Early in the planning out of races for the 50 states journey, the Phoenix marathon had always stood out to me as the race that I wanted to do in Arizona. The race was a point to point that started out in the desert and then made its way into town. So I kept it marked as a “preferred race” on my tracker as we went through planning. Years went by and honestly it seemed like I had just forgotten about the southwest portion of the country as those states just remained unfilled on my map. I really think the issue is that I knew I wanted to do this race and since it was early February, with our work schedules it made it harder to just take a long weekend shortly after the holidays.
But as we are approaching the 50 states, we needed to find a way to make it happen. Luckily with living in Minnesota, and the super cold winters, everyone in the house was looking for a reason to get out to some warm weather. Kaela and I planned to head to Arizona for the race, while David, Hillary and the kids decided they would head to Texas just to get out of the brutal winter we had been having. So with that, the Mesa Marathon (previously the Phoenix Marathon) was on the calendar for 2023.
February 4, 2023
As I previously mentioned, the winter had been rough so far in Minnesota. There were many weeks of runs under 0 F and the windchill getting below -10 F often. Luckily Kaela and I already had a little bit of a break from it. We made our way to Florida for Christmas break. We did have a little bit of travel hiccup on the way down, getting caught up in the “Southwest Airlines disaster of Christmas”. After a delayed flight from Minneapolis and then a delay that turned into a cancellation at our connecting in Nashville, we were able to rent a car and start the drive south. We stayed with the Tsai family (if you remember back from Georgia blog) just outside Atlanta. We arrived just before Santa and then we spent Christmas morning with the family before making the drive down to Dunedin, Florida.
The weather was cool when we arrived in Florida but it was much better than the few feet of snow that Minnesota was about to get. We spent just time relaxing around the pool, the beach, taking morning walks and me getting a few longer runs in. It was nice to get away even though it was tough being there without Bella as had been the case for our previous Florida trips. The trip extended through the holidays because I was running the Dopey Challenge at Walt Disney with Chad and Josh. If you aren’t familiar with the Dopey Challenge, it’s a 5k on Thursday, 10k on Friday, half marathon on Saturday and then the full marathon on Sunday. 48.6 miles over the 4 races and all taking place at the happiest place on earth! We had an absolute blast, both on and off the race course. You can check out my podcast about the race or some more pictures.
Coming off Dopey and heading back to Minnesota, I only had four weeks until the Mesa Marathon so my plan was to take a few days off before just trying to get into a slight maintenance mode of running. The weather had been pretty cold during this time causing me to have to head to the Savage sports center to do some indoor miles, just running the .22 loop over and over. But I was able to keep my legs moving and things felt good. I started to feel some tightness in my hip flexors and the tendon under my right foot that had caused issues back in 2021. I kept focused on my stretching and stride to make sure I was being smart knowing the long year of races ahead of me.
Since the race was on Saturday, we decided to just fly in on Friday morning. We had originally booked this race for Bella to join us so we picked the only non-stop that Southwest had offered to prevent having a layover. So our flight was at 5:05 am which made for an early morning. We had our driver from a local rideshare company to pick us up at 3:45 am to take us to the airport. We were going to just schedule an Uber/Lyft for the morning as we didn’t want Kurt to have to be up that early to drive out to us, but we worried that we wouldn’t have a guaranteed ride as being out in the burbs we don’t have many drivers just hanging out at those hours. But once he had picked us up, he had let us know the mornings were his time as he had 2 more after he dropped us off to take folks to the airport.
We arrived at the airport, went through a 2 minute security line (always recommend TSA pre-check) and after a quick bathroom trip and water fill up, we were in line to board. All of our travel has allowed us to time out this process pretty well to prevent any additional “sitting around” time that isn’t needed. We got boarded, sat in our seats and Kaela took her cold meds. We both had been a little under the weather, I was on the way out of mine but Kaela was still in the thick of it. I put on my headphones and started up the audiobook of Brene Brown “Dare to Lead”.
There is something about flying and watching the sunrise to show the beauty that is all around us. Flying over mountains then desert, I was like a kid in a candy store just staring out the window taking it all in. Once we landed, we made our way to our Turo car pick up spot and then headed out to breakfast. We found this small local spot called Harlow’s Cafe in Tempe. We walked into classic diner vibes with locals just enjoying their morning coffee before starting their day. Kaela had gotten some huge pancakes and I opted for a standard egg breakfast, even though the green chile meals sounded delicious but thought twice about doing that pre-race.
After breakfast we really just had free time until the expo opened. We drove down University Blvd, taking in Arizona State University and then all the neighborhoods that followed. We talked about this area as a possible future living location and talked about the kinds of things that we would want in this area. After about 15 minutes in one direction, we switched it up and headed back towards the expo. We stopped by Walmart for some bagels and fruit for race day before making it over to the packet pickup. The pickup was at Sloan park, which was the home for the Chicago Cubs for Spring Training. We walked around the main level of the stadium, picking up my bib, t-shirt and checking out some of the vendors. I’m sure I’ll say this a few more times throughout this but the Mesa Marathon has things together from an organizational standpoint. The efficiencies with their communication, website, app, tracking and now the pickup/expo; it had all been on point and much appreciated.
The bib pickup line was set up by last names and every line was at least 15-20 people deep until we made it to the “F-G” line, where there was only one person in front of me. It looked like local ROTC was working the pickup line and gave all the instructions and ushered us down to get shirts. At the shirt booths we were also provided arm warmers as another piece of swag for the race. The race was prepared for the “cold” weather that would be at the start and provided some gloves and these arm warmers to help keep folks comfy. To be clear, the cold was a start in the mid-40’s which would feel like a beautiful spring day for me after how the last few weeks of training went.
After a few photos and checking out the other booths, my stomach started stirring and I needed to find a bathroom. I checked the ones at the ballpark but they were locked. I worked on getting my mind off of it but will power wasn’t going to help in this situation. We reached out to our Airbnb to let us know if we could check in early and they said they would message us once the place was cleaned. Kaela was still full from breakfast but we decided that we should just go by a lunch place and have a drink and then once I was hungry I could order some food as well. We ended up at Four Peaks Brewing Company in Tempe.
Kaela enjoyed her sorbet mimosa while I sipped on a delicious IPA as we just chatted about life. With our future living plans still very up in the air, we talked more about locations and things around that. After a little while, I started to get a little hungry and decided to order the veggie pizza. It was made with a pesto sauce as I was still playing it safe after my suspicions that red sauce caused a lot of my issues back in Colorado. The pizza hit the spot, loaded with veggies with tons of flavor. We got a box for a few slices that we couldn’t get down, knowing that they would make for a great post race snack.
We were hoping our place would be ready by the time we left lunch, but no luck, so we made our way to a park just down the street. We parked, opened up the car windows and reclined back our seats to relax just waiting for the text. About two hours later, just an hour prior to normal check in time, we were told the place was ready for us. We made the 3 minute drive to our place and got settled in. The place was in a super convenient location and was the perfect amount of space for us. We got connected to the internet and set up the Roku so we could just kick our feet up until it was time to go to dinner.
The week prior, I had noticed on the story of an Instagram friend a post about the Mesa marathon. I took a look at her instagram posts and saw all her recent running posts had the Mesa marathon hashtag. I reached out to confirm my suspicions and she confirmed that her and her husband were running the race. I had asked if they had an opportunity I’d love to meet up in real life. She had mentioned that the kids were going to be with the grandparents so they would be up for dinner pre-race if we were. And so we made it happen.
Kaela and I were fashionably a few minutes late (NCIS was to blame) to join Annie and Justin at Perfect Pear Bistro in Tempe. We spent the evening just talking through all sorts of topics just getting to know each other a little better. The waitress didn’t seem thrilled to have our table as it took her a few visits to the table for us to get our act together and actually order. Kaela ordered a quinoa bowl and I went with a standard pre-race dinner pasta dish. The evening was so much fun just getting to spend time with some really cool people. There is something about meeting folks on social media and hearing their story, but in the few times that I have gotten to meet those same people IRL, it’s been a game changer and dinner was no exception.
When our food came, everything looked delicious but Kaela and I failed to pay attention to what I had ordered. It didn’t cross either of our minds that the Tuscan pasta dish that I ordered would have come in a red sauce. Kaela offered to switch dishes but I said I’d stick with what I ordered and hope for better stomach issues (which spoiler, the stomach was much better handling this time). At the end of dinner we wished them luck at the race as I was unsure if I’d see them again at the start and let them know to look out for Kaela in her Bella hoodie with a camera so she could capture some action shots of them.
Back at our place I put together my bib holder with my gels and started to lay everything out while Kaela was cleaning up. The race wasn’t an early start but it did have the requirement of being bused to the start, which meant we needed to be out the door early but not that I needed to eat everything before leaving. So I put together the items that I would want pre-race that would turn into my drop bag and then packed up another bag with the items that Kaela would carry with her. We watched a little bit of TV before calling it a night.
The alarm went off at 3:30 am and went through my normal routine. I had a Honey Stinger waffle while listening to my pre-race mix on Spotify. I had packed a bagel for the bus ride but I wanted to get something down so I wasn’t having to rush the calories. I spent a little bit of time deciding between the two outfits I had packed based on the weather. Even though it was going to be a cooler start, it would warm up nicely so I went with the tank and my runrabbit shorty shorts. I would be wearing my jacket from the Fargo marathon as a throwaway to keep me warm until the start of the race.
We made it out the door a little after 4am to head to the bus area. Per Google, it should have only been a 10 minute drive but when we were about 1.5 miles out, the traffic just came to a halt. Things didn’t seem to be moving at all. I grabbed Kaela’s phone and looked for a way around it. Many of the roads leading to the area were dark red on traffic but I found one that could work. We took a quick detour south to University Blvd and then a side road back up near Rio Salado Parkway. Kaela dropped me off one block south so she could make her way. I gave her a kiss, made sure I had everything and walked up to the line of buses.
The participants lined up next to the buses as they had a process to load a few buses at a time. So we walked down the sidewalk for what seemed like forever, to turn back around and end up exactly where we started to get on a bus, when folks that were later, were able to just jump right on. All things considered it was nice to loosen up legs before getting on a school bus for a 30+ min ride up to the start. I ended up getting to sit by myself on the bus which was nice to have a little bit more room while I ate my bagel and listened to others’ convos. Lots of conversations about this race and others that people had done. It can be fun hearing folks obviously trying to one up each other with the races or distances they have done, always waiting for the break in the other person so they could jump in with “yeah that reminds me of that one race that I did except a lot harder.”
About 20 minutes in, my stomach started gurgling. I tried to keep myself calm thinking that we were going to be there soon but with every turn, I got more antsy. Come to find out we actually came up on the backside of the course which is why it took so much longer than expected. Once we parked, a volunteer let us know that the buses would be staying here so we could stay warm and that the porta potties and bag drop was just down near the start. I couldn’t get off the bus any faster and I weaved in and out of folks getting off other buses to make it to the porta potties. The first set had long lines so I kept moving down towards the end of the 30+ that they had on each side of the road. The last 5 or so had one person in line and I was in within a couple minutes.
After taking care of business, I made my way around the starting area to see what was going on. They had a ton of gas heaters in the middle of the road that had folks bundled around to help with the breeze that was coming on top of the ridge. The start of the race was at the Usery Mountain regional park overlooking the valley. I did a little bit of dynamic stretching before getting my bag ready to drop off. I applied another layer of 2Toms before putting it and the gym shorts that I had worn for the bus in my drop bag and handed it off to the volunteers. I went down to the start and back to get a little jog in and to make sure my shoes were feeling good. I had switched recently to a new pair of my Vongos and wanted to make sure there were no hot spots with the laces. I had spotted Justin and Annie around the sub-4 hour pace sign and chatted with them for a little bit and wished them luck before making my way back. My A goal for the day was 4:20 with a B goal of just having a great time. My training had been going really well and with the downhill course, I felt like it was a doable goal but I wasn’t going to hold on to it just because and I wanted to make sure that I enjoyed myself above all else.
I made my way back to the 4:20 pace group as I took my pre-race gel. The announcer had asked if any volunteers wanted to sing the national anthem and the girl that came up absolutely killed it. Not sure if it was staged but either way, she could sing! They hit us with the countdown and then lit off fireworks to get the day started! As I walked down to the start with the crowd, I said a quick prayer for my health and mental focus on the race, but most of all for Kaela and this being the first race without Bella. I held my necklace which was now not only holding my cross but also a pendant with Bella’s ashes that was going to be with me for every step of the race.
The first four miles of the race were downhill, the first 2 of which were the steepest. I had watched some videos about the race on their facebook page, and got a good gauge of how to pace each section of the race, so I let gravity do what it does, but I didn’t let myself fly down the mountain. It was a dark start but the almost full moon was guiding us down the road. It shone like a giant light just over the mountain ridge to our right as we made it down. The start of the race was still a little breezy so I had kept my jacket on, but just before mile 1, I made the move to take it off and drop it. Sometimes I find being a little uncomfortably cold to start can help wake up a bit faster. I had kept my little wool gloves with me that the race had provided as I knew these could come in handy in future races for the start. As we looked toward the valley, we could see the cities light up below with all the lights just glimmering like stars beneath us.
We took a right off the mountain road around 1.5 miles in and started to make our way west towards Mesa. This race was challenging not only from the long descent to start the race, but also because of the curving of the roads and having to switch from right and left sides. I had been trying to have my right leg lower to help with my ankle but here I had to switch back and forth. Around 2.5 miles in I had caught up and easily passed the 4:20 pace group. I was clicking off much faster than anticipated but I knew what was coming up and was letting gravity help me now before it became the thing I loathed. Kaela was posted up around mile 3.5 taking pictures as I approached. I had thrown her my gloves as now that the sun was completely up they were no longer needed.
Making the turn at mile 4, we started our climb. From that video I mentioned earlier, the coach said that any time that you gained during the first 4 miles, you would almost lose in the 1.8 miles coming up and then the rest of the course would be downhill with a few little blips. The grade wasn’t anything crazy but it did not let up. I found the same effort level that I had going at the start and just kept myself moving. There were a handful of spectators at each street crossing cheering us on. There were also some aggravated folks that lived in the neighborhood that were trying to leave but had no option with the sea of runners. The neighborhood was made up of nice houses that I made a mental note to show Kaela the next day.
At around 5.8 miles in, we topped the hill and it was well received. The grade down was similar to the start, so with the effort that it took to get up the hill, I started to fly down it. I was careful not to over do it but I didn’t want to stop myself as I knew the hills were going to do a number on my quads. Just before mile 8 we turned out of the neighborhood and Kaela was in front cheering me on by. She had asked if I needed anything but everything was feeling good so I just kept powering on. She said she had to run a mile to see me and made a joking comment about me not running too fast. After a short straight away, we approached the next community we were going to run through. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something big and then noticed a large coyote sitting on the edge of a lake. Or was it? After my initial shock I realized it was a stuffed coyote that I realized was to keep animals off the golf course as it was sitting just off the edge of a tee box.
The next mile in this neighborhood was one of my favorites. There were hundreds of signs lining the street, some with your typical race sayings like “you paid for this” and then others that made me chuckle like “run like her husband just got home”. Someone said to a volunteer that they appreciated the signs every year so I figured this must be a tradition with the neighborhood. My stomach had been making some noise the past 20 minutes so I decided I would use this opportunity to use a porta potty. I thought that perhaps Kaela wasn’t joking and that me stopping would give her time to get over to her next stop (yeah I did it for her lol). Back on the road I enjoyed reading all the signs as we continued downhill.
Coming out of the neighborhood and heading south, I saw Kaela standing in the median with her phone on the ground. She let me know that our niece was on Facetime and as I approached I could see the whole family waving and cheering me on. After the race Kaela let me know that she did indeed have to run between the two spots while holding the camera and bag of my things just in case I needed anything. She offered up my sunglasses as we were running into the sun, but I knew the course would be turning and the sun would be at my back again so I opted against it. We continued up over the highway heading directly into the sun. Or at least it felt like it. The sun was hitting hard though. The temperatures weren’t crazy warm, but the direct sunlight and I don’t tend to get along during races. The next aid station I came to, I grabbed some gatorade and then pointed to a little girl holding water and asked her to dump it right on my head. She was taken back and first but when I took off my hat and pointed, a huge smile came on her face and she dumped two cups of water directly on top of my head. It felt so refreshing to get a little cooled off. As I ran past, I could hear the other kids going, “that was so cool” and “I want to do that”.
We made the turn on McDowell where we had a straight away for 3 miles. The wide open 4 lane road with not all that many runners on it played mind games with me. It felt like it was late in the race but we still had just over half way to go. My pace had slowed down a little bit with the sun but I found a lady that was running similar to me and I could tell we were using each other to keep our pace honest. If I started to slow down, she would push it back up and then I would do the same, which made for a fun game to focus on rather than the ever present sun. Along this stretch (it is blanking me to exactly where) there was a homemade aid station set up that had a dancing gorilla, chicken and more importantly beer and gummy worms. They had the beer set up in small dixie cups, so I decided why not partake.
After a little dip heading under a crossing street as we passed by Falcon Field airport, I could see in the distance the half marathon starting line which meant we were approaching half way. All the distances that were offered with the race followed the same course to the finish, obviously just varied starting points on the distance. I hit the half point at just under 2:05, which was well ahead of my goal pace and even though I was slowing down, I felt good about where I was pace-wise with half of the race behind me. I hadn’t been sweating much which was a concern but I just kept on top of my nutrition plan drinking at every aid station and utilizing salt tabs as I felt needed. Approaching the turn off of McDowell around mile 13.5, Kaela was cheering on as “ooohhh we’re half way thereeee, whoa ooo-ooohhhh, livin’ on a prayer…” was playing loud on the corner. Kaela gave me some Powerade as she walked alongside me for a moment. We took a selfie, which we later noticed that Bella wanted to be in the picture as the necklace had popped out. It was the first time that I had worn the necklace with a tank so I wasn’t sure how it would bounce around with its weight, but it sat comfortably for most of the race.
We took a left and had another 2 mile stretch heading south. This last portion of the race had a few longer sections that seemed to go on forever. The main scenery was to our west with the ridge line as we just rolled by neighborhoods and shopping centers. I tried to focus on things around me to keep my head up instead of looking down at my feet. There were citrus trees lining the side of the road and I had a thought of going to pick one for Kaela to hand off but wasn’t sure if it was public or someone’s mini orchard. Just before mile 16 we made a right turn on Brown for a 4 mile stretch. The sun was really taking a toll and even though I was moving forward, my pace was slowing down with every mile.
Around mile 18, Kaela was set up on the left hand side of the road. I had told myself that next time I saw her I’d ask for some of the dark chocolate bar that we had packed for the race. I had been using these power bars for post runs, but during the Disney marathon, they had handed out some Dove dark chocolate late in the race and it hit in all the right places, so I thought why not try that here. As I approached her, she said she had gotten me some of my favorite munchkins from Dunkin (Chocolate glazed) at the same time that I was asking for the dark chocolate bar. She had left it in the car as she thought it was for after the race. I must have looked disappointed as she offered to run back to the car to get it for me. I was so thankful for her being out there and felt horrible that my face didn’t match the appreciation I felt for her getting me donuts. I was worried that they would be a bit dry for my dehydrated state but after getting 2 of them down, I was glad I did. She walked with me for a moment while she gave me some more fluids before kicking my ass down the road to keep going.
I made it about a mile before having to break down into a walk for a few minutes.. My legs were feeling heavy and the sun was just hitting me alive. I worked to keep my head in a good place just trying to take in my surroundings and cheer on those that would run past me. It’s usually around this point in a race where my body starts to question my sanity and today was no exception. Shortly before mile 20 Kaela was waiting for me with the dark chocolate bar in hand. She always knows how to just turn around my vibe when in a tough space in races. The chocolate helped perk up my mood but my quads were shot. Every step seemed harder than the last as I would work on turning over my legs.
The aid station just before mile 21 was mostly college aged guys. As I approached one yelled out “looks like you want some water to the face”, which I gladly accepted. The problem was that a handful of guys each threw a cup or two of water at me at the same time. I was drenched. It was funny and actually felt quite refreshing, however a few steps in I realized my feet also were soaked and the sloshing around had me worried about future blisters. I picked up pace after the aid station until I got this little kink in my leg so I went to bend my ankle in to stretch it out and my calf muscle seemed to lock into place. I tried to calm myself and slowly get back into stride and luckily it loosened back up. I spent a little time walking it out trying to lengthen the stride to loosen up my legs to help.
For the next two miles, I ran when I could and once the quads started to tighten up a bit, I went back to a walk. There were a handful of us grouped together that had similar plans playing back and forth down the road. At mile 23, Kaela was on the corner for one last time before heading to the finish. She handed off a bottle of water and gave me some encouragement to power through to the finish. A few minutes after turning the corner, Kaela went driving by, “just 3 more miles baby!” I knew I had it in me to power through this last 5k, I just needed to buckle down.
At this point I knew the goals were out the window right around 4 hours in with still a 5k left, but I was going to enjoy it all. After two turns we made it to the final road on the journey that would take us to the finish. They had the runners in the middle lane to allow traffic to flow on both sides of the road, which was a different feel and gave opportunity for cars to honk on both sides of the runners cheering us on. Hitting the timing mat for one mile left I pushed to try to run it all but had to take a short break as my left quad started to completely tighten up. Once that subsided I made my way to a comfy pace and just held it. As I approached the final right turn into the finishers chute, spectators and finishers lined the road congratulating those that were coming in. Making the turn into the finish I had a smile on my face even though my legs were done for. Bella was no longer interested in being under my tank and stayed out to join me to the finish. I smiled over at Kaela on my left before taking those final steps across the finish.
Instantly in tears, I gave my necklace a kiss, grabbed my medal and went to see Kaela. Both of us were a mess but we knew that Bella was with us in that moment. I made my way through the finishers area grabbing some Creamies (https://creamies.com/) on the way out. Kaela was going to drop off the extra water and snacks I had gotten and meet me in the family reunion area. I found a seat and posted up there until she came back. After a few failed attempts to stand, we finally made it over to the beer tent where we enjoyed some local brews before taking a finishing photo and heading back to our place.
What a race that was! I had been wanting to do this race for a long time and so thankful that I held out from other races in Arizona to make it this one. The downhill nature of the course allowed for a fast start but in the end the thing I worried about, beat up quads, got the best of me. That being said, I’m still very happy with how my body performed just a month after Dopey and a rough training cycle in the winter.
We spent the afternoon by the pool, allowing the cool water to help my legs before heading to a local mexican joint (on the second try, first one was just hipster mexican) and finishing the evening off with a bourbon flight from Arizona Distillery.
The race was a part of a larger vacation as we left Arizona 2 days after the race to spend a day in Santa Monica, CA before spending a week in Kauai. It was a much needed break from work and more importantly quality time with Kaela.
Back from Kauai, I’m working to get back on the road to get my body for the rest of this year and all the goals set before me. But knowing that I have to take it one step at a time, the next stop is in Boston!