Jan 30

The Key to My Most Interesting Race Ever

5:15 a.m. Saturday morning, 45 minutes before the alarm on my trusty Timex Ironman was set to beep, as I lay sleeping sounding, the muscle in my right calf suddenly contracted in one of those massive Charley Horses that made me bolt upright and scream (under my breath so as not to wake the missus) “F&#$! F&#$! F&#$! F&#$! F&#$!”

So began one of the most interesting race days of my life.

The “race” I was heading to was less a race than a super-sized fun run. It’s name: the “F*cking Freezing Frozen Lake Half Marathon.” I first learned about it in late November from some of my nutty running buddies on Twitter; we find one another through a search term of “runnerds.” At that point in the year, most of us were just coming off another running season and were basking in the glow of racing fun and success – and maybe a few too many warm holiday drinks. Racing calendars were being pondered, plans were being made, and winter had not yet set in.

Running a half marathon on Chicago’s lakefront on January 29 with a group of friends seemed like an absolutely brilliant idea!

Runnerds getting psyched pre-run

Apparently, the authorities in the City of Chicago disagreed. A few days before the event, the race organizers sent an email to all the registrants, explaining that our “grassroots” run had been upended by city officials who caught wind of the race and demanded permits and plans. Come on, Chicago! Can’t a group of lunatics gather peaceably for some recreation?

The organizer explained that there would be no “official” race, but that we were free to run on our own, whenever and wherever we chose, then meet at the post-race bar to cash in our beer token and revel in being rebels. Immediately, the Twitterverse erupted with alternate plans and even a potential new name for the run: the “Cluster F*ck Freezing Frozen Lake Half Marathon,” which I thought was truly inspired.

Two days before the CFFFLHM, plans for the rogue run went undercover, off Twitter and onto email to evade snooping eyes. During one short break between conference calls for my day job, I checked my email to find 56 – FIFTY-SIX! – notes from runnerds about the surreptitious plans. Eventually, a time, location and route were selected. The race was on!

Which brings me back to the calf-crunching cramp at 5:45. That should have been, and indeed was, a sign that I was already dehydrated. I’m guessing the large tub of salty popcorn the night before had sucked all the moisture from my cells. (Side note: “The King’s Speech” is a great movie.) But if you’ve read any of my previous race reports, you know there’s always a pee story because, well, I have to pee a lot! I was worried about drinking too much prior to this run because the route would be very exposed (small pun intended) and without “facilities.” I was hoping to make it through the approximately 1 hour 45 minute run without peeing. As I ate breakfast and got ready, I drank sparingly. By the time I arrived at the lakefront non-starting line at 8:00, I felt good … and empty.

Fitting. The lake isn't even frozen.

I was wearing a two-pocket gear belt so I could carry my small camera to capture key moments of the non-race. In the second pocket, I slipped a $20 bill in case of emergency. As I got out of my car, which was parked on Montrose in an area with vaguely worded parking signs, I paused, wondering if I should take my phone.

“I don’t need my phone,” I said to myself. “Eh, I’ll take it just in case the car gets towed.” At the New York City Marathon last November, I had a $20 in that same gear belt pocket with my phone. At some point, I pulled the phone out and the $20 came with it, unbeknownst to me. I wasn’t going to let that happen again! So I took the $20 out, unzipped the pocket in my running wind pants, and tucked the money safely in the pocket with my car key.

Half an hour later, we were off. No national anthem. No starting gun. No amplified Black Eyed Peas singing “Let’s Get It Started” or even Van Halen’s “Right Now.” As any veteran runner know, a true race cannot be started without at least one of those two songs playing. That was yet another sign this was a non-race. All we had were just a few barely audible instructions from the race organizer.

A scant 10 minutes later, I had to pee. This … was going to be a problem. I did my best to put that thought out of mind as I worked my way to one of the lead groups, keeping a conservative 8:35 per mile pace (told you it was more “fun run” than race). I wanted to go a bit faster, but I didn’t really know where to go. I caught enough of the pre-run instructions to hear there were places where you could go left or right, with different consequences for your choice: one side had the only working water fountain on the course, but the other side had less snow and ice. Farther along, one side had a clean sidewalk but lots of traffic, and the other side had a better lake view and no cars, but could be treacherous with ice and snow.

I tucked in behind two people and let them blaze the trail. About 5 miles into the non-race, I spotted a woman up ahead in a DetermiNation triathlon jersey. She looked familiar. I sprinted ahead to see it was indeed Alison, the woman who first recruited me to join the DNation committee in 2004. She was running alone at the time, but was catching up to some other friends who were taking part in the official CARA run. Alison and I talked for a bit till I decided to break away so I could catch my two leaders.

When I caught them, I realized they didn’t really know where they were going either. Worse, they had just missed the second decision point on the course – the one where you could choose the clear sidewalk or treacherous lake view. We were now resigned to a beautiful, sloped, ice-covered path.

About 50 meters, as we negotiated a single-file lane that was mostly clear (by virtue of people having trampled it), we came upon an elderly couple who were walking side by side, slowly. My two leaders veered left around the couple, and I did too, just a stride behind them.

The iceberg that upended me.

Suddenly, WHAM! My left foot slammed into something and I spent 4-5 steps in super slo-mo, alternately wondering when my head would hit the concrete and thinking I might actually regain my balance. I didn’t. FWUPH! Down I went, sliding a few feet in the snow. Everyone stopped to see if I was okay, which I was save for a mighty sore elbow and a slightly battered ego. I got up, and we all resumed what we were doing.

Once I was out of that section and back on a clear sidewalk, I stopped to regain composure. Alison by now had caught back up to me. “Did you see me take a tumble?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, then added, “Did you hear what those old people said?” I hadn’t. “One of them said, ‘I wonder if we’re the reason all these runners are falling.’” Gee, ya think?!

By now, I had to pee like you wouldn’t believe, and I finally saw an opportunity for relief. We were approaching Navy Pier. At one corner, when it was clear my two leaders were just as clueless as I, I let them turn right while I cut left into the Pier to find a restroom. After finding relief, I went back outside and took a few minutes to marvel at the snow sculptures being created for a competition.

Are these great or what?

Just as I was ready to resume my return run, I paused for a traffic light. That’s when I heard the faint ring of my phone. Who could be – would be – calling me? I pulled it out of the pocket, thinking how smart I was to move that $20 earlier.

“Hi DP, it’s Alison.” [Why is Alison calling me? Does she need a ride after the run?]

Me: Hi. What’s up?
Alison: Did you drive today?
Me: Yes [Yes, she must need a ride]
Alison: Do you by any chance have a Honda?
Me: Yes [&^*#! My car is being towed!]
Alison: Do you have your key?
Me: [Momentary panic as I reach into my unzipped – unzipped?! – pocket and grab … just the $20 bill] NO! I don’t!
Alison: I think I have it! I saw it after I turned around, and I thought, “That’s right where DP fell!”

I rushed to reconnect with Alison, who was now running with Caitlyn and Keri, two other friends from the DetermiNation committee who were in the CARA running group. After getting my key back and chatting for awhile, I wished them well and kicked up the pace for the last 5 miles.

I hung around the finish area for a bit to see some friends come in. Alison was about to leave, so I asked Caitlyn if she would take a photo of Alison and me. “Sure,” Caitlyn said. “You should hold up the key too.” I thought that was a stellar idea, so I reached into the now tightly zipped pocket and retrieved it. “This will be great for my blog!” I said.

The key, ahhhh, the key!

By now, I was cold, tired, hungry, extremely thirsty, and a little bit sore. Rather than head to the post-run party at a Twitter friend’s house, then to the post-post-party at a neighborhood bar, I headed home. There, I pulled off my pants to throw them in the laundry. But first, need to get that $20 bill. I reached in and pulled out … air. That’s when I realized that as I pulled the key out for the photo with Alison, the $20 must’ve snagged onto my glove and fallen to the ground. I think I’ll stop running with $20 bills.

Hours later, after my shower, big breakfast and a much-needed nap, I logged onto Twitter to see how my friends were feeling. That’s when the totally f-ed up day really threw me a curve. My name was pulled in a raffle to win Mizuno shoes … but I wasn’t there to win!

Just as my day had started, here I was again saying, “F&#$! F&#$! F&#$! F&#$! F&#$!” What a day! My memory isn’t that great any more, but I won’t soon forget the F*cking Freezing Frozen Lake Half Marathon race that wasn’t.

More #runnerd blogs on the F^3, as it’s known on Twitter:
Crysta Anderson: My F*ing First Half Marathon
Sue Gelber: You Might Be A Crazy Runner
Kirsten Miller: Who wouldn’t want their 1st half marathon to be in January in Chicago?


About the author


I'm a 50-something runner and volunteer committee member for the American Cancer Society DetermiNation team. I love running for the way it makes me feel and for the things it can do to help others. If you like my ramblings, please consider making a donation to help me fight cancer.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.TurtlesAgainstCancer.com/2011/01/the-key-to-my-most-interesting-race-ever/


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  1. Crysta

    Great recap! Sorry I didn’t see you afterwards – but you would have been waiting a LONG time :-)

    You were full of good luck, between running into friends, who found the car key and winning shoes, even if you didn’t really win them. And it’s a heck of a story to tell.

  2. Kirsten Miller

    Oh my gosh. That is quite a story. I’m glad you finished. And that Alison found your key. WOW. Crazy.

  3. DP_Turtle

    I felt like a schmuck for not waiting, but I was soooo exhausted, cold and hungry! Ugh! Glad you all made it to the finish.

  4. DP_Turtle


    I meant to add another part to the blog, but it slipped my mind at the crucial moment of posting, so I’ll add it here.

    I’m not one of those “everything happens for a reason” people, but when you consider Alison was the only person along the route that saw me fall and had my phone number … and I made a last-minute decision to take my phone and I happened to be stopped at the time it was ringing – otherwise, there’s no way I would have heard it. Well, that’s just a whole heckuva lot of coincidence.

    Glad you were out there and . . . YOU FINISHED YOUR FIRST HALF MARATHON!!! How awesome is that?! Great job!

  5. Kirsten Miller

    WOO HOOO!!!!!!!!! Totally awesome!
    And, for the record, I am totally an “everything happens for a reason” person. So your story makes perfect sense to me.

  6. Sue

    Fabulous write up! Glad you saw all the humor. And for your birthday, I have an idea: I road ID shoe pouch with a twenty dollar bill in it!

  7. DP_Turtle

    Thanks in advance for the $20, Sue! You’re wonderful!

  8. Chanthana

    This is a non-race to remember! So glad Alison was there to get your key and give it back to you. Goodness. And this explains why I find random twenty dollar bills along the path :-)

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