Friday, March 30, 2018

The Green Guys

If you've run the Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle in the last 11 years, chances are you've seen one of the infamous Green Guys running through The Loop.  Confused? Let me enlighten you:

Yea, I wasn't kidding. All the G R E E N πŸ’š
I'm very proud to state that these incognito people are my friends, one my brother. In reality, I envy them and their courage to run the streets of Chicago in March half naked. 

But Megan.. What? Why..? I'm so confused.. Just.. huh? 

Right, I know. I was in the same boat the first time I saw these guys floating across my TV screen while I sat on my bike, pedaling away on a Sunday morning training for Ironman Wisconsin circa 2014. 

Let's back up. I met John Atchison and his wife in 2015 at the Egg Shell Shuffle, all of us volunteering our time for good friends Jacqui and Ryan (Mr. And Mrs. Speedy). Less than 3 months later, we were signed up to race across the country together in Lake Placid, New York. In reality, I had "known" John for a while, I just had no idea. John proposed to his wife Brittany the morning of my first Ironman in Madison, Wisconsin. John and I were both racing. I got out of the water and proceeded to my bike. John got out of the water and snagged a ring from Ryan and popped the question to Brittany on the helix. Ryan had told me about the plan millions of times. "I'm sorry I can't see you before the race starts, I have to save a spot on the helix!" Fast forward to the run and I remember seeing a guy running on the course wearing a tuxedo. Oh, that's Ryan's friend John. He proposed this morning! This guy, I knew before I "knew" him. He's all about the fun and makin' memories. And his large heart was clearly evident. It should have been no surprise to me that this was the same guy I saw running across my TV screen in March, completely covered in green body paint at the Shamrock Shuffle. 

Back in 2008, John convinced long time friend Ryan to invest in an $8 container of paint, a green afro wig, and a pair of green tights to run the Shamrock Shuffle. I can't tell you if it was a long conversation or not, but I can tell you that that's how the Green Guys were born. 

Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle 2008
And the rest is history. Over the years, John has recruited a few of his closest friends to run alongside him during the kick off to Chicago's racing scene. The only constant over the years has been John himself. 2009 resulted in blizzard-like conditions, easily the worst weather he's ever had to run {naked} in. 

RJ Pucci, Oscar Munoz, John Atchison, Ryan Giuliano
The Green Guys multiplied over the years, the painting got a little easier each time, and the look started to make a name for itself. They began to be noticed as "The Green Guys." Walking around before or after the race proved to be difficult, photo opportunities aplenty with every stranger they encountered. 

In 2014 the first Green Girl was added to the lineup. John will tell you this might have been a turning point for The Green Guys. At the time, John had convinced his princess to paint herself green and run the streets of Chicago. 

RJ Pucci, Oscar Munoz, Brittany Sorensen, John Atchison
Little did she know she'd soon be married into this crazy tradition. 

2015, just a few months prior to the Wedding Bells!
At some point during all of this Green, The Bank of America noticed The Green Guys. Enough so that this happened: 

Yes, that is the entrance to Shamrock Shuffle expo. And yes, those are my green friends faces greeting every.single.person that walks in the door. 

2016 - John, Brittany, RJ
I mean, how cool? 
I guess you could say this was practically a dream come true for John. What you don't know is that he's a physical education teacher in the Chicago Public School system. He spends day in and day out trying to make America's youth as active as he can. For years, he had painted himself green to run a race and maybe just inspire a student or 2 along the way. "Green means go! Go out, have fun, be healthy and enjoy life!" Yea, that's The Green Guy's motto. 

Just when you thought it couldn't get any better, 2017 happened. It made the papers and John still raves about it to this day: 

"GUYS! I was the first to the Pedestrian Bridge! Photo proof!"
2017 Shamrock Shuffle starting line
Cruisin' with the elites πŸƒ
And that brings us to present day. John convinced a few others to join his posse, my brother included. When I found out that the Mark was joining in the fun, I decided to sherpa/spectate/document this Green Guy process. I pulled out of my driveway at 4am, parked my car at 5am, walked into The Chicago Hilton at 5:15am, knocked on The Green Guys door at 5:17am, and by 5:30am the painting started.

5 people in a tiny Chicago hotel bathroom
Good thing we're all friends

Somehow these 2 snagged their own bathroom?
I learned a lot in the hour and a half it took everyone to get ready. I learned that 3 fingers dipped into a cup of water works best to moisten the paint. I learned that circular motions make for the most even green appearance. I learned that this process is one of the cleanest.

And to think... John used to do this at his own house!

It's like a leprechaun peed everywhere!
Finally, it came time to head down to the race start. John huddled everyone together and said, "Alright, here are the rules!" Rules? What's he talking about? "When we get into the lobby of the hotel, you can take pictures with people if they ask. At some point we'll have to leave, but some pictures are ok right now." You gotta be kidding me smalls, this is gonna be like walking around with a celebrity. And that it was.

Because they're classy
I couldn't believe how people swarmed them. "Can I have a picture with you? Oh please, one more! This is so cool!" I stood in the background and watched as the 6 of them entertained the guests of the Chicago Hilton. Eventually it was time to depart. We had to make our way to the Elite tent and meet up with newest Green Girl Amanda McGrory, 7x Paralympic Medalist. Yep, this just got REAL. 

Once again, John had to lay out the rules. "Alright, as soon as we walk out the doors, we BOOK IT to the tent! It's COLD! Stop for no one! Take no pictures! JUST GO!" 

And that we did. We walked outside and the wind cut through me like a knife, and I was wearing all the layers. Shrieks filled the air on Michigan Avenue as we all sprinted down the street and played frogger the entire half mile to the tent. Once inside, I immediately started to sweat bullets while everyone else hugged the heaters that were keeping the tent warm. We found Amanda, said hello, and then made our way to the start line for our photo opportunity. 

They're all muscles in a heated tent.
Caveat, I was nervous as soon as we left the hotel. I didn't have a race bib. I didn't have any official credentials. I was just their sidekick. After the Boston Marathon bombings, race security it always very tight and I was convinced that I would be held back at some point. Except, security allowed me all the way to the starting line, hassle free.

Once more, because it just makes me smile soπŸ’šπŸ’šπŸ’š
Eric, Brittany, Mark, RJ, John, Matt and Amanda in the front!
They even let me sneak in for a group photo!

"Hey coach, is this aero?"
The originator and his beautiful Green Bride 
Mark and I 
Brittany christened me with Green war paint

Eventually, it was time for me to say my goodbyes and find my spot on the bridge for the starting line photo. I was a little happy to be moving, but not so happy to be in the wide open wind. I got to my position at 8:15, plenty of time to spare (and for my fingers to go numb). Soon the gun went off and the wheelchair athletes took off first, followed by the elites. It was time to play where's waldo! 

Amanda, leading the wheelchair race!


This was an event I wasn't 100% sure I'd attend when Mark made plans to race. Rob and I had originally tried to look at wedding venues that weekend, but the plans fell through. So off to the race I went. And after witnessing what I saw, I couldn't imagine missing it. 

I've heard about The Green Guys a lot, seen all the pictures, and laughed at every story over the years. But it wasn't until I SAW the process, the enthusiasm they have, the joy they ooze, and the memories they create for thousands of people. It wasn't until then that I truly understood The Green Guys. They're a passionate bunch that lace up their shoes and paint themselves green year after year for the love of the sport. They reminded me that this sport and community is one not to be reckoned with. To them, Green means Go. So let's all pull a Green Guy today and GO.


Saturday, March 24, 2018

March Madness: When Emotions Run High

I'm honestly not sure how many times I've run this race, but this will be my 3rd time writing about it. And I'm not gonna lie, the keystrokes feel like dejavu every time.

I always take off faster than I should (even though I was given permission to "bank time" this year by Speedy). I always convince myself around mile 11 that "it's just not my day" and that any sort of success story for the day is off the radar. I always walk away from this race limping for days, fearful of the stairs. I always build this day up more than most would expect. And in the most recent years, I always walk away so.damn.emotional.

This year has girl had *something* to do with the emotional part
Ryan has been working his magic on my legs thus far this winter. Their first test: March Madness Half Marathon. I won't lie, I bow down to those that are full bred runners. I know that the worst is still to come, but I still can't imagine the past 12 weeks without my recovery rides on Sunday afternoons and multiple swims a week to keep my body in check after some wicked speedwork that will damn well keep you honest and humble. Yes, I'm still "young." But not necessarily for someone who has 20 years of running under their belt, still trying to get faster and faster. At some point, things just hurt all the time. Waking up in the morning takes a few extra stretches and a little more caffeine. Needless to say, it's been a fun game of "is that hurt, sore, tight, or just a muscle that's getting old?" all winter. 

Ryan never truly asked me about my goals going into March Madness. At one point we had discussed the opportunity of a PR, but as it got closer and closer I think we both knew deep down that the chances were slim. The mountains of Cary, IL are no joke and would require some Hogwarts magic. The week before we both agreed that a COURSE PR wasn't out of the question at all and likely the most realistic option. Sub 1:40 or bust (aka - sub 7:38/mile or better).

Kati and I took off for a few warm up miles with Todd (Strugglebus member). The 2 had never met, but were quickly acquainted over those 2 miles. We ran back inside to drop our sweats, slurp down a gel, and snag our Speedy friends (Jacqui and Ryan) before heading out to the starting line. 

Repeat after me: I will not cry. I will not cry.
With seconds to spare, the 3 RyBread ladies of the group toed the line and all choked back a lump in our throats. You see, exactly a year ago this is where Jacqui and I were formally introduced to Kati as she joined the RyBread team. It's been a year of ups and downs and tears and laughs and everything in between. And today, today was Kati's last race as an Illinois resident. Her bags are packed and her story continues in Golden, Colorado in a few short days. Now, now you see why these final 13 miles hold some serious sentiment.

The gun went off as Kati and I were lost in conversation with her Fleet Feet friends and we simultaneously yelled, "OH SHIT!" as we started our watches. 

Todd and I locked eyes as we took our first steps over the start line and made sure to hang tight to each other. In years past, we're good at hanging out together for as long as possible during this race. But every year it's a mystery: who will drop who and when will it happen? Last year we couldn't run together, but 2 years ago I dropped him at mile 8. I'd be lying if I didn't secretly want that to happen again.

Mile 1: 7:08 
Adrenaline movin'. Spectators all along the course. Very steady downhill. The fact that I kept this mile over 7 minutes is damn near a miracle. 

Mile 2: 7:06
Todd and I speak very little as we race. But just after we crossed mile 1 he glanced over at me and said, "How was that?" I responded with, "Perfect. Let's keep it right here for a few more miles." And that we did. We continued to work our way downhill and took full advantage of topography being on our side. 

Mile 3: 7:12
The famous "10 mile hill" in reverse. This is where you bank all the time you can. Todd is better at letting his legs go out of control on the downhills, so his stride separated us briefly. Once we found the bottom, we reunited and hung a left, the real fun about to begin.

Mile 4 7:24
A very gradual incline for an entire mile, mile 4 is very deceiving. Your adrenaline is still flowing mighty strong from the start and flying down 10 mile hill, but you don't realize that you're actually climbing the entire mile. I still felt very strong, but knew that my "fast" miles were about over and it was time to lock into the pace I wanted to maintain the rest of the race. Todd, on the other hand, looked about as fresh as I've ever seen him. {Full disclosure: Todd has turned himself into a full blown ultra trail runner. His training takes place in all the forests and his speed never goes over an 8 minute mile on a fast day. How was he holding strong? My mind was blown. Surely he'll be down for the count soon.}

Mile 5 7:30
Just after we made the right hand turn onto Rawson Bridge Road, I knew it was time to dial it back and settle into my comfort zone. Within seconds of telling Todd it was time for me fall back, long time friend Andrew blew past me and found Todd. The 2 of them chatted and took off together. I kept them in my sights for quite a few miles afterwards. I was perfectly content getting comfy and hopefully finding Todd later on in the race.

Mile 6 7:40
The first decent climb kicked my ass {glanced at my watch at one point and read 8:50 pace} but cruised on the downhill. I'm officially in the thick of the hills and there's no turning back now.

Mile 7:46
Sneaky hill. Gets me every single time. A quick left into a neighborhood followed by an immediate right greets you with the maybe the steepest hill McHenry county has to offer. And it's a b*tch. Found my groove after getting back out onto Crystal Lake Road. The recovery is short because the next one comes quick and isn't any better.

Mile 8 7:39 
Substantial hill reminds me of a large skating ramp. Banked and curved. And never seems to end. But the volunteers handing out gels on the side of the road help the pain and seem to distract me. And as soon as you reach the top, you can start flying downhill and making your way towards the fastest mile of the course. And once I reached the bottom of the hill I spotted Mark, waving and cheering. I did my best to look alive. Great success.

I didn't promise pretty pictures.
PS - a small part of me hates this race because look how pasty I am!
At least you can't see the pain from the back. 
Mile 9 7:22
A very steady decline with the wind (usually) at your back, this mile can be the fastest of the day if you play your cards right. I definitely did some major work to put some time back into the bank. I was hoping for high 7's but was very satisfied with a sub 7:30. Although, the entire time you're running mile 9 you can see mile 10. And mile 10 takes no prisoners. 

Mile 10 7:57
Fully expected. Fully prepared to take the hit. This is why you bank as much time as you can in the early miles. Mile 10 offers the same hill that we flew down during mile 3, a quarter mile of hell. It never ends and will humble the cockiest of souls. I made sure to reserve, short and quick steps up the hill. Let yourself go slow, conserve for the end. The water station at the top of the hill greeted me like the Pearly Gates and I was ready to tackle these final 3 miles. 

Mile 11 8:08
No matter what I did I could not find my groove. The hills are fierce and aggressive these last 3 miles, but I felt like I was throwing down MUCH faster than an 8 minute mile. My body wasn't responding. Shit. Maybe this isn't your day. You don't have enough time in the back for a COURSE PR if you keep this up. Hell, you're not Boston material if you can't get your shit together. Might as well take up chess, Megan. 

Mile 12 8:07
This hill isn't officially named, but if I had to name it I'd call it "WTF WHERE'S MY BREAK?" hill. I felt like I was crawling. I glanced at my watch and technically, I was. Seriously why the hell do I think this is fun? This is miserable. 

Mile 13 7:44
This last mile is decent, nothing drastic at all. But your body is literally shot from the first 12 miles. Once my watch clicked at 12 miles and I saw the overall time (1:31) I did some quick math in my head and knew that 1.1 miles in 8 minutes and change was doable if I got my head out of my ass. And I did. Pretty sure my heart rate reached an all time high that last mile (including all the climbing) but it was worth it. 

Sorry dude, you don't get to cross before me
Told ya.

Official time: 1:39:47. Plenty of time to spare. I crossed the finish line and Ryan was there almost instantly to greet me. I huffed and puffed while he talked my ear off. All I did was flash him my watch so he could see: Sub 1:40 or bust. I made it happen. Moments later Kati and Jacqui were on the fence with me, congratulating me and demanding a cool down run right away. I found Todd and congratulated him on his 1:36 (seriously, how does that happen when training for a 50 mile trail race?) and asked him if he'd want to come with us for a cool down. He immediately declined and said his goodbyes. The Strugglebus is good at ghosting these days, no post race goodies or anything. I wasn't kidding, they do everything they can to race and get back home to the family right away. I spotted Russ on my cooldown and tried to run him into the finish line, but my body instantly rejected any pace over a 9:30. I let him finish this one up on his own.

Those hills really did a number on me this year. In case you're curious, this is the elevation map:

Who knew there were mountains in Cary, IL?
Celebrations continued with the group while we dissected our races over hot stadium style pretzels (probably the only reason I keep coming back year after year) and then over brunch. 

This is why we can't have nice things, Mark
Jacqui: 1st female!
Kati: 4th female!
Ryan: 1st male!
Me: 3rd place in age group!

Also, might you note our newest and shiniest accessory? Those new RyBread coats are courtesy of Kati. She thought up the plan and made it happen. And now, RyBread Racing is flashy and official in our brand new warm up jackets (that also reflect like crazy, we glow in the dark!)

Because we're cool now
We continued the fun at breakfast and lingered as long as possible. No one really wanted the morning to end. Saying goodbye for the day also meant saying goodbye to Kati. I'm proud to report, there were no tears (in front of the group) and we all have a day on the calendar that we'll see her again soon. I made sure to send her off with Suburbia's best donuts (because this girl is a donut connoisseur like you wouldn't believe) and the biggest hug. I've said it once and I'll say it again. I'm convinced that people are brought into your life for a reason and I know for a fact that Kati was truly a blessing when I needed it most. I already have Chicago --> Denver on hopper ready to give me the best deals at at a moment's notice. Certainly distance makes the heart grow fonder, yes? 

Told ya she's legit
As far as the racing scene goes, I couldn't be happier with my results. I did exactly what I wanted to do. I raced smart, hard, and with everything I had. I was reminded that mental toughness is finding fuel in an empty tank. Success at this race was a step in the right direction because now I can officially dive head first into marathon training with the right mindset. 

Wait what? You mean official marathon training hasn't started yet? Please, the fun is just getting started. As of today, Grandma's Marathon on June 16th is 12 weeks again. I'll have one more test before the big BQ attempt. I'm so excited to say that I'm headed back to college town, USA. The band is getting back together again and reliving the glory days in Champaign, IL at the Illinois Half Marathon in April. 

Alma, get ready for me. I'm comin' home. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Train of Life

Very recently, I was reminded of how absolutely wonderful the running/triathlon/endurance community really is.

When I graduated from college and started working part time at the local gym before I found my big-girl-job, I befriended a small group of guys and we spent more time together at 5am on Saturday mornings than most can imagine. Todd was also an employee of the same gym and we started running together after work from time to time. Closest to my age, we bonded quickly and it wasn't long before Rob and I found a new everlasting friendship in him and his wife. Eventually we decided that we each wanted to bring in another friend to our small running posse. Todd introduced me to Shane, the Sherpa of the group. While I brought in Russ (a member of the gym whom I saw damn near every day at 4:45am as I opened the doors), the biggest pain in the ass there ever was. Shane and Russ are both "older" than Todd and I and always refer to us as the "whipper snappers" of the foursome. Russ and Shane were also formerly in the military. Russ, the Marines. Shane, the Army. Put the 4 of us together and we are an unfiltered, determined, masochist bunch. Being the only female in such a strong group (and the youngest), I learned pretty quickly that I had to have the sass ready to fire at a moments notice.

The 4 of us were in very different stages of life. I had just graduated from college while Rob finished his degree, 3 hours away in Champaign, IL. Todd spent more time at the gym than ever as his wife was working the night shift in the ER as a trauma nurse while going to school for her masters degree. Shane and his wife were extremely comfortable with life and were about to embark on the journey of parenthood. And Russ traveled the globe at the drop of a hat for work and spent all of his time in the states running with us or with his wife and son.

So how does a group like this find a common ground? We shared one commonality. Endurance. We all thrived on the pain of a hard workout. We needed to know that after an awful week of work, traveling overseas to Sweden & Germany, working 12-14 hour days, we'd all find each other on Saturday morning during sunrise for a long run around Crystal Lake. Together, we named ourselves The Strugglebus.

Megan's first 70.3

These guys, they're the reason I bought my first bike.

These guys, they're the reason I can swim respectively at all.

These guys, they're the reason I started triathlon.

These guys, they're the reason I know any sort of biking routes in the Marengo/Union/Woodstock area.

These guys, they believed in me when I never believed in myself.

These guys, they watched my cry when I was such a bad cyclist that I would cry when they wouldn't wait for me. All the while they knew what they were doing. Let her cry, she's gonna laugh at herself one day. And they weren't wrong.

These guys, they told me I'd be a badass when I doubted myself most.

These guys have wives, kids, demanding full time jobs. And they found it reason enough to guide me towards a sport I never knew I needed in my life.

Todd and Russ were my catchers as I crossed the finish line of my first 140.6

As loyal as they come

Last Wednesday morning as I was finishing up a swim workout, Shane walked onto the pool deck with a mighty large gift bag. Back in the fall I had a housewarming/belated birthday/season celebration party. Unfortunately Shane couldn't make it but still had a gift to share with me. He finally put it in his car and decided to surprise me at the gym with it one day. Wednesday was that day.

The bag contained 2 items. An extremely nice zip up Sugoi Ironman hoodie that I have worn almost constantly since I opened it. And the other was a picture frame that had the phrase "The Struggle Bus Is Real" He continued to explain himself and the gifts.

"Megan I'll always have 2 pretty amazing memories with you. The reason you have the sweatshirt is because I remember more than once running through the dead of winter with you and the guys. We stopped at one of your friends houses and he had water out on his front porch for us. Weekend after weekend he always had water for us. And the picture frame is because the 4 of us will always be The Strugglebus. We were the beginning of your triathlon journey." 

Don't forget, it's approximately 6:30am and I have just finished a pretty tough swim workout and I am running late for the showers to get ready for work. And here's Shane, makin' me tear up and get all emotional. Of course, he had to mention my water boy. You all remember him, right? He went on into further detail to explain how the 4 of us, the Strugglebus, we were all apart of each others Train of Life. He told me about a book he had read, and how a train can be a metaphor for someone's life. Every once in a while the train stops in different towns, different people get on and off your train, some stay on your train longer than others. And all make some impact on your life, whether it be small or large.

Megan's pre-triathlon days, only a few months after I bought my first bike
These guys, they've been some of the best mentors and and friends a girl can ask for. (Yes, even crabby and unfiltered Russ.) And the truth of the matter is, they never left my train. At the end of the day, we find our way back to each other. I may not need swim lessons from The Strugglebus anymore, and I might be able to lead the pack on the bike on a good day, and I might not cry anymore when I think I'm lost, but I still need these guys more than ever. I need their wit, their sass, their raw unfiltered humor that can leave my abs sore for days.

Annual end of the season celebration!
Celebrating Megan's first 140.6
These are the kind of relationships that I can't imagine my life without. These people are one of the biggest reasons I'll forever be passionate about this sport. Our families have grown into some of the best friendships. I've watched Todd and his wife bring 2 amazing children into this world (and any day now, a 3rd!). I've watched Shane and his daughter Shayla dance and eat more cake than I thought possible for a 4 year old. And Russ' son Jack and I, well let's just say he still thinks I have cooties. (But I hear that goes away once they hit highschool, right?)

We can do more than swim, bike run
Where it all began, Todd and I roping Russ into race after race with us.
All this being said, I couldn't be more motivated for the season opener tomorrow. As far as I'm concerned, the unofficial start to the racing season happens every year in Cary, IL at the March Madness Half Marathon. Todd and Russ will be in attendance, among most of the the RyBread crew. Some of my most favorite racing moments happen when my worlds collide. And I can't wait to toe the line with Todd and and set the pace for a record day (while we wait for Russ to finish with a sundial πŸ˜‰) All while I pay my respects to my favorite waterboy. It's officially been 2 years without him and this race holds a whole new meaning to me since that 9th day of March 2016 when we all had to say our finals goodbyes. My phone no longer lights up with a message post-race, "You need to get your head checked if you think that this Sunday morning running stuff is fun! But I love ya all the same!" - Mike Powers, my waterboy. He was another example of someone who was always aboard Megan's Train of Life.

Because it's just not the same without him
Ready or not legs, it's go time.