Saturday, January 17, 2015

Holy Fucking Shit is Modern Commercial Air Travel Awesome! A Short Treatise on Complaints from First World 2015.

Dedicated to Leslie, who flies a lot and never bitches about it.

It’s so annoying when people complain about everything. But I guess it’s something I need to get over since about 96% of all human communication is complaining. There are varying degrees. Not all complaining is really complaining. A lot of it is just a way of interacting with our fellow humans. People like to talk to each other. Coming up with things to talk about is hard. Finding something to complain about is easy.

Complaining can happen anywhere. But the cosmic-epicenter-universal-ground-zero-hub of complaining is the airport. If you were new to this planet and stopped in at an airport, you’d think that life on earth was so horribly, unbearably oppressive that continuing to live would hardly be worth the effort. You’d be amazed that more people didn’t drown themselves in a vat of Orange Julius just to make it all end.

On the one hand, it’s true. Air travel sucks. The overhead bins always get filled before your lowly scumbag zone 4 boarding group gets called. The sandwiches are shitty and stale and not even free. The guy in front of you put his seat back, and yours is in front of the urinal puck-smelling toilet and doesn’t recline. Your civil rights are violated by some TSA teenager in another city looking at x-ray pictures of your tits / balls when you go through security. It’s an all around bubbling inferno of horribleness.

On the other hand, flying is vastly more accessible than it was a generation ago. If you focus less on the horror of add-on fees and focus for a second on the overall cost of a ticket, even with a checked bag, a premium gang-banger mucho legroom class seat and a seven dollar lite beer, flights today cost a fraction of what they used to. And, in the larger picture, whereas if your great grandparents wanted to cross the country they had to rustle up a posse and wagon train along a dirt path for nine months, you can now swipe through a few screens on your iPhone app, pop onto a 3,000 ton 747 (which somehow, unfathomably, can actually get up off of the ground and fly six miles above the Earth, which is unbelievable on a whole ‘nother level) and be just about anywhere in the country in four hours. Oh, and there’s wifi. If you want to go visit your grammie or follow your bliss or escape to an all-inclusive Sandals resort with a pool bar or do whatever it is that you people do, it’s exponentially easier now than ever before.

Some things truly, objectively suck. When your body rejects a heart transplant because someone accidentally wrote the wrong blood type on the label on the transport cooler, that sucks. When your mom gets shot to death in a carjacking gone awry, that sucks. When your malaria vaccine spoils because the nearest refrigerator to your village is fifty miles away, that sucks. And some things are clearly first world problems. Slow wifi. When your entrée is served so soon after your appetizer that you hardly had time to take two bites. Starch on your shirt when you specifically said no starch.

But most things only suck or don’t suck relative to other things. If you compare air travel to a first class trip 30 years ago, it sucks. If you compare it to how things always worked from around the time of recorded history until 1950, it’s pretty mind-bendingly astonishing. And if you compare almost anything in life to the way 95% of the world lives, chances are it’s relatively phenomenal.

“Oh, well – first world problem” is a useful expression. If you say it before you complain about something, it’s an acknowledgement that you have some tiny modicum of self awareness and that, while it may not prevent you from complaining, you at least understand that your complaint may not, in fact, be all that massively troubling in the grand scheme of things. If someone else says it to you, what they may be saying, in a slightly more polite way, is “yeah, well, um, how ‘bout shutting the fuck up.”

So, no need for everyone to stop complaining. The world would be eerily quiet if that happened. A little more self-awareness is all. Similar to “don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all the small stuff,” I’d say “don’t complain too loudly about first world problems, and they’re all first world problems.” If you’re moderately healthy, have enough money to feed yourself and buy a magazine, aren’t living in fear of someone in your own house, and have one or two friends, things are probably pretty much OK. Complain for entertainment purposes, but don’t take it to heart. Consider spending a tiny little bit more energy appreciating how outrageously fucking amazing so much of the world is, and a tiny little bit less energy complaining about soggy airplane food.  

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fifty Shades of Free Beer: Michelob Ultra vs. 16 Mile Cage Fight Bold Pale Ale

The Rehoboth Beach Marathon was one of my favorites ever. When I was explaining to other people why I liked it so much, I found myself jumping right to a description of the free beer at the after-party. The free beer, donated by 16 Mile Brewery, was the liquid embodiment of all that was great about the race, and, in the bigger picture, of everything that makes it fun to hang out with other human beings.

A while back, I came up with a patented six-point marathon rating matrix, and one of the categories was, free beer. All of the other categories had a 1 to 5 range. But free beer was binary. Unenlightened as I was at the time, I said that “This factor is simple. There either is free beer at the finish line or there is not free beer at the finish line.” 1 or 5.  Oh how very naïve I was.

There’s some variety in the free beers served at the end of races, but the one you see all the time is Michelob Ultra. Michelob Ultra is watery shit swill beer. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with watery shit swill beer. It has its place. If you’re in a situation where the goal is to stand around and drink for an entire day – fishing, jazz festival-ing, watching a friend work on his car, neglecting your marauding children at a neighborhood barbecue – watery shit swill beer might very well be exactly what you want. An 18 pack will only set you back about $15. And there’s almost no alcohol in it, so you can pound down a dozen or so of them and wake up in the morning fresh as a spring day and ready to coach tee ball or teach Sunday school.

What absolutely makes my skin crawl, though, is the advertising theme that goes along with Michelob Ultra. It’s marketed as the beer of athletes and beautiful people with active lifestyles. In the ad, a chiseled, handsome young investment banker bounds out the door of his Manhattan skyscraper at lunch to go x-treme roller blading with his hot, fawning coworker (who, as obviously implied, will probably screw his brains out later that night or, hell, maybe even right then and there after an intense bout of shredding through the city). But none of that changes the reality of what the beer is: Watery. Shit. Swill. Basically 12 ounces of liquid marketing. The icing on the cake is that the main promotional face of Michelob Ultra was, right up until the time physical evidence came to light that 85% of the blood flowing through his veins belonged to someone else, Lance Armstrong.

So, when you finish a race, rip the tab off your bib and exchange it for one free Michelob Ultra (others available for purchase for cash, $4.50 plus a valid drivers license), that’s all well and good. But the scene after the Rehoboth Beach Marathon, organized by the Rehoboth Beach Running Company, was in a whole different stratosphere. Race registration included entry into the after-party. All runners got a neoprene frat party bracelet that got you in, and non-runners could buy one for $20. The after party had a DJ and a big buffet with a full spread of breakfast stuff and lunch stuff. Once you made your decision about whether you wanted a pile of bacon and eggs or a stack of burgers and dogs, you got to the 16 Mile Brewery beer trailer. And the beer trailer had these spectacular party attributes:
  • 3 kinds of delicious, local beer – Seed-Free & Joy, Cage Fight and Tiller Brown!
  • No line!
  • No limit!

Post-marathon hydration be damned! This was a party! I sat down with some old guys who had run the race a bunch of times (“you’re not exactly who we were hoping for, but sure” said one of them when I asked if I could sit with them; the other of whom turned out to be a Delaware judge). They told me that, yeah, the after party usually went on for hours, until the sad moment when the beer trailer got hooked up to the truck (and even then, folks could usually finagle one more round). Fun times and camaraderie all around!

The beer was from the heart – genuinely good and with no aura of bullshit marketing. And the same was true about the race in general. No big corporate sponsors, a quirky packet pick-up in an upscale sushi restaurant, friendly volunteers. No VIP tent, available for an extra price, separating the group out into after-party haves and have-nots. No five-page registration questionnaire demanding information about your finances and spending habits. Just a big fun setup designed to get people to hang out together and have a good time.

The bigger the company, the more diffuse its ownership, the larger the customer base to sell to, the more bland and generalizable and scalable its products have to be. Small, local operations are so refreshing, not for any kind of moral / smug / Michael Pollan reason, but because they’re just more fun. It’s OK to make a buck in the process, but when that’s the only goal, it shows.

Big races organized by big national corporations are usually the ones that give you a ticket for one Michelob Ultra. It’s at the little ones, organized by runners for runners, like Rehoboth Beach, where you’re more likely to get a Cage Fight Bold Ale (“Boxing gloves? You mean Bitch Mittens”) like the one from 16 Mile Brewery. And what could be better than that?

Now that I’ve become more of a grizzled marathon veteran, I have learned the folly of my former ways. “Free beer or no free beer” is a gross oversimplification. There are fifty shades of free beer. And 16 Mile Brewery and the Rehoboth Beach Running Company really know how it’s done. 

Click here to learn more about 16 Mile Brewery, Georgetown, DE.

Click here for information about the Rehoboth Beach Running Company. 

Click here for information about the Rehoboth Beach Marathon.

Click here for an article about Charlie Sheen calling Lance Armstrong a douchebag. 



Thursday, October 2, 2014

Don’t Get Me Wrong. I Love Corporations. Really.

Friends often ask me, regarding my blog, something to the effect of, “dude, does your boss know you write this shit?” The short answer is, yes. The DanJanifesto is on my resume. For real. The longer question is, “how can you go to work every day as a business lawyer - mergering and acquisitioning and joint venturing and corporate financing - when you have so many horrible things to say about corporations?” And the longer answer is… 

The system is supposed to work like this: the people (via government) set the rules; capitalism (via corporations) works within those rules to make the most money possible and “expand the pie”; and the people (via taxation, via government) decide who should get how much of the pie. It’s when that basic structure starts to fall apart that I get all agitated. 

I believe that corporations are justified in doing anything and everything not prohibited by law and, further, that they should not be expected to even consider any factor – moral, social or otherwise – so long as what they are doing is legal. My general super leftie disposition notwithstanding, I’ll go to bat for Wal-Mart’s right to pay below poverty wages to full-time workers, Apple’s right to set up international shell companies to shelter profits from US taxation, and BP’s right to permanently ruin a massive chunk of coastline in exchange for penalties equal to a few day’s revenues. However unconscionable those practices might seem, If they’re legal, if they maximize a corporation’s profits, then that’s their prerogative, and it’s what they should do. 

When companies pretend to care about the world beyond maximizing shareholder value and say things like “being environmental / treating our employees well / supporting our community is not just a good idea, it’s good business,” it’s disingenuous, not to mention stupid-looking. It might not be 100% percent bullshit 100% of the time. Sometimes, for purposes of building goodwill with customers, or even for cold, hard business reasons, it turns out to be true. But, then, when it’s not true, it’s not. And when a choice has to be made between doing what’s “right” and what maximizes profits, profits win out every time. Period. 

If a company can maximize its profits by paying its employees sub-poverty wages or by destroying the environment, and we the people think workers deserve to make more and that forests need to be preserved, the solution is not to protest the company, but to change the rules. And we the people, not companies (who are not people; I’ve voiced my opinion on that issue plenty), are the ones who should decide what the rules are.

And that’s where things become problematic. Companies are doing more than trying to maximize their profits within the rules set by the people. They’re trying to set the rules themselves. The most fundamental problem with how the rules are made these days, in my humble opinion, is that there is no meaningful countervailing force to the intense concentrated interests companies have in certain very precise, industry-specific issues. If an environmental regulation would negatively impact some particular industry, it makes economic sense for that industry to lobby, with all its might, within one dollar of bankruptcy, to make sure the regulation doesn’t get passed. It could be the case – and I think it very often is – that the vast majority of the population agrees with a regulation, and that if every person who agreed would contribute one dollar to fight for the regulation, it would breeze through the legislative process and become law in a flash. But when there is no centralized structure for the masses to express that preference, it can’t compete against the targeted, coordinated message of even a very small minority. Absent any kind of meaningful counterforce, the industry wins.

When people get frustrated with this result and point to corporations as the culprit, I think they’re going after the wrong target. Whenever I hear any kind of message about “corporate greed,” I pretty much tune it out, because it almost always misses the real point. I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as Gordon Gecko in saying that “greed is good.” I’d say something more like, “greed just is, like gravity.” The profit motivation, a.k.a. “greed,” is what fuels capitalism. And capitalism really does do a spectacular job – a better job than any other system we’ve seen on Earth so far – of advancing progress and expanding the economic pie.

But a larger pie in and of itself is not always better. Distribution matters. Similar to “greed,” the terms “socialism,” “redistribution” and “class warfare” – at least as they’re generally tossed around by the media in this country – are pretty good indicators that whatever screed follows is not going to be very meaningful or informative. “Redistribution” in particular. The word is a sneaky, not-so-subtly loaded term, implying that there is some cosmic, natural order defining who should get what cut of the pie, and that any RE-distribution of the goods is unnatural. It’s a ridiculous premise, just like the idea of “free” markets. Every game has rules. Having no rules is, itself, a set of rules. Human beings don’t exist to serve the needs of markets. Markets exist to serve the preferences of people. And people should set the rules.

The question of who should be entitled to what relative portion of the pie gets pretty philosophical pretty fast. Business owners may be the most visible catalysts of progress and creators of wealth, but the forces that underlie any business success are vast and often invisible, and usually include some significant contribution from the government. We the people should determine the distribution. There’s no “re” about it. It’s a democratic choice. Nobody is intrinsically entitled to anything.  

When people howl about redistribution, they’re usually just complaining about paying taxes. To sound less complain-y, the protests against taxes are usually said to be based on some larger philosophy. In particular, good ol’ Ayn Rand. I certainly don’t believe the idiot Randian / Atlas Shrugged notion that if people have to pay too much in taxes they’ll decide to drop off the grid and stop enlightening society with their creations. That whole idea seems to me like an entirely clueless notion about human nature – that people will stop competing if they don’t get to keep 100% of the fruits of “their” noble work. People compete because they love to compete. If people had to pay a 95% tax on each dollar over $1 billion, that additional dollar would still be an extra point on the scorecard of who’s “winning.” More is more, and after you’ve reached the point where extra dollars have no impact whatsoever on how your life is actually lived, the value of an extra dollar lies purely within the realm of philosophy. (There’s another more mundane matter of people simply not understanding how marginal tax rates work, and thinking, incorrectly, that there is ever a situation where, after taxes, a person would take home less by making more if making more would bump up his tax bracket). As long as human beings like to show off and measure themselves against others (“by height” says Ty Webb to Judge Smails – sorry, couldn’t help myself), they’ll keep working hard even when taxes are high. 

OK, so, got it? We the people should set the rules. Corporations should compete all-out within those rules. We the people should decide who gets to keep the spoils. And we should all stop complaining about paying taxes.

And that, in a nutshell, is how someone can be an angry, verbose, blogging leftie and still go to work as a corporate lawyer every day.  

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Talking to Kids about Class Warfare

Dear Gravy Train Dan,

I am a piss poor single mother trying my best to raise my little Johnny on my own. Johnny has started noticing that we always get hosed by the rich. He's been asking me difficult questions about class warfare. I want to be honest with Johnny, but he's only six. Is it too soon to start talking to him about class warfare?


Piss Poor in Peoria

Dear Piss Poor,

Not too soon at all! Little Johnny's feelings are natural. Class warfare is everywhere. And it's a tough subject. But if you avoid talking to little Johnny about it, he's just going to learn about it from the Internet, in-between searching for porn. You need to be proactive about helping Johnny understand all the ways in which the game is fixed. Johnny needs to know that, as a poor six year-old, there's pretty much no possible way he's ever going to have a fair shot at a prosperous existence.

Kids pick up on class warfare at a very young age. Why just this past weekend I saw some outrageous class warfare at place built just for kids - Six Flags.

What kid doesn't love Six Flags? The thrill of the rides. The fun and games. The treats and prizes. A day pass is $39. A little steep, but even the most Dickensian little Oliver Twist can usually cobble together some change from his paper route and treat himself to one thrilling summer day at the park. And you'd think that, once your little guy bought his ticket, he'd be able to frolic with kids from all walks of life - rich or poor.

Turns out, that's not the case.

I'm a Big Brother Big Sister volunteer, and when I took my pals Spectaculario and Stupendizoid* to Six Flags, we checked in at the front gate, ran straight to Goliath, one of the massive, towering twisty-twirly roller coasters at the park and..... realized that the line was over an hour long. About half an hour into the line, I saw the first advertisement for the Flash Pass, some kind of "preferred" admissions ticket. By the time we got toward the front of the line, I realized that what our $39 ticket really bought us was the right to wait in lines for 97% of our time at the park, and go on maybe four rides during an all day visit.

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of children who would be devastated if they ever had any idea what was going through my mind for the 9 hours I spent waiting by the exit of amusement park rides.

So I ducked out of line and went to the Flash Pass office to learn more. Turns out, Flash Pass is just a way to pay more for the right to cut in line. For $30 per person (silver) you get some priority. For $55 per person (gold) you can go straight to the front of the line of all rides but one. And for $85 per person (platinum!) you can cut in every line in the park. I'm not a one percenter, but I'm fortunate enough to be able to drop an extra $110 (I got gold passes for my buddies, not one for me) to make things more fun for my friends. I didn't even have to run it by the marital finance committee.

I met Spectaculario and Stupendizoid back at the Goliath exit and told them the great news. Remember that one hour line you just had to wait in? No more! That line is just for poor schmucks who can't afford gold-level Flash Passes. For the rest of the day, kids, you go to the special entrance on the side just and march yourselves right the fuck up to the front of the line!

I've heard that Disney has this same system, but that they do a better job of hiding the rich kid lines so that it's not so obvious to the poor kids just how screwed they are. But at Six Flags, it's all right out there in the open. The unwashed masses have to wait in the endless, boring zig-zagging line while, right next to them, the rich kids saunter on by, straight up to the front of the line, onto the ride and back again, over and over again, as many times as they want. You can see the anger and frustration in the poor kids' eyes. Those guys cut in line! It's just... not fair! Why do they get that special treatment? Because they could afford the Flash Pass? Because they're rich?


Real class warfare requires more than just grumbling and dirty looks. It takes organization and hard work and Molotov cocktails. But the seeds were there at Six Flags. Brewing and fomenting in all the kids who used to think that all kids, rich and poor alike, were equal at Six Flags.

Six Flags isn't doing anything wrong, of course. It's just a business, trying, like any other business, to separate a few suckers from their dollars. It has no civic duty to provide everyone with the same level of service. And, for a poor kid, waiting in the long lines at Six Flags is good practice for going out into the real world. Government programs may get slashed, but there's still a nice a la carte menu of services available to anyone who can pay for them. Limited health care? Crappy schools? Speeding tickets? Minor felonies that require a good lawyer? No abortion providers in your state? Meh. Those are all just problems for the poor, minor inconveniences as long as you have the funds. You can walk right past the line and get on the ride.

So, Piss Poor, little Johnny probably already has a sense of how crappy it is to be poor, and how many problems can be avoided by having a rich dad. But if there's any question in your mind, how about a trip to Six Flags? It's only $39. Well, actually, if Johnny brings a friend, with $20 parking, $12 chicken fingers, $4.99 fountain sodas - unless you buy the $13.99 value jug, which gets you unlimited $1 refills - maybe a $19 tee shirt or something, and, of course, the $85 platinum Flash Pass, you're looking at more like $450. But it's a small price to pay when you consider what a first rate education in class warfare little Johnny will get.

Yours in brutally honest child rearing,

Gravy Train Dan

Friday, July 25, 2014

Maybe People Aren't All F%@&sticks After All*

It's easy to think that the world made up of a bunch of fucksticks. And while they are certainly out there - you don't have to walk far to encounter all measure of idiots, douchebags, ignoramuses, assmunches, morons and outright fucksticks - I posit to you that perhaps people are generally more OK than all that, and that a lot of the universal ill will we all have towards humanity may be mostly the result of too much media consumption. Getting to know a person on a one-to-one basis is a whole different ballgame than viewing humanity by means of the corrupted goop that is spoon fed to us through screaming pundits and women's health magazines and gas pump TVs and urinal ads.

As with a lot of questions, you can figure out a lot by following the money. The media-industrial complex is not public service; it's big business. Its one and only goal is to make money. People are nuanced, complicated and (I'll go out on a limb; I think it's true) generally thoughtful. But nuance, complication and thoughtfulness don't sell stuff. What does sell stuff, and what is the basis for limitless reserves of cash-suckage, are two of the fundamental underpinnings of human nature: self-affirmation and schadenfreude. If you think along these lines, you'll see how neatly just about everything that gets fed to you on TV or ads in the subway conforms to this rubric by depicting nothing but the very most fuckstickish back alley of humanity.

The emotion that schadenfreude-based messages elicit are something along the lines of, wow, I may be below average in terms of looks, intelligence, wealth, sex appeal, marketable skills and personal hygiene - and, let's face it, basically a loser - but at least I'm not THAT guy. And self-affirmation operates by painting your preferences, biases, political leanings and worldview as so obviously, simplistically right and the opposing views as so ridiculously, maniacally insane, that it's an easy lob-ball, grand-slam to bolster your self-image and be comforted in knowing that what you believe and the way you live is so clearly superior to The Others. For all that to work, everything about everyone has to be dumbed down and blown up into an exaggerated, absurdist caricature.

The polar opposite of all that is meeting a person one-on-one. There is a scientifically proven direct, negative correlation between intimate, meaningful engagement with individual human beings and belief in universal fuckstickism. Everyone thinks their neighborhood is the best neighborhood in the world. "Once you get to know the people in [any town in any country anywhere in the world], you realize that they're all really great. We'd do anything for each other. It's a really tight knit community." So it's good to know your neighbors. But it's also good to meet some people in another neighborhood, and even in another state or - gasp - another country. Distrust of foreigners is usually just simple provincialism.

Leslie and I were in Lake Okoboji, Iowa last week, which all of our friends on the east coast thought was outright hilarious. The underlying assumption behind all of the chuckles and raised eyebrows was that Iowa - one of the most flyovery of flyover states - must be full of hicks and yokels (the rural incarnation of fucksticks). But, lo and behold, just about everyone we met was kind and interesting and had the same cosmopolitan access to the Internet and Under Armour tee shirts and pomogranitinis as the hipsterest of Brooklynites. We met a group of beer-gutted cyclists who shared their Coors with us and told us about their careers as a heavy equipment operator, cosmetologist, and promoter of a start-up company with a patent for an advanced sunglasses strap. And we met a guy at breakfast at the Mall of America Embassy Suites who was working all night, every night at the federal reserve installing check processing software and who, like me, ran marathons all over the country. And we met a spiritual yoga lady at a hippy coffee shop who, in response to a guy who said that maybe the reason there was no wifi was because people were meant to get away from it all, made the very valid point, "yeah, well I need wifi to find a good Google map to show me where to go to get away from it all."

It's the same thing everywhere. Cities, towns, dude ranches, lakes, Hong Kong, Elmira. Folks are alright. The barriers you assume exist everywhere may not be barriers at all. So take out the ear buds! Turn off the TV! Leave the house! Say hello to the dude sitting next to you! Sure, there are some fucksticks out there, but most people are pretty cool.  

*This post is dedicated to my friend Josh Schultz, without whom I may never have been enlightened with the term "fuckstick."

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Chatting, and Partying, with a Corporation

I'm a corporate lawyer. I work with corporations all the time. I understand corporations. Some of my best friends are corporations. So I thought, in light of all the recent discussions about the free speech and religious rights of corporations, who better than me to shed some light on how corporations really feel about these issues. Here's a video of my candid chat (and some drinking and partying) with one of my favorite corporations.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Running Kool-Aid, Part II – Marathon Reviews / Travelogue / Personal Memoir (your choice)

After running a few marathons, I became aware of the clique of old guys with shirts showing which states they’d run marathons in. The goal, of course, is to hit every state. And that was pretty intriguing to me. So, without officially admitting that that’s what I’m striving for, I have to say, that would be pretty cool. If it ever happens, you can say you read about it here first. If not, I’ll pull down this post and deny I ever said anything about it.

I did a posting a while back on why I like running . Similar to that posting, this one may contain a slightly nauseating level of minutiae about running. So if you’re not into running, think of it more as a travelogue. If you don’t like running or travel, you could read it as a personal memoir. If you don’t like running, travel or me, probably best to change the channel at this point. That being said, here’s how the marathons I’ve run so far stack up, from most recent to least:

Lower Potomac River Marathon, Piney Point, Maryland, March 10, 2014

Piney Point, Maryland is in the middle of nowhere. It’s beautiful though – a thin strip of land, where the Potomac empties into the Chesapeake Bay, with quiet water views everywhere. The race is put on by the Chesapeake Bay Running Club, but seems really to be the brain child of one woman – Liza – who’s e-mail address is “” It’s true that Liza is short and brown. And she puts on a hell of a race.

Registration for this race was capped at 200. 164 ended up finishing. Perhaps because the location is so far off the beaten path, or because there is no half-marathon, no 10k, no kids fun run, just the full marathon, or because Liza caters to the “50 stater” crowd, there were more hardcore runners at this race than any other I’ve been a part of. Every person I talked to had run 30, 40, 50 marathons. I met a school teacher who ran 16 marathons last year. I met a restaurant manager who worked until 11PM the night before the race, slept three hours and then drove four hours from Baltimore to get to Piney Point in time for the 7AM start. People came from all over the country. Also, Piney Point has exactly one inn and exactly one restaurant. So most of the out of town runners were staying and eating at the same place. All of these factors made the atmosphere just loads of fun. Endless conversations about who had run what marathons, where they had traveled, what they were planning next. I was with my people.

There’s usually a trade-off between size of a race and how well organized it is. Not at all the case at this one. All of the accoutrements at this race were simple but exactly as needed. Mile markers were made out of posterboard attached to cat litter boxes filled with sand. At the end of the race there was a table piled with a hodgepodge of chips and snacks and drinks. Just yours for the taking. A fun moment was right before the start of the race when all the runners had to fan out to search for the start line. It wasn’t very light out, and Liza said that there was a white line spray-painted somewhere in the area showing where the start was supposed to be. Finally someone found it, and we all shuffled around, lined up, and got ready to go. The starting “gun” was a gong, brought by a DC Korean-American running club that sends a big group to the race every year.

The course was made up of three short out and back loops and then one long out and back loop. Because there were so few runners, with the loops, I could count the exact number of runners ahead of me. I ran a great race – big negative splits – so I had a good sense of where I was going to finish overall as I picked off runners one by one during the second half of the race. I ended up finishing 31st overall. There are two ways to achieve a finishing position like that – quit your job, move to Kenya and train with the elites, or run in a really small race. I had met a friendly couple at the restaurant the night before the race who had a house along the course. They told me where they lived and said they’d come out and watch in the morning. They did, and I felt like they were old friends. It’s amazing how much of an effect it has during a race just to know that there will be two people out cheering for you, even if they’re basically strangers.

Thumbs Up: Community! Isn’t that what a marathon is supposed to be about? We’re all in it together! Because of the personality of the race organizer and the intimate setup, this race was all about having a communal experience with like-minded people. So many races are becoming so corporate – revenue generators that just happen to have some running thing attached. It’s so refreshing to be a part of a race that, to its core, is all about gathering together a bunch of fanatics and helping them do what they love to do.

Thumbs Down: None really, except if you don’t like being out in the middle of nowhere. Even that was nice, though. Very pretty, peaceful area. Beautiful views. Very relaxing. I guess even these “thumbs down” items are really more like “thumbs up.”

Bottom Line: Best small race ever. The perfect embodiment of what makes running, and being part of a community, so special. No pretense, no hype. Just a great time with new friends.

It’s a little unfair to rate whatever marathon comes after New York City.  After the experience I had in New York in November, whatever was next was sure to be a let-down in comparison.  But even with a little extra leniency, Charleston was tough.

The main difficulty on the particular day the marathon was held this year was the wind.  The course is a point to point setup, with a few small out-and-back loops, that mostly goes south to north.  And through the entire race, there was a fierce, gusty headwind blowing from north to south.  It was brutal.  Physically and psychologically, wind is much tougher than hills.  You can’t see it, and you don’t know when it’s going to pick up or when it will end.  There’s always some point during a marathon when the thought occurs to you, oh, it sure would feel good to just stop.  In Charleston, I started thinking that around mile 12 – not a good sign (though, in the end, I never did stop and finished with my third best time).  The other problem is that, with a few exceptions, the course is pretty ugly and desolate.  The first six miles go through Charleston’s historic downtown.  That part is great.  Lots to see and pretty good crowds.  But when that ends, you’re on your own.  There is a long stretch between Charleston and North Charleston that’s sort of a highway access road with industrial buildings and a lot of dirt and not much else.  I overheard a cop before the race saying to another cop that he had responded to crime scenes at every mile of the course between miles six and twelve, multiple crime scenes at some of the miles.  There are some beautiful areas surrounding Charleston – in particular the gorgeous, three mile, Arthur Ravenel bridge that goes out to the marshes and beaches of Patriot’s Point and Sullivan Island.  There’s a 10k in April that goes over that bridge, which may be the reason it’s not included in the marathon. 

All that being said, I made it through the race and had a great long weekend visiting Charleston.  Our friends Kris and Paul, who live there, gave us a wonderful, thorough driving tour of the city.  And my cousin Lyla and her friend Rachel came down to join Leslie and me for the weekend (and to cheer during the race!), which was great.

Thumbs Up:  From the heart, not at all corporate.  Fun party at the finish line, with a great band and lots of food.  Free beer and free shrimp and grits (I’m never one to turn down a free beer, but after a grueling race, the shrimp and grits didn’t look very appetizing).  Fun destination, worth traveling to. 

Thumbs Down:  Brutal wind, and a not-so-nice course.  Be prepared for a lot of solitude that really tests your psyche and perseverance. 

Bottom Line: Charleston is a fun place to visit.  Adorable, picturesque, steeped in history, with lots of interesting sites to see and food to eat.  The race itself is not the best, but still fun, and, if you make it through the wind, quite a feeling of accomplishment.  

NewYork City Marathon, November 3, 2013

Until last weekend, whenever anyone would ask me which of the marathons I had run I liked the best, I would always answer, truthfully, that I really couldn’t say, that they were all different, that I liked such and such qualities about this one and this and that about another one.  No more.  The New York marathon is my favorite.  Hands down.  No contest.  It was the best marathon I’ve run and one of the best all around experiences I’ve had.  Ever. 

First, a little about New Yorkers.  The stereotype about New Yorkers is that they’re loud and rude and in your face.  The loud and in your face part is most definitely true.  But I think it’s based on a certain comfort that comes from living in a place that’s so dense and so full of different kinds of people.  If you’re not worried about people thinking less of you because you have a different opinion, then why hold back?  Why waste everyone’s time with decorum and insinuation?  Just throw it all out there.  Once you scratch a tiny bit below the surface, it becomes clear that New Yorkers are as kind and friendly and caring as any group anywhere.  And when all of the New York noise and energy is focused on something as positive as a marathon, the result is something truly spectacular. 

Each runner in the New York marathon was assigned to one of three “villages” near the start, next to Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island.  To get there, you could either take a bus from the various boroughs or the Staten Island Ferry from Manhattan.  I took the ferry.  The experience was surreal.  Before sunrise, thousands of runners, all wearing fancy running shoes and ratty, used throw-away clothes from the Salvation Army (to keep warm before the start), streamed silently up the escalators to the ferry terminal.  The atmosphere was calm but intense, with everyone excited in anticipation of a long race, but measured, knowing that the first runners wouldn’t be leaving the corrals for over three hours.  The ferry had a police escort boat next to it.  The sun started to rise while we were crossing the river.  The Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty were beautiful. 

The start villages were like carnivals.  Thousands of people milled around, stretched, had snacks, waited in line for the port-o-potties.  Music and race day rules repeated in loops on giant video screens.  Dunkin Donuts gave out free coffee and warm, cotton winter hats. (Genius marketing move – brainwash people when they’re cold and tired and psychologically vulnerable.  Whenever I see a Dunkin now, which, in Boston, is usually about 35 times a day, I feel warm and happy and like I want to spend all my money on breakfast sandwiches and munchkins). 

The course started at the base of the Verrazano Bridge in Staten Island, crossed into Brooklyn, went through all of Brooklyn and a chunk of Queens, over the 59th Street Bridge (now renamed the Ed Koch Bridge) into Manhattan, all the way up 1st Ave. into the Bronx, back down 5th Ave., into Central Park at 89th Street, out onto Central Park South, back into Central Park at Columbus Circle, and ended near 69th Street. 

50,304 people ran this year’s New York marathon.  And it was estimated that 2 million people were out watching along the course.  What that meant from a runner’s perspective is that every foot of the course, with the exception of the bridges, was lined with spectators standing shoulder to shoulder, sometimes four people deep.  There were bands on almost every block – so many that the music often ran together and you couldn’t even make out who was playing what.  DJs, folk bands, metal bands (one orthodox Jewish one), several Grateful Dead cover bands, drum circles, a gospel rhythm section playing a slow jam outside of a church (if you’re ever going to convert me, that’s the way to do it), bluegrass jam circles, marching bands, folk singers, karaoke, reggae bands, and lots of good ol’ banging on garbage can lids. The noise level ranged from loud to complete sensory overload.  

The spirit and energy from the crowds was like nothing I have ever experienced.  Several times, I was so moved by the almost hysterical emotion coming from the crowds, that I gasped and teared up and had trouble catching my breath.  The power of New York crowds turning their focus on runners slogging through the streets was overwhelming. No polite clapping and quiet approval here.  Thousands upon thousands of people, block after block after block were just letting it all hang out.  People screamed at individual runners, whether they knew them or not.  “DAAAAVVVVVE, you GO!” “Oh YEAH lady with the flower print tights, you KNOW you’re looking GOOOOOD!” “Oh my GAWD you all are KICKIN AAAAASSSSSS!”  A yuppie with a sport jacket and loafers was jumping up and down so hard that his cell phone dropped out of his pocket and smashed on the street.  Hipsters lost their cool and screamed like little kids.  In Central Park South, almost at mile 26, when the runners were out of gas and really looking ragged, the crowd was still deafening.  People on the sidelines looked so genuinely concerned and proud and yearning, it felt like every one of them knew each runner like family and had some deep, personal stake in helping him reach the finish. 

After the race, volunteers draped bright yellow fleece ponchos over the runners to keep them warm in the crisp November afternoon.  They were like angels.  Walking down the Upper West Side, strangers said congratulations.  The barista at a Starbucks next to the Wall Street bull gave me a free coffee.  The bell captain at the Doubletree Hotel where we were staying was so excited to see me come back after the race he was almost screaming at me – “oh MAN, you ran 26 miles!? That is CRAZY! MAN!”  After dinner at a fancy restaurant in Chelsea, the waiter brought me a desert, on the house, with “congratulations” written in chocolate on the side of the plate. 

I don’t know if an experience like this could happen anywhere else.  New Yorkers do things big and they do them loud.  I love running because it’s so simple and natural and good.  And to run a race where the human spirit is so powerful and distilled and focused upon something so positive and happy – the feeling is almost beyond description.  Pure elation. People can do horrible things to one another.  But they can also be so good to one another and so supportive that your faith in the whole human race can’t help but be uplifted.  Thanks for the show, New York!  You sure know how to make a guy feel good.

Here’s Alec Baldwin talking about the New York Marathon.  Whoda ever thunk this guy could get me all emotional.

Here’s a touching video of Meb Keflezighi talking about breaking down and having to walk during the race.  Depending on how you look at it, you could say that I beat him.  Technically, he finished the race 1 hour and 23 minutes faster than I did.  But he had to walk a little starting at mile 19, and I didn’t have to walk until mile 24. It’s really a tough course.

Here’s a documentary about Fred Lebow, the founder of the New York Marathon.  He was just a weird, quirky dude, and not a very good runner, who started organizing events, which morphed into the marathon.  The course starting going through all five boroughs, including the Bronx, in the late ‘70s.  Not a time when skinny white runner dudes usually ran voluntarily through the Bronx.

Reykjavik Marathon, Reykjavik, Iceland, August 24, 2013

Going to Iceland and running a marathon was Leslie’s present to me for my 40th birthday.  The fun started months ahead of time, when people asked how I was going to celebrate by birthday, and I got to say “I’m going to Iceland to run a marathon.”  That alone made the trip worthwhile.  Iceland is all around wonderful.  It’s easy to get to, gorgeous and everyone there is adorable.  It’s like the whole country is one big happy family (actually, they are, almost literally, one big family).  Although most everything in Iceland is expressed in English, that wasn’t the case during the race.  All the signs, announcements and shouting were in Icelandic.  But that was fun, and exotic.  There’s not that much you have to know during a race – run that way.  And since I couldn’t understand anything the spectators were yelling, I could make up what I thought they were saying – all of which was directed at me personally and was quite flattering.  They didn’t play “Born to Run” at the start, which was disconcerting.  But all was remedied by the Duran Duran cover band playing “Hungry Like the Wolf” at mile three.  This was the first marathon I had run outside of the U.S., and the first one measured in kilometers.  Kilometers tick by a lot faster than miles, but there are 42 of them, which is a lot.  

Thumbs Up: Beautiful scenery along the craggy, foreboding coastline.  Good crowds along some of the course, yelling things in Icelandic that at least sounded supportive.  Maybe it’s just the accent, but Icelanders sound so upbeat and enthusiastic about everything.  You can’t help but smile.  The giant city-wide post-race arts festival and all-night pub crawl are really something to write home about. 

Thumbs Down:  Uninspired stuff to buy at the pre-race expo.  Those socialists just don’t have the capitalist huckster gene.  Selling outrageously priced race shirts is the very reason for having an expo.  This is the one race where I really wanted to drop some major Krona and bring home some swag.  But alas, there was nothing good to buy.

Bottom Line:  Marathon or not, go to Iceland!  In the end, best birthday present ever, and I kicked off my 40s with a personal best.

Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon, Cleveland, OH, May 19, 2013
I had never given much thought to Cleveland.  My mom went to college there and liked it.  My upstairs neighbor is from there and loves it.  I’ve heard it compared to Detroit.  Turns out to be a perfectly nice city with some hipster districts – the Warehouse District, the Flats, 4th Street – a college town with a full out hippy festival every week – the Hessler Street Fair – and a pretty vibrant downtown with three professional athletic stadiums within a few blocks of each other.  There’s even a “nano brewery” on 25th street where you can bring your bike inside and tune it up and play adult-size Jenga.  The race is called the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon.  So it’s a corporate affair.  But Rite Aid is not too in-your-face about it.  Its name is splashed all over the promotional materials and race shirt, but it’s no more obnoxious than any other corporate sponsor.  The race obviously has some real buy-in from the city, which is cool.  Between opening up Browns stadium, closing off some major roads in the city, and the fact that just about everyone I talked to knew about the race and wanted to talk about it, it was clear that people were excited about the event, and that it was more than just an attempt to bring some tourist dollars to town.

Thumbs up: Pre-race toilet facilities. Instead of the usual bank of porta-potties, they opened up Browns stadium, whose plumbing is equipped to handle 100,000 football fans unloading 9 lite beers and 4 brats each. 10,000 runners each excreting half a power bar, 3 sips of coffee and a Gatorade doesn't even cause a dip in water pressure. Open urinals and no wait whatsoever! Unheard of.  I also made the second smartest decision in my life preparing for the race (not totally sure what the first was, but I must have done one smarter thing than this in my life) – getting a ticket to a Cleveland Indians game a few hours after the marathon finish.  It was a hot, beautiful day, Progressive Field is a great, modern stadium, and there is no better way to relax after a long race than ass-planting in a seat for three hours, watching a game, and not having to even stand up to buy beer and hot dogs.

Thumbs down: Lackadaisical Christian bands. One was doing folk-ish stuff but just singing, not actually playing guitar. Like Christian karaoke. Second was a rock band whose singers needed hymn books to remember the lyrics. If you're into that kind of stuff and you asked yourself, what would Jesus do?, He would probably say, "well, at a minimum learn to play the guitar and memorize the damn lyrics." Probably not a damnable to eternal hellfire offense, but still.

Bottom Line:  Enthusiastic community support.  Interesting route around some nice parts of town and some eerie abandoned industrial areas.  Awesome finish line by Browns Stadium and the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame.

Rock-n-Roll New Orleans Marathon, New Orleans, LA, February 24, 2013

I love jazz and French and traveling, so it’s a shocking! travesty! that, before now, I had never been to New Orleans.  Of course, I loved it.  As the Great Homogenization of the U.S. progresses, and cities all start to look the same, it’s fun to go someplace that still looks and feels completely unique.  You can’t mistake New Orleans for anywhere else.  The marathon was on a Sunday (why does that always seem to be the case?) so on Saturday night, in New Orleans, I was in bed at around 9:00.  Felt a little sacrilegious.  The race passed through a good cross section of the city.  It started downtown, went up and down St. Charles Ave. through the garden district, through the French quarter and City Park, and along the shore of Lake Pontchartrain.  I felt good at mile 20 and still had some energy left, so I picked up the pace for the last few miles and ended up with a marathon personal best.  After the race, I was hell-bent on seeing some music and taking advantage of the lack of open container laws.  Even at 3PM on a Sunday, there’s no shortage of ways to do that.  In the evening, some friends of Leslie’s who have lived in New Orleans for a long time took us to a fancy Emeril restaurant in The Quarter, and then to see some bands in the Frenchmen Street area.  The music everywhere was, as expected, off the charts, and the 24/7 laissez les bon temps rouler mentality is for real.    

Thumbs Up
Music everywhere.  There were bands all along the course and every one of them was fantastic.  The featured band at the after-party was the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.  Wow.  In the “free beer” department, the tab on your racing bib got you not one but two free Michelob Ultras (with the little snafu Michelob Ultra’s been having with its main endorser, Lance Armstrong, they probably can’t give that shit away these days).    

Thumbs Down
This was my first Rock-N-Roll marathon.  The Rock-N-Roll franchise has turned into big business, and they now run races all over the country and, recently, internationally.  I have to admit, they know what they’re doing in terms of logistics and organization, but the big business nature of it makes the race feel a little generic and soulless – a bit on the Wal-Mart atmosphere side of the spectrum. 

Bottom Line
Any excuse to go to New Orleans is a good one.  As is always the case, a marathon is a great way to see a city.  This is no exception.  And if you have some extra time after to take advantage of having earned a day / night on the town, all the better.  Running through the French Quarter at 9AM on a Sunday morning and seeing how many people are still out from the night before is a pretty funny experience.  Flat-as-a-pancake course produces some fast times. 

Anthem Manchester City Marathon, Manchester, NH, November 4, 2012

I was supposed to run the New York City marathon on November 4, 2012, but hurricane Sandy put the kibosh on that.  I had trained hard and was ready to go, and so was hell bent on finding a substitute race somewhere.  Just when I was about to buy a plane ticket and spend 36 hours somewhere in Alabama where there was a race, I found a listing for the Manchester, New Hampshire marathon.  Same day, and a 1.5 hour drive from Boston.  Perfect.  I signed up, found a hotel room right at the start line, and hit the road.  The race turned out to be beautiful.  It was sunny but freezing cold at the start.  The course was comprised of three long loops, in and out of town, along the Merrimack River and along some beautiful rail-to-trail paths in a nature preserve east of the town.  The presidential election was two days away and there were campaign signs everywhere.  New Hampshire is supposed to be one of those harbinger states that signals where the country as a whole is going, so I was nervous to see what seemed like a disproportionate number of signs against my guy (of course, we know how things turned out; suck on that, Mitt).  The night before the race, Journey played a concert at the event center in the middle of town.  They apparently couldn’t get Journey themselves to come play at the marathon after-party, but they did the next thing – got a Journey cover band.  And the cover band was so good that if you couldn’t see them, you would have thought they were the real thing.  

Thumbs Up
I was not the only person who was supposed to run the New York marathon who changed plans last minute and signed up for Manchester.  The race was inundated with last minute sign-ups.  And the race organizers went out of their way to be accommodating.  When they ran out of full marathon bibs, they gave half-marathon bibs to marathon runners.   They announced over and over at the start line that full marathon runners with half marathon bibs (which were different colors) should ignore the volunteers at the half / full split-off and stay on the full marathon course.  Anyway, the organizers and volunteers were great, and the whole race, from the expo to the after-party, had a very friendly down-home vibe to it. 

Thumbs Down
Would it really have killed Journey to stay in town for an extra 12 hours and play at the after-party themselves?  And I just can’t stand the whole “live free or die” thing on New Hampshire license plates.

Wipro SanFrancisco Marathon, San Francisco, CA, July 29, 2012
Running the San Francisco marathon was one of the most irresponsible career moves I’ve made so far.  Another marathon I was supposed to run – Madison, WI – was cancelled, and I was in shape and hell bent on doing some marathon.  So I signed up for San Francisco last minute and made plans for a 36 hour trip to California.  It turned out to be over a weekend where a huge deal at work was closing.  All the stars aligned, and I was able to button up some details in my office, go to the airport, work on-line during the whole flight (thumbs up to Virgin America and its all wifi flights), run the race, take a red-eye flight home, go straight back into the office and close the deal at 10AM Monday morning. 

San Francisco is an all around beautiful city, and the marathon took full advantage of it.  The course started and ended downtown on the Embarcadero, went over the Golden Gate Bridge and back, along the coast, through Golden Gate Park, Haight-Ashbury, the Mission District, the Design District and back to the Embarcadero.  Running over the Golden Gate Bridge was an incredible experience.  It was a foggy, misty morning, and you could barely see the top of the bridge towers.  The bridge was closed to traffic, so all you could hear was the muted shuffling of runners’ feet.  The main tourist attractions in a lot of cities are contrived and superficial.  The Golden Gate Bridge is different.  It’s not just an iconic structure, but a genuine, historic part of the city.  It was amazing to feel like I had it all to myself (well, me and 7,000 other runners).   

Thumbs Up
The views, the scenery, the natural and urban beauty.  One of the most awe-inspiring courses anywhere.  The continuous drizzle made my nip-guards fall off twice.  On-the-fly nip-guard replacement is not a skill that’s easy to perfect.  But I’ve got it down.  And it’s a skill whose usefulness should not be underestimated.  The free beer at the finish line was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – my very favorite.  I didn’t have an ID with me, and it was the official policy that every person get carded before getting a beer.  God bless the wonderful volunteer who realized she was about to see a grown man cry and let me slip through anyway. 

Thumbs Down
Security and directions throughout the race were provided by some large, national motorcycle gang.  They were actually great, and very helpful and pleasant.  But didn’t they try the idea of using a motorcycle gang for security at Woodstock, with very limited success?  Taking a cross-country red eye flight home a few hours after a marathon is not something I’d recommend, unless your career depends on it. 

Bottom Line
San Francisco is a spectacularly beautiful city, and the marathon takes full advantage of it.  It also takes advantage of the extreme hills that the city is famous for.  Be ready to run up what feels like mountains and down hills that are so steep that you really have to be careful not to lose control and accidentally launch yourself into the Pacific Ocean. 

ING Miami Marathon, Miami, FL, January 29, 2012
Mimi is just a cool city, so it doesn’t take much to put on a good race here.  The race itself wasn’t anything to write home about.  But the course went through so many interesting and beautiful areas that just looking at the scenery (natural and human) made the experience a lot of fun.  A lot of races now include a full marathon and a half marathon.  Oftentimes, all runners run one loop together, then the half ends, and the full marathoners keep going for another loop somewhere else.  Since there are usually a lot more half marathoners than full marathoners, it always feels like three quarters of humanity suddenly disappears at the half marathon finish.  This was the case in Miami, and it occurred to me that this must be sort of what The Rapture must feel like.  Just going about your business and then, boom, everyone’s gone.  (No implication here about whether I’d be one of the people remaining on Earth if The Rapture occurred).  Right after the half marathon finish, the full marathon route went through a nasty industrial kind of area.  It was the first time ever in a race I thought I might be lost.  The course markings weren’t very clear and there was a long stretch where I couldn’t see any other runners at all.  The neighborhood got increasingly dicey, and I got more and more sure that I had taken a wrong turn somewhere.  I dug back to my college intro Spanish class to try to remember how to say “I don’t have any money in my shoe wallet and you wouldn’t be able to get more than about ten cents if you tried to sell these nasty, worn out running shoes on the black market.”  But alas, I was not lost.  Pretty soon I found some other runners and was reassured that my navigation was right and everything was copacetic. 

Thumbs Up
Since Miami gets hot fast, even in January, the race started before sunrise.  Around 7AM the course went up a long stretch of South Beach.  The people you generally see wandering around South Beach at 7AM are not there because they woke up at 6 and are getting an early start on the day.  They’re still out from the night before.  I saw a guy carrying his pants and belt in his hands.  And hoards of beautiful people stumbling around.  It was pretty funny to get cheered along by the South Beach crowds.  “Cheered” is probably not exactly the right word.  More like “ruthlessly mocked.”  Like, “holy crap, look at this hoard of idiots who came to Miami, went to bed at 9:00 on a Saturday and woke up at 5:00 to spend four hours running through a wall of humidity.”  Different strokes for different folks, I guess.  Maybe they have a point.     

Thumbs Down
The corporate sponsorship for this race – ING – was almost more than I could handle.  They stared beating you over the head with it the moment you logged on to register.  Your application was not complete, and could not be submitted, until you completed questions about you occupation, income, whether you were the primary financial decision maker in your family, if you would like to be contacted by a financial planner, and whether you would like to be registered to win a Nissan Leaf.  There was not a “NO!  Just let me sign up for the goddamned race” button.  So I entered as much fake demographic information as I could and powered through.  I also can’t stand Ryan Hall, the new spokesperson for Nissan who’s been hawking product in every running-related publication released this year.  Yeah, yeah, god told you to run around a lake and is your best friend and keeps you company during every difficult moment of every race, nice for you.  

Bottom Line
Corporate sponsorship at its worst.  Good excuse to go check out Miami.  Stay hydrated and try not to get mugged.  Be prepared to get laughed at if you go out to dinner before 10PM. 

Mt. Desert Island Marathon, Bar Harbor, ME, October 16, 2011
When people ask me which marathon was my favorite, I always respond, honestly, that I can’t really say, that they’re all just different.  But if forced to choose one favorite, this might be it.  Every step of this marathon weekend adventure felt completely from the heart.  The race organizer is one guy who’s been putting on this race since its inception.  The winner gets free entry into the marathon for life.  The expo featured John Parker, author of “Once a Runner,” which is sort of a running cult classic novel / memoir.  Parker is one of those famous to a tiny but fiercely loyal sub-strata of the population.  Even the couple that owns the bed and breakfast where I was staying wanted to know everything about the marathon day schedule so they could help get me everything I needed.  And the course is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.  It snakes around the perimeter of Acadia National Park and is almost entirely on the coast.  At every turn, the view of the ocean is even more spectacular than the last one.  Martha Stewart supposedly has a house somewhere outside of Bar Harbor.  Based on how almost appallingly cute Bar Harbors is, that’s believable. For a small race, there was huge spectator turn-out in all of the little towns we passed through.  The course is also brutally difficult.  There are substantial hills throughout, but the clincher comes at the end – a four mile steep uphill climb to the finish.  To show off a little bit, the course website shows an elevation map superimposed over the elevation map from the Boston marathon.  The last hill is twice as long and twice as steep as Heartbreak Hill.  Suck on that, Boston.  Overall, this marathon was a demonstration of everything I love about running and running events.  It was done for the love of running and was completely devoid of any corporate, for-profit junk.  That combined with what has to be some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere on the east coast makes this a marathon that should absolutely be on any marathoner’s bucket list. 

Thumbs Up
I have never before experienced a shower like the one I had at the Acadia House Inn, where I stayed the night before the race.  It had about 30 nozzles that simultaneously blasted every centimeter of your skin with boiling hot, pin-prick sharp streams of water.  After a marathon – paradise.   The owners, Anna and Ralph, were as accommodating as anyone ever could have been.  They told an obnoxious family to pipe down when I was trying to sleep the night before, made sure my dinner had everything I wanted, and let me come back late in the afternoon, after the race, to take one more shower before hitting the road.     

Thumbs Down
You can’t get there from here.  Bar Harbor doesn’t look that far from Boston on the map, but it takes a while to get there.  And back.  Of all the advice columns I’ve read in Runners’ World over the years, I’ve never seen one recommending getting right into your car after a race and driving five hours to get home.  There’s a reason for that.  Oh, and no free beer at the end of the race.  Minor detail.  I’m just sayin.

Bottom Line
If you do one marathon on the east coast, do this one.  And if you ever want to feel smug and self-satisfied about being able to run hills, and want to turn your nose up when you hear people telling epic stories about Heartbreak Hill, this is the one for you. 

Grandma’s Marathon, Duluth, MN, June 18, 2011

Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth is famous in running circles.  I don’t know why, exactly, but whenever you say the word “Grandma’s,” every runner knows what you’re talking about.  The name comes from an Italian restaurant in Duluth that has sponsored the race since its inception.  It’s not that lots of old ladies run the race.  The course is a point to point, starting a ways out of town and following the coast of Lake Superior almost the whole time and ending in Canal Park, a nice re-habbed area with breweries and parks and bike rental kiosks and other fun, touristy stuff.  The course is net downhill and fast.  It was the first point-to-point race I had done where you have to take a bus out of town to the start line and then run back.  The bus ride out is pretty unnerving.  It just takes a very long time. And you can’t help but think the whole time, “man, are we really going to run this whole way back?”  There are almost no spectators at all along the course, because it’s mostly out in the middle of nowhere.  But that makes it even more exciting to hit the crowds when you finally reach Duluth and snake through a bunch of downtown streets.  By the time the runners reach town, folks are all riled up (and seemingly pretty well lubricated from a long, early day of drinking).  We passed a few bands, a group of not-so-small, not-so-talented (but extremely enthusiastic) belly dancers and a “Bacon Station” where drunk college kids were handing out strips of bacon to runners.  Hadn’t seen that one before.  To their credit, they were very sanitary – latex gloves, tongs and everything.   

Thumbs Up
Good expo.  Good after-party.  Nice scenery.  Fun all-around atmosphere.

Thumbs Down
Egregious (but, gotta hand it to them, pretty ballsy) hotel mark-up.  The Holiday Inn downtown was two hundred something dollars a night.  I’m guessing that just about any other weekend of the year, it would be more like $70.  On the other hand, they had hung decorations in honor of the race, and set up a hospitality suite with free Cokes and candy.  So, OK, you fork out some extra bucks for VIP treatment. 

Bottom Line
Just a very fun atmosphere, which is why I think the race is so famous.  It’s a good time, from the heart and no-one seems to take themselves too seriously.  If you’re planning to visit Duluth, I’d suggest that marathon time – mid-June – is a good time to go.  Better than, say, February. 

Livestrong Marathon, Austin, TX, February 20, 2011

Austin is about the only place in Texas that has ever had any appeal to me.  So I went down in February to check it out and run in the LiveStrong Austin marathon.  I have three friends who live in Austin, and so I got to hang out with some friendly people who know me well and got a good insider's tour of the area.  The city was everything I had hoped it would be - palpably funky and weird, and with music oozing out everywhere.  A motel in SoCo (S. Congress Street) advertised itself as "so close yet so far out."  I went to Cabelas Sporting Goods and saw what has got to be the longest gun counter in the world.  And I got to watch a round of chicken shit bingo at Ginny's Little Roadsie Saloon - a sort of shack / bar that has free hot dogs and its own free hot dog theme song - "the best... hot dogs... aroooouund." As always, I obsessively scoped out the marathon starting area and found a room in a hotel that was one block away.  The race started at the state capital building, an impressive, Texas-sized monument.  It was a huge race, and fun to run through the streets of downtown with thousands of other people.  The course criss-crossed the whole city, passing through some of the funky parts of town, with lots of people watching and yelling (my favorite chant from the crowd was "left!  right!  left!  right!”) and then out into some more suburban, residential parts.  It was a warm day and I was pretty spent by the end of the race.  Near the end, half-way through  the University of Texas campus, I broke down and had to walk a bit.  I walked up the big hill a quarter mile from the end and jogged through the finish line.  I had learned through Facebook (HA, to you Facebook nay-sayers) that a friend from Oklahoma was going to be running the marathon.  And, miraculously, we ran into each other in the post-finish throng.  Really fun all-around trip.  If I ever need to go back to Texas, I hope it'll be Austin.

Outer Banks Marathon, Kitty Hawk, NC, November 14, 2010

November is way off season in the Outer Banks, so I was able to find a six bedroom house the week of the marathon, right on the beach, for dirt cheap. I couldn’t quite fill it up, but six of us from Boston and DC made the trip down. I don’t know what the weather is usually like this time of year, but the weekend of the marathon it was just about perfect running weather. Upper 50s to low 60s, and not a cloud in the sky. The marathon starts in Kitty Hawk and ends in Manteo. It’s a point to point race, so you get to see a pretty good portion of the outer banks. The terrain was mostly flat, but varied. Some neighborhoods, a little highway, some genuine trail running through the woods and a lot of water views. The outer banks is a very thin strip of sand. The race zigzags back and forth between the ocean side and the interior side, so you got to see a lot of water and get a good sense of what the area is all about. At around mile 21, you cross a three mile long bridge, which is flat for a while but then slopes up severely. For me personally, this was my best marathon ever. Not my fastest - I finished two minutes slower than my best - but I have never felt so good after. Don’t know what it was, but kept waiting for the inevitable pain and collapse towards the end of the race, but it just never happened. The later miles kept ticking by and I even sped up for the last three miles. There was a nice festival atmosphere at the end. A good band. Lots of people. Lots of food. And free beer! How can you beat that? 1600 people finished the marathon. More than twice as many finished the half-marathon, which is the second half of the full marathon course. The combination of first names printed on the bibs, and fans hanging out in front yards along almost the entire course, made for lots of good cheering.

Thumbs up. Very excited, genuine-sounding crowds (“Daaan, go Daaaan! We’re so glad you’re heeer! - and this coming from complete strangers). Free beer at the end. Nice scenery, varied terrain, and some funny sites, like a church with a Subway sub shop and a chain of drive through liquor stores called the Brew Through.

Thumbs down. A bit more chain store, highway running than is optimal. Lazy finishers’ certificates. Used to be you got a nice certificate in the mail, on nice paper, with your name and time. Then, for supposedly environmental reasons (budget reasons is what I suspect), races started e-mailing PDF certificates instead that you could print. Outer Banks e-mailed a Word doc with a space for your name and time. You enter the information yourself, print it out, and voila. Doesn’t make you feel too special.

Bottom line. Nice part of the country. Fun, varied point-to-point route. Free beer!

Charlevoix Marathon, Charlevoix, MI, June 26, 2010

I’ve got video footage from this trip. Check out the movie here.

Charlevoix is way the hell up in northern Michigan, just south of the upper peninsula. The marathon is a very low key event with about 500 runners, starting in town and going up and down the coast of Lake Michigan. I picked this race for no other reason than because it fell at the right time on the calendar. I had planned to run the Fargo, North Dakota marathon, got a minor achilles tendon injury, fixed it, did the Fargo half marathon instead, and was chomping at the bit to do another full marathon as soon as possible. This one fit the bill. I flew into Grand Rapids, drove three and a half hours and found a room at a B&B that turned out to be right at the start line (really right at the start line, like 12 feet away). A nearby church had a spaghetti dinner the night before, where I met a bunch of friendly folks and insane runners. Charlevoix is a very cute town. Looks like a pretty upscale vacation area in a not very upscale part of the state. The race turned out to be fabulous, completely worth the long trip. Totally unassuming. Fun, enthusiastic runners and beautiful views of the lake during almost all of the race. I hadn’t trained as much as I usually do, and so had planned to take it slow and steady, with a goal of just not conking out before the finish line.

Thumbs up. Like a lot of small races, this one was very heartfelt. No fancy corporate sponsors or equipment, but lots of soul. Very few iPods. Felt like we were all in this together. The crowds were sparse but amazingly enthusiastic and persistent. A lot of people would set up camp at a bunch of places along the route, stopping to cheer, driving a few miles and getting out again. The loudest group was following someone named Jen. The first time I saw them I told them that my friends called me Jen, and, for the rest of the race, they yelled and screamed for me like a long lost daughter.

Thumbs down. Friends from Michigan had warned me (and laughed hard at my expense, making me very nervous) that the black flies in northern Michigan that time of year were horrible - as big as birds, with stingers like mosquitoes, and un-deterred by anything short of thick denim clothes. It turned out not to be true at all. Maybe my friends were messin’ with me. Maybe I just missed the season. In any case, my biggest worry turned out not to be an issue at all. I was also amazed at the $189 price tag for the fine-but-nothing-fancy B&B. I guess the capitalist American spirit and the laws of supply and demand apply even in rural Michigan.

Bottom line. Beautiful scenery. Great people. Way way off the beaten path. For a low-key, out of the way event, this was just about perfect.

Philadelphia Marathon, Philadelphia PA, November 22, 2009

The Philadelphia Marathon is a big race that takes you all around the city and through some of the outlying areas. Philly has a nice feel to it - not quite as whitewashed as Boston, and with an obviously active arts community. People joked about being scared to run through some of the neighborhoods on the route, but they all seemed fine to me. Maybe would have been different if the race started at 2AM. The marathon starts right in front of the Rocky stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The crowd packs into corrals on the wide, flag-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Tiered starting times are actually enforced, based on color coded bibs, which is good because there were some very tight portions of the course. The first half of the race winds around a bunch of different neighborhoods, all very urban and dense. The halfway point is back near the start, and the second half of the race veers North of town, out to the zoo and up to Manayunk, a newly hipster-fied neighborhood of former warehouses. Starting at mile 20, you turn around and head down a long, lonely road next to the Schuylkill River, making your way to the finish. It was a pretty chilly late-November day when I ran this race. But apparently nothing like the year before, when it was below zero and dumping snow the whole time. I set a new personal best in Philly, despite starting off too fast and crashing, run/walking the last few miles. Good time, but I felt horrible and delirious (not good delirious either) after.

Thumbs up. Fun way to see Philly. You go through so many different kinds of areas, that you really get a good sense of the feel of the whole city. The start / half / end point is in a perfect area for a big race. Very regal and historic-feeling. Pretty thick and enthusiastic crowds in certain areas, especially towards the beginning, in Manayunk and at the end. Nicest finisher medals I’ve seen yet. Easy access to a million restaurants right after you finish. And kudos to the Hotel Palomar, where we stayed, for laying out a whole early-morning spread for the runners, including the most artistic arrangement of Gu I’ve ever encountered.

Thumbs down. Pretty lonely course towards the end. Might have been nice to do the isolated part of the course first and then go through the denser parts of downtown. It’s also a bit of a bummer to have to follow the half-marathoners back to the starting area and watch them finish. A big portion of the runners smile and cross the finish, and the rest keep plodding along, knowing they still have to cover the distance of a second half-marathon.

Bottom line. Excellent way to check out Philadelphia. Easy access to fine art and cheesesteaks. Big question mark as to what the weather will be like.

Yuengling Shamrock Marathon, Virginia Beach, VA, March 2009

This was a very exciting marathon for me personally because I ran the whole way and finished in under four hours (3 hours, 57 minutes, 1 second, in case you need to know for your detailed records on my progress). I know, running the whole time in a marathon doesn’t seem like such a huge accomplishment. Isn’t that just what you’re supposed to do? It is, but it was a first for me. Having run the whole race and finished without any United States military intervention (more details on that later), I felt like this was my first marathon that didn’t have any footnotes or require any “yeah, but” kind of caveat. Breaking four hours in a marathon is sort of a big deal in a rookie kind of way. It’s like beating someone at golf because you have a 25 handicap, or getting to take home the game ball from a junior varsity football game.

Thumbs up. The route: Flat as a pancake, pretty, with a five mile stretch along a boardwalk right on the ocean and another long stretch through some dense forests, and lots of shopping (if you were in the market for beachwear, a piercing or a tequila shot). Bizarre signs: There were signs all along the course with random tidbits like “how do they get teflon to stick to the pan” and “man who go through airport turnstile sideways always going to Bangkok.” Odd, but they made me chuckle. Names printed on race bibs: Great touch, since it meant that spectators could yell out runners’ names without the runners having to be all vain and writing their names on their shirts themselves.

Thumbs down. McDonalds as a corporate sponsor: I get it; you have to get cash where you can, but really, McDonalds? Don’t get me wrong; McDonalds is one of my favorite restaurants in the world. But they couldn’t settle with just throwing their logo on the tee shirt. They had a whole exhibit at the pre-race expo extolling the nutritional virtues of McDonalds food as a component of marathon training. And that just doesn’t even pass the laugh test. Executive finish line seating: For $60 per person, you could get into a luxury tent with reserved seating at the finish line. Nice to have some food waiting for you when you get done, but how about a little we’re-all-in-this-together team spirit? It’s kind of a shame to have to filter out the hoi polloi in what should be a nice communal event.

Bottom line. As flat a course as is physically possible. Lots of places to get a tattoo.

Japan Airlines Marathon, Honolulu, HI, December 2008

I injured myself in connection with this marathon. Not during the marathon itself, but on the last day of our vacation when I ran down a nice sandy beach into the ocean, only to discover that the “nice sandy” component of the beach turned into “big damn rocks” right when you entered into the water. I banged both of my heels on the rocks, couldn’t walk normally for two weeks and had to get checked out by an orthopedist. None of this had anything to do with the marathon, of course, but it demonstrates the point that you don’t have to be the sharpest knife in the drawer to run a marathon. The Honolulu marathon starts at 5AM on Waikiki Beach, goes up the base of Diamond Head volcano and up and down the southern coast of Oahu. The foremost concern of the organizers is that the heat will be too much for the slovenly mainlanders and that half the runners will drop dead before finishing. The heat wasn’t bad for the first part of the race because it was pouring rain. When the rain stopped and the temperature and humidity rose to 80 degrees and 100 percent, respectively, it got tough. It was impossible to drink enough water or to get my NipGuards to stay on (I’m not going to get into what those are right now; here’s a link to the website if you must know: and I swear some weird native fungus kind of thing had already started to grow in my shoes by the time I got to the finish line.

Thumbs up. It’s Hawaii: How could anything not be completely wonderful when you’re in Hawaii? If I were a garbage man, or a leper, or in prison, I am positive that I would still be happy if I were in Hawaii. So, the race organizers had a pretty easy task here. The runners were going to love the race no matter what. Plus, what could possibly be cooler when you mention in an off-handed kind of way that you’re training for a marathon, and someone says, “where?”, and you get to say, “in Hawaii”? Just doesn’t get any better than that. Fireworks at the start line: Very inspiring to run through them right as you begin the race (also a bit strange, the start line being about a mile from Pearl Harbor). Barack Obama and family: Barack’s little sister spoke before the start of the race, and he and the rest of the family got into town the day we were leaving Hawaii. We didn’t get to see him, but it was fun to know that had he actually been watching the race and seen me go by, the new president would surely have been jumping up and down yelling, “yeah Dan, looking strong, you da MAN!”

Thumbs down. Tour groups: A huge portion of the runners were a part of tour groups. From what I could tell, they signed up for tours that included airfare, accommodations, bus transportation to the start line, an official commemorative, collectible photo and probably a continental breakfast. And it looked like most of these people had not trained at all. A huge number of people finished in over eight hours. Now I don’t mean to be a snob here, but eight hours is really a long time. There’s no shame in having to walk at some point during a marathon, but there should be a little shame when you have to start walking at around mile 6 (ugh, well, just 20.2 more miles to go). On the other hand, my percentile ranking was higher than in any other race I had done. Same philosophy as hanging out with fatter people if you want to look skinnier. If you want to feel fast, run in a marathon where most of the other “runners” are walking.

Bottom line. It’s in Hawaii, and Hawaii is the best place on Earth. Not the most inspiring crowd, but see previous sentence.

Marine Corps Marathon, Washington, DC, October 2007

The Marine Corps marathon is huge. Something like 40,000 people run it each year. As advertised, it’s run by the Marines so, as you can imagine, it is, logistically, the tightest ship you’re ever going to see. Never in my life have a seen as straight and smooth-moving a line of people as the line for the shuttle bus to the start line. And the good men and women of the United States military were nothing but helpful to me when my legs gave out and I collapsed about 20 feet from the finish line (yes, 20 FEET). The way I remember the situation, a few Marines ran right over, helped me up, shoved me off and watched as I took the last few steps to the finish line. Not so. And I can’t just lie about it, because the whole thing was documented by video and posted on the Washington Post website (stupid finish line webcam). Turns out, I flopped across the finish line with my arms draped over the shoulders of two soldiers. Not the most noble way to end a race, but nice to know that the military has got my back covered.

Thumbs up. The course: Very scenic, and you really know you’re in the capital of the United States. The route takes you through Georgetown, across the Potomac River twice and past just about every major monument in the city. The runners: Just the sheer number of people running in the race is inspiring. It being run by the Marines, there are a lot of people running in full uniform, including combat boots, and carrying flags and big backpacks. Makes you feel like a big wimp wearing shorts and running shoes. The high-tech timing chips: As with most races, each runner has a shoe chip that records the runner’s time at various intervals along the course. The technology for this race went one step further, sending out status update emails throughout the race. Sounded cool, but because of some kind of glitch, the emails didn’t go out until about two hours after they were supposed to. I hope they don’t use the same system to track, say, the arrival of troops in Fallujah.

Thumbs down. Soul: Not the most heartfelt atmosphere. It felt like what it was, an event put on by the military. Sort of the running equivalent of the scene in Spinal Tap when the army liaison is showing the band around the air force base before their gig. Or what I imagine a folk festival would feel like where Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were the social planners. Clothing swag: One of the primary reasons people run marathons – second only to the personal satisfaction of completing a 26 mile run – is the free tee shirt you always get. A typical running wardrobe is made up almost entirely of wicking tech fabric running shirts that show off to other runners what big events you’ve completed. The Marine Corps Marathon shirt last year was a brown, cotton, long sleeve turtleneck. Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but what’s that all about? Extra protection in case you get trapped in your car overnight after sliding off the road into a snow bank?

Bottom line. Impeccably organized. Not a lot of soul. Great way to explore the nation’s capital.

KeyBank Vermont City Marathon, Burlington, VT, May 2007, May 2008

This was the first marathon I ran, and the best, at least in terms of atmosphere. I liked it so much I came back for a second go the next year. The town of Burlington exudes a wonderful vibe of Vermont college town hippy-dippyness, which spills over into the marathon. The course weaves all through town, criss-crossing the downtown pedestrian mall several times, and it feels like every single person in town comes out to support the runners. Everyone along the course cheers in whatever individual way works best – beating on a cowbell or on some pots and pans, playing in a jam band, dressing up like a gorilla or a transvestite. Anything and everything. There is music everywhere along the route. A 30 person Japanese drumming group sets up next to the biggest hill of the race, providing some extra motivation right when needed most. People set up chairs in their front yards to cheer and pass out orange slices and spray the runners with garden hoses. It’s a whole continuous hodge-podge of weirdness, and it’s great!

Thumbs up. Spirit: This event is really from the heart. It’s much less corporate than any of the other races I’ve run in and, as a runner, you feel like the town is genuinely excited that you’re there. And for originality points, there’s a relay team that runs the race every year dressed in a full-body banana suit (in warmer years, I wouldn’t be too excited to be the last guy to have to zip into said sweaty banana suit). Scenery: Lots of great views of Lake Champlain, the center of Burlington and some of the hilly surrounding areas. Music: Good tunes everywhere, and all over the map. Hillbilly bluegrass, hippy jam band, Japanese drumming, DJ house grooves, kids banging on pots and pans. Very appropriate for the town that produced Phish.

Thumbs down. None! This is an all around great marathon. The only potential danger is that, if you have any inclination towards off-the-grid hippydom, you might drop out of the race around mile 18, move in with some University of Vermont drop-outs and spend the rest of your life working on a goat cheese farm and just chillin’ out. You meet a lot of people in Burlington who came to town for a weekend visit and then somehow let twenty years slip by.

Bottom line. Fun, enthusiastic and organic. A little hilly. Will make you want to drop off the grid.