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  • Writer's pictureEric Spitz

Arizona - A Marathon in Every State (Part II)

I don’t consider myself a morning person by any means...

...but the morning of race days always have me strangely awake, alert and excited for what’s to come. As I made the quiet and scenic 30 minute drive from my hotel to the Petrified Forest, I couldn’t help but become overwhelmed with the strange and familiar excitement of the race. Having this be my first marathon within a National Park, and the smallest participant size at that, I knew I was in for a completely different racing experience.

Something I overlooked until a few days prior to the race was that the Petrified Forest is at close to 6,000 feet of elevation according to FindMyMarathon. With it being my first race at altitude, 6,000 feet over the course of 26.2 miles makes a pretty big difference when you’re used to running at close to 0 feet of elevation. With all of my previous adventures around the state, I didn’t have a true chance to adjust to the altitude change, so I went into the race completely blind of expectations.

When the pre-race instructions concluded and the race began, I took off at an uncomfortably fast pace from the pre-race jitters and sheer excitement to soak in the scenery. I could hear my newly acquired friends cheering me on behind me as I embarked further into the park. Not adjusting to altitude came back to haunt me almost instantly. Needless to say, I was breathing heavier than normal after just a few miles and had to make some adjustments early on in the race to avoid an utter train wreck. However, once I was able to find a rhythm, the scenery and peaceful nature helped keep my mind occupied and propelling forward.

Having experience running the Boston Marathon twice at this point, the experience running in the Petrified Forest was a night and day difference. While the energy and cheering was deafening out in Boston, all I could hear in Arizona during my race was my breathing and the sound of my pulse in my temples. I don’t think I’d every experienced anything so hauntingly silent and desolate in all my running years up until that point.

The entire racing climate was so much different in the Petrified Forest compared to running a bigger race like Boston. There were 15 aid stations along the route with a few dedicated volunteers handing out water in paper cups. Generally during a race, runners will grab the water, gulp it down in a grotesque and unappealing fashion, and pitch the cup on the side of the road with no regard to the environmental implications. However, in this race, I didn’t feel right doing that. Given the small number of volunteers and the fact that the race was completely in a national park, I would hold on to my cups and delicately place them in waste baskets as I passed them.

Despite the course being relatively flat with a net elevation change of 400 feet, the inconveniently placed hills and altitude level got to me toward the end. However, to my surprise, I was able to keep pushing along to be the overall winner of the race, which was my first time accomplishing that feat. The race officials let me decide between a few different prizes, ranging from art made by a local artist to my own petrified wood I could take home with me, and decided on the petrified wood for my keepsake. Soon after I wandered around the area and got my massage, I had the privilege of watching my friend from New York finish his very first marathon, and cheered him in along the way. That in itself was more important to me than winning the race, because his story and journey was much more incredible to me than what I just did.

After stumbling around sore and delirious with my petrified wood in hand, the thought occurred to me that I not only had to make the three hour drive back to Phoenix to my Airbnb, but also figure out a way to get my trophy back home in one piece. After weighing out options from race officials, and talking to Amy after the race to let her know how I did, I decided that I’d have no choice but to UPS my trophy back rather than risk breaking it by jamming it in my carry-on bag.

After talking with my dad on the phone, because he always seems to have his timing just right for when he predicts I’ll be finished with my race, I made the drive back to my hotel to hope I can convince them to let me shower there. Unfortunately, the nice woman at the desk was unable to get me in to use a shower. Sweaty, sore and delirious, I then wandered back out to the hotel parking lot to take a 20 minute nap in the car before venturing back towards the UPS store, and my Airbnb back in Phoenix.

As I swished around a Cool Blue Gatorade I picked up at the gas station across the street from the hotel, the thought occurred to me that since I have to ship a few items UPS anyway, I can get a few souvenirs from my trip and not have to worry about cramming them into my carry-on bag. I then decided to drive all the way BACK to the Petrified Forest in the opposite direction of where I needed to go, for the sole reason of purchasing a coffee mug I was eyeing in the gift shop. To date it’s still one of my favorite mugs to use around the house, which justified the half hour drive.

With my ridiculous errands complete, I decided to venture to the UPS store in Prescott in order to try and squeeze in a venture around Watson Lake – a beautiful destination just four miles outside of downtown that features an array of outdoor activities ranging from fishing to rock climbing. The venture added roughly an hour to my drive if I were to just drive to Phoenix, which seemed worth it to me. However, with the evening looming, my GPS would put me at the UPS store with not much wiggle room before they closed. I couldn’t have any more out of the way ventures for coffee mugs, and had to make the drive straight to Prescott with no pit stops.

I was able to make it to the UPS store just in time to have my possessions loaded up and shipped safely back home. However, by the time I finished up at the UPS store nightfall was quickly approaching, and I arrived at Watson Lake just after 6:00 PM. Because they were on their winter hours during that time, the entrance closed just minutes prior. I was bummed that I couldn’t have seen the prominent lake, but it just gives me a reason to go back in the future to spend more time in the city.

I then proceeded on the hour and a half drive south to Phoenix. I was communicating with my Airbnb host Kim as I got closer to my destination. She took me as a very laid-back and pleasant individual, who told me to just come on in when I arrived. The GPS took me to a very nice suburban home in Phoenix. Given that all suburban homes look the same to me, and it’s easy to get lost in their neighborhoods, I triple-checked the address on the front of the house before barging into the house Kramer style. I could hear the soft background noise of the TV playing in the other room, with the blue light illuminating within my line of vision.

As I turn the corner toward my room, I see my host in the kitchen with her back turned to me. Being nervous that I was about to scare the living daylights out of her as I approached her, to my surprise, she was very pleasant and eager to meet me, and wasn’t at all alarmed to see the smelly and homeless looking traveler that I appeared to be. Turns out Kim was big into triathlons, and wasn’t the least bit off-put by my grotesque appearance. She showed me to my cozy room and introduced me to her son, who was equally as pleasant and friendly. I had to share the bathroom with him, but having a pleasant host like Kim in a clean and comfortable home for under $40 was well worth it.

After getting a much-needed shower, I wanted to grab some food in town before retiring for the night. To my excitement, there was my favorite fast food establishment the west coast has to offer just 15 minutes up the road: In-N-Out Burger. While I was mostly vegetarian by this point, I decided to cheat and get a 2×2 burger and some animal style fries. While the food was absolutely delicious and hit the spot after my long day, it was after that moment when I decided to officially become a vegetarian.

When I arrived back at my Airbnb, I organized all of my clothes and gave my carry-on a good feng shui in preparation for my early flight the next morning out of Phoenix. With Impractical Jokers playing in the background, I couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear as I reminisced on all that transpired on the trip. I was able to do some deeper exploring into a state that I couldn’t get enough of during a road trip a few years prior. I went on some amazing solo adventures, meeting some wonderful people and gathering interesting stories along the way, and I came out as the overall winner of a picturesque marathon located completely within a beautiful national park that encapsulated so much history within its borders. I was proud to make Arizona my fifth state on my 50 state journey.

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