New Jersey - A Marathon in Every State
I didn't know much about the Garden State prior to venturing there. I didn't even know it was nicknamed the Garden State. My preconceived notions regarding New Jersey revolved around it being the setting for the embarrassingly bad reality show Jersey Shore, and that the folk punk band The Front Bottoms had roots in Woodcliff Lake. My main interest in driving to New Jersey to compete in the Atlantic City Marathon revolved around its close proximity to Baltimore. My original plan back in 2018 was to compete in the Baltimore Marathon on a Saturday, only to go through the same demanding process again the following day in New Jersey. Due to poor time management on my part, the back to back marathon pipe dream didn't happen (check out Maryland - A Marathon in Every State to read the backstory on that.)
Lucky for me, since I wasn't able to originally compete in the Atlantic City Marathon back in 2018, the race volunteers allowed me to roll over my registration into 2019 so I wouldn't be out the $120. Learning my lesson from the year before, I even vouched to be able to pick my race packet up day of, just in case another issue were to arise in my planning. I also decided to not be so aggressive with running two marathons in a weekend like I originally planned, as I was already dealing with a knee injury, and attempting more marathons in a year than I've ever done.
In my minimal knowledge about New Jersey, I also heard that the state has a few rough cities. I did some research prior to booking my Airbnb to see what cities would be best to stay in that would be safe, somewhat close to the start of the race, and not too expensive. The research I did on cities where Airbnbs were priced fairly low made a lot of sense when I saw some of their statistics. I decided it would be best to reach out to a friend who used to live in Jersey and have her weigh in. I ended up settling on Somers Point, which seemed to hit all of the criteria: moderately priced, close proximity to the start and verified by my friend that it's a decent area.
A little over a week after the Airbnb was booked, my family and I made the ten hour drive to Somers Point to see what the Garden State had to offer. We arrived at the Airbnb late that night, and felt relatively comfortable with the look of the neighborhood and the surrounding area. I gave myself a pat on the back for doing my research and securing a place for a good value.
As we lugged our bags up the back spiral staircase and into the second story living quarters, I started to get the sense of why the Airbnb was so moderately priced. There wasn't anything drastically wrong with the room, per se. It just seemed to lack basic amenities I often took for granted, like a closet/coat rack, nightstand, lamp or any basic furniture. The entry room consisted of two twin sized beds, nothing more. The master suite contained a king sized bed, outdated hand-me-down looking shelves and a TV that seemed to only pick up random channels. But, they did have a Keurig... located right in the bathroom. Along with a community basket of essentials that included a stick of deodorant with a hair on it. I don't know about any other adventurous travelers, but the last thing I want during my stay is a bathroom cup of coffee. And I don't think I would ever be desperate enough to use that stick of deodorant.
I felt guilty for the subpar living arrangements, but we all sort of laughed it off and made the best of it. My dad was trying to find the Michigan and Penn State game, but the TV couldn't seem to pick up the channel, so he watched it from his phone instead. The TV could pick up, however, cute and adorable dog videos that were submitted by their loving owners. Imagine America's Funniest Videos, but all of the content is of their four legged friends, and this being the only thing the station had to play. We were naturally mesmerized by it, and kept it on in the background as we settled in for the night.
Since we only had one true day of experiencing Jersey before the marathon, we did our best to make the most of it. We hashed out plans the night prior, and solidified them over breakfast at the OC Surf Cafe in Ocean City before hitting the boardwalk in Atlantic City. I've heard Atlantic City described as an east coast Vegas, which is a fairly accurate depiction. The sun-soaked city has casinos, eateries, a small amusement park and touristy shops all located on the boardwalk, which is part of the course for the marathon.
After getting a feel for the boardwalk, we ventured to the Absecon Lighthouse, which is the tallest lighthouse in the state at 171 feet. The stairs were a nice workout for the race the following day, or at least that's how I justified it. A nice older woman handed me a slip of paper when I reached the top, as proof that I made it. My brother Joel decided to hang back for the full climb, as some smaller kids making a raucous on the staircase leading up to it was making him nervous, as he's not a big fan of heights to begin with.
After having a drink at The Irish Pub, which served as an old speakeasy during prohibition (and had the hotels in Monopoly modeled after its design), we made our way to our final destination to the day: Lucy the Elephant. The unique architectural structure is known for being America's oldest roadside attraction. Lucky for Joel, it had several characteristics that appeased to him: a uniquely constructed building, interesting Americana history and it was closer to the ground. Well, 65 feet compared to 171. Either way, it was the perfect cap to a day full of impromptu adventures before the marathon the following day.
The next morning started like any other for race day. I did my pre-race rituals at the Airbnb, and then my dad dropped me off near the starting line to warm up and mentally get ready for the race. I luckily wasn't experiencing any knee pain in my warmups, but time seemed to drag on for an eternity waiting for the start. There only seemed to be one bathroom in the area, which was constantly full of participants. This is very normal for a race, so I always make sure to give myself plenty of time to prepare before the start. When I went to use the bathroom one final time, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had the bathroom all to myself. I figured I just got lucky and came in at just the right time.
As I casually got back near the starting line, I figured out why the bathroom was so empty. I glanced down at my watch, and realized I only had a minute or so until the race started. I had my Garmin set on a feature to track my steps in order to get an accurate reading for a Wellness program at work, so I completely lost track of time. In a somewhat panicked state, I tried to make my way up toward the front as much as I could. Naturally, I didn't make it too far before the race officially started, so I immediately started the race feeling the need to catch up to the front pack.
I was a little frustrated with my poor time management at first, but the wide boardwalk and empty streets made it easy for me to get around people and to settle into a pace with runners that are closer to my marathon pace. I quickly calmed myself down and just focused on running my own race, and soaking in the experience that I drove over 700 miles to feel.
The first third of the race went by in a breeze. I settled into a comfortable pace, the weather was moderate, the course was nice and flat, and I wasn't experiencing any hindering knee pain. I could tell that a reduced mileage plan while babying a knee injury took a toll on my stamina, as I was feeling a bit more labored by that point than normal. However, as a whole, everything seemed to be going according to plan, until around the halfway point.
As I got closer to the halfway point, I felt the need to use the bathroom. I didn't study the map in-depth to see where the bathroom stations were, as I generally like to be surprised by a course. I feel as if it adds to the adventure to go in somewhat blind to a racing experience. However, this day, it left me in somewhat of a panicked state once again.
By this point in the race, I've turned off the boardwalk and onto the normally busy Atlantic Ave, that's been blocked off for the race. Neither location is exactly bathroom friendly with no porta potties and so many spectators. Around mile 14, I was excited to see some porta potties in the distance on the left-hand side of the street. As I quickly approached one, I tried to open it with no avail. Perplexed by the situation, I looked closer at the handle to see that the door was zip tied shut to prohibit its use. It was a truly heartbreaking moment, and a twisted joke for someone who was nearing tunnel vision from needing to use the bathroom so bad.
As I trudged on the next few miles, I honestly contemplated approaching one of the houses lining the busy street and asking if I could use their bathroom. I wondered how it would come off from their perspective. A complete stranger, drenched in sweat and smelling like death, looking desperate and asking to use their bathroom. Even a Good Samaritan would be hesitant to agree to that.
Shortly after mile 16, I reached a turnaround with some race officials guiding participants along the way. It was the perfect opportunity to figure out a bathroom situation, and feel out if I needed execute operation 'Freak out a Local.' The race volunteer informed me that there was a porta potty roughly a quarter of a mile up the road. The response was damn near music to my ears.
A wave of relief washed over me as I approached the long awaited porta potty. It was stationed directly in front of a house that was under construction, and slightly off the road. Thinking back on it, I don't think the porta potty was an official Atlantic City Marathon facility, but rather one that happened to be there for a construction project. Either way, I was too desperate to care.
Feeling a much needed sense of relief, I pressed on for the remaining ten miles. While that aspect of feeling uncomfortable was taken care of, I was still feeling a heavy sense of fatigue from an overall low mileage plan coming into the race from my previous injury. I trudged along with what little energy I had left, fully aware that my time wasn't going to be earth shattering by any means.
Around mile 22, I passed by some individuals heading my direction toward the turnaround at mile 16 wearing their t-shirts from the Baltimore Marathon from that year. These crazy bastards actually did it, they ran the Baltimore Marathon the day prior, and were now doing Atlantic City. They were executing the original plan I had from the year before. It gave me a sense of comfort knowing I wasn't the only one who came up with that utterly ridiculous plan. It gave me the reassurance that if they can run two marathons in one weekend, I can find the strength to finish this one.
I made it back onto the famous boardwalk with a little more than a 5K left to go in the race. Mentally I was feeling strong, but my legs were saying otherwise. A few individuals were passing me left and right, who I know I would have finished minutes in front of if I was in my normal racing shape. The music from the boardwalk continued to get louder, as it slowly blended into announcements over a microphone. The finish line was finally within sight.
As I anticipated, my time wasn't earth shattering. It was nearly 40 minutes slower than my typical sub three hour performance. But since I didn't have any hindering knee pain throughout the race, I took it as a win. The course truly captured some iconic locations around New Jersey, so I was mainly happy just to be able to experience it.
I felt as if I got a good sense of the scenery during my visit, but not much interaction from the locals. That all changed when we stopped at Shut Up and Eat in Toms River as we were driving out of the city. The atmosphere was pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a restaurant of that name. The server was loud and brutally honest. The food was hearty, and the space was cramped with tables being very close to one another. It was perfect. It was just the sendoff we needed from the Garden State before making the drive to Gettysburg, where the second half of the road trip was to begin.