uplifting view of the downtown Omaha skyline rising in the distance, I had to keep close tabs on the nearest runner some 100 yards ahead, since it would have been easy to guess wrong—especially with my subpar sense of direction—and take a wrong turn at any intersection.
Honestly, I’ve never seen a group of marathoners struggle more in the last few miles than I did in Omaha—aside from the runner directly ahead of me, I don’t recall seeing anyone running in mile 26. Usually a few folks dig deep in that final mile, riding the last of their energy reserves to a proud finish. Not in Omaha. And I was reminded that psychologically it’s incredibly tough, with the sun beating down on you and your body begging you to take a break, to keep running when everyone around you is walking. Not that my pace by this point was anything to celebrate—my final three miles would each clock in at over 9:00 minutes. But still, I refused to stop running. And sometimes that’s all it takes.
Time to finish this thing.
The Road to Omaha
Approaching TD Ameritrade Park, the crowd of runners swelled as we merged with the back-of-the-pack half marathoners. None of them were running either.
One final left turn and we entered the park, emerging on the center-field warning track. The jumbo screen to our left broadcast live footage of runners approaching the finish. Crikey, I still have to circle the field? I thought wryly as my desperate eyes searched for and found the finish line 300° away, like water in the desert. Ironically, on any other occasion I might’ve taken the time to soak in my surroundings and savor this victory lap—but not right now. Right now I wanted to be done. I sped up on the dirt to pass the family ahead of me so I could finish in the clear, crossing the finish line in a time of 3:47:22.
For the first time in 23 marathons, not a single runner had passed me in the second half of the race.
With as energetic a “thankoo” as I could muster, I proudly allowed one of the waiting Marine Corps officers to hang an impressively ginormous medal around my neck, accepted two ice-cold bottles of water and then staggered toward the outfield wall, which looked both willing and able to support my exhausted remains. As though waiting for this moment, sweat begin to stream down my face, stinging my eyes with sunscreen. And despite a cooling breeze and partially cloudy sky, the day suddenly got very hot. Was I overheating?
I collapsed in the shade against the wall and gulped one bottle of water while balancing the other on the back of my neck. There I watched one runner after another round the field, few seeming to enjoy their victory lap. The 3:45 pacer crossed the finish and shuffled past, shaking his head and muttering “Bad day for a personal worst”.
Trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable, I turned my attention instead to Dan. As though reading my mind my phone buzzed with a text, letting me know he was at mile 25 and feeling dizzy. Well, shit. I weighed my options—I could sit here and wait for him, or I could stumble around and likely throw up on the field. I chose not to move.
Really now… who wouldn’t want to run a marathon?
Finally Dan emerged from the entryway tunnel, taking his time circling the field before striding across the finish looking none the worse for wear. Clearly he’s a quiet sufferer, I thought. And it was amazing to think that although each of us had run nearly twice as many (hilly) miles together four months earlier, these relatively flat 26 miles had felt twice as hard as those 50. No doubt about it—heat is a stone-cold killa.
We were both completely spent and not at all hungry, and after briefly collapsing on a patch of grass Dan headed back to the hotel while I stuck around to collect my day’s winnings, courtesy of a runner-up age group finish. Unfortunately the organizers weren’t yet ready to present the marathon awards. Not only that, but the fellow announcing the 5K winners under the midday sun was doing so at a lethargic pace that, by comparison, made the sloth from “Zootopia” sound like an auctioneer. Luckily I was able to return after hotel checkout to claim my award, since it’s a very nice certificate presented in a curved acrylic frame. Not the easiest thing to carry on an airplane, but definitely worth the inconvenience.
Our last couple of hours in Omaha were spent at a Nebraska-like pace. Try as we might we couldn’t muster the energy to visit the trendy Old Market neighborhood with its supposedly cool breweries, nor could either of us locate our appetite. Instead we sat in a gastropub next to TD Ameritrade Park, chatting while Dan nursed one beer and the poor waiter graciously brought us refill after refill of water. Dan (recently a 3:16 marathoner) tried to make sense of his acute struggles, which you can read about in his “Anatomy of a Bonk”.
Luckily Dan’s a resilient guy (on to state #46!), a thoughtful guy and to me, Omaha was more memorable for the company and life experience than for any race day detail (random shooter notwithstanding). Plus, coming together in the middle of the country was a terrific way to experience a place that otherwise holds very little allure, like the Jeb! of the 50 states.
Omaha certainly wasn’t the most distinctive city I’ve marathon’ed in—aside from The Road to Omaha, a 1,500-pound bronze sculpture that sits outside TD Ameritrade Park, nothing about the city stood out in my mind. Typically a marathon course bends over backward to showcase a city, so maybe this was more the fault of the organizers than the city. Granted my visit lasted only 42 hours, and maybe there are other parts of the city that residents point to as distinctly Omaha—but if not for its hosting the College World Series, I’m not sure there’d be another reason to visit. The fact that the city’s two other marathons, the Heartland Marathon and Nebraska Marathon, both log many of their miles in Iowa suggests the locals feel the same.
Finishing on the field was a cool touch, though there’s nothing uniquely captivating about TD Ameritrade Park. And bypassing both Creighton and the University of Nebraska Omaha only added to the sense of a very “beige” city. Race production—including the sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it expo which featured individually wrapped slices of bread—was largely devoid of personality (see “Production” below), with the race itself feeling detached from rather than integrated into the surrounding community. For a race in its 41st year, spectator interest was minimal.
Omaha brought to mind the (no pun intended) running joke I have with a couple of buddies, that low-energy or less dynamic cities are often described by their residents as a “great place to raise kids”. It’s like the phrase is code for “there’s nothing to do here”. And hey, to each his own—if your top priorities in life are peace and quiet (and living among white people), then there’s a place for you in Omaha. I don’t need car horns and police sirens shrieking outside my bedroom window 24/7, but I would prefer that my state’s cultural & economic relevance extend beyond college sports.
Our weekend in Nebraska reinforced the notion that America’s Heartland, both geographically and functionally, may be more appropriately described as America’s appendix—as in, nobody really knows why it’s there. Yes, the people I met in Omaha (Omahans?) seemed friendly enough. But aside from having spent a fun weekend with Dan, ten years from now I’m not sure what I’ll remember about the city itself—maybe the pre-race shooting, maybe the finish line on the field, maybe the fact that it shares a border with Iowa. Even its signature sports stadium is best known for hosting teams other than its own. Omaha is Anytown, USA or Springfield, Nebraska, and so I’m not sure how I’d recommend the city to anyone who’s not a college baseball fan. Unless of course they’re looking for a quiet place to settle down and start a family.
Because Omaha? Omaha would be a great place to raise kids.
BOTTOM LINE: Like its pleasant yet average host city, the Omaha Marathon is a pleasant yet average race. To this outsider Omaha was largely nondescript, and if you didn’t know where you were you’d be hard-pressed at any point to identify what city you’re running through. So it’s definitely not the most memorable course you’ll run, but then again it’s a golden opportunity to tour (per the race website) “Nebraska’s most vibrant city”. And the course lies entirely within the state border, a plus for me since I was there to fill my brain with Omaha and Nebraska, like a student cramming for final exams.
(Each of the city’s two other marathons, the Heartland Marathon on Oct. 2 and the Nebraska Marathon on Oct. 16, includes significant mileage in Iowa—though why the 43rd most populous city in the country needs three marathons all within a month of each other is unclear. I sense a bit of civic competition!)
The city aside, the race itself felt like a faceless event devoid of personality and going through the motions. It felt detached from rather than integrated into the community, and it certainly didn’t seem to draw much interest from residents. On-course entertainment was lacking (unless you count a small number of spectator signs), and without aid stations we would have run in silence for most of the 26.2 miles—no high-school bands, no speakers pumping in aural adrenaline, no music of any kind. Even the music at the start line felt apologetic, its volume so low as to be nearly inaudible.
I certainly don’t mind smaller, quieter events—in fact I prefer them, and here some of my favorite races spring to mind, including Run Crazy Horse, the Mississippi Blues Marathon and the Hatfield McCoy Marathon. The difference, as their names suggest, is that these events focus on and embrace the local culture, giving runners a legitimate sense of place. Would you rather run the “Jackson Marathon” or the Mississippi Blues Marathon? The “Eastern Kentucky Marathon” or Hatfield McCoy? Not only that, but the swag for each of these races featured a “surprise & delight” nod to local culture (e.g. a harmonica from Mississippi Blues, a mason jar from Hatfield McCoy). The best race organizers understand that details matter.
The lone kernel of Nebraska culture on this morning was the runner dressed as an ear of corn who I saw shortly after the turnaround. On the bright side, the race was a solid value at $85 (plus inconvenience fees) and significantly cheaper than Omaha’s two other marathons. Though given the Nebraska Marathon’s competitive slogan of “Run local”, I’m guessing its organizers may do more to recognize and embrace local culture.
PRODUCTION: All things considered, I wasn’t surprised to learn that HITS Endurance, which produces the race, is based in New York and is “the largest equine show jumping production company in the world” (equine as in horses). The Omaha Marathon is currently the only running event on the company’s calendar, along with a handful of triathlons. Race production struck me as color-by-numbers and just good enough to get by, as though someone had watched a two-minute YouTube video or read a primer on “How to produce a marathon”.
Overall the day ran smoothly enough with no major speed bumps, and kudos to both the organizers and the Omaha police for resolving the pre-race shooting incident as quickly as possible and with minimal disruption to the event itself. At the same time, several missed opportunities throughout the weekend suggested a lack of attention to detail.
First, the expo was disappointing—the five or six tents set up in the parking lot of TD Ameritrade Park were of little interest and seemed scarcely targeted toward runners, including the vendor closest to the entrance who handed us each individually wrapped slices of bread. I could practically hear the planet groaning underfoot.
In addition to the concerns above and the color-by-numbers feel of the production, aid stations were inefficiently organized. Race organizers who pay attention to detail will ensure that water and sports drink (in this case Heed) are offered in visually distinct cups so you can tell at a glance which is which. In the heat of Omaha I had to expend energy at each aid station asking for water, since everything was served in white cups. Not only that but unlike Gatorade, Heed is clear and so indistinguishable from water, thus adding to the confusion. Though this didn’t prevent volunteers from mistakenly shouting “Gatorade!” at every aid station.
The post-race spread, though not terrible, was typical: bananas, oranges, dry bagels, an oversized open jar of peanut butter and a container of jelly with flies buzzing happily around it in the heat. No local vendors offering samples or selling food, something I always appreciate as an easy way to showcase the community to a receptive audience. Dan did manage to score us some chocolate milk from a cooler of ice.
Individually these may sound like the nitpicky ramblings of a high-maintenance runner, but while none are make-or-break details, together they’re a clear indication of how well an event production company knows its stuff—and maybe more importantly, how much it cares.
SWAG: Other than surviving the heat, the highlight of the Omaha Marathon may have been the swag, most of all the impressively sized medal that passes the “heft test” and which is now among the largest in my collection. The age group award—a colorful certificate in a curved & beveled acrylic frame—was an unexpected bonus; luckily I stuck around to claim it, since it would have cost me $10 to have it shipped. And the race shirt is a nicely designed, dark blue & green long-sleeve tech tee that will come in handy during the harsh Los Angeles winters.
Read Dan’s side of the story HERE.
Sept 18, 2016 (start time 8:00am after an hour delay)
26.44 miles in Omaha, NE (state 14 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:47:22 (first time running the Omaha Marathon), 8:36/mile
Finish place: 38 overall, 2/28 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 332 (212 men, 120 women)
Race weather: cool & sunny at the start (temp 61°F), hot & sunny at the finish (temp 80°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 332 ft ascent, 332 ft descent