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  • Writer's pictureEric Spitz

Ohio - A Marathon in Every State

Overcoming Obstacles: A Cincinnati Story - Three days before attempting my 11th marathon I was diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection.

It was May 2, 2019. A little over two weeks prior, I ran my worst performance in my four years of running in the Boston Marathon. It was the first time I didn’t hit a qualifying time of 3:00:00, per my age group, to return to Boston the following year; only missing it by a mere 13 minutes and 11 seconds.

It was a very weird time in my life in general. Earlier in that week an old friend of mine passed away from a drug overdose. Despite the slump I was experiencing in my running performance, the temporary setback with my health and the shock that comes with losing a fellow classmate, I remained optimistic in taking a quick weekend trip to Ohio to compete in the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati. It was a race I approached with no expectations, given everything else that was happening in my life. While the pressure to run a time faster than 3:00:00 to return to Boston should have been looming in my head, I simply shrugged away the thought and told myself “if I don’t compete at Boston next year, then it just wasn’t in the cards for me.”

My brother Joel was consistently working 60 hour weeks, but still decided to join me in my venture to Cincinnati. After a standard 10 hour shift ending in the early Saturday morning, we immediately loaded up in my car and started the drive south. Joel’s sleep for the day had to come from whatever he could muster in the back of a Buick Lucerne as I tried my best to avoid the Michigan potholes. Poor guy.

I coordinated meeting up with my friend Sabina in Dayton on the drive down, who I originally met at a Tiger’s Jaw show in the Fall of 2018. We met up at one of my favorite breakfast spots in Ohio: Butter Cafe. At this point, Joel managed less than four hours of sleep before I dragged him out of the car to join us for breakfast.

Channeling my inner-dude at Butter Cafe. (I had to stand on a chair to make this picture happen, which I’m sure made the surrounding patrons very uncomfortable.)

We reminisced about life and bonded over food, as we often do whenever our paths cross. We hashed out our plans for the day, which didn’t include a very long list with the race being early the next morning. I mainly wanted to show Joel some of my favorite spots around Cincinnati, which Sabina was happy to join us for as well.

As Joel and I made the drive into Cincinnati, I started feeling off. This anxiety was different than the pre-race jitters that came with an approaching race. I had a general feeling of uneasiness navigating around Cincinnati as we approached our Airbnb. I’ve explored the city a bit before, and had a blast, but this time felt strangely different. The neighborhood we were staying didn’t feel entirely safe to me, which explained the awesome deal on the app. I was relying on the reviews I read before booking the place, which worked well for me to that point, so I just tried to shake the feeling of paranoia and tell myself I was just overreacting.

The driveway to the Airbnb had a very high and unnecessary brick decor, which made it nearly impossible to navigate without scuffing the vehicle. This only added to my frustration and anxiety further, but I did my best to remain optimistic. Once inside, the space felt very lived in and inhabited, giving off an uncomfortable presence that we were intruding. It was as if someone rushed off to work, and half-attempted to pick up before guests arrived.

The fridge was packed with leftovers, which didn’t provide much room for me to store any of my grocery items of my usual pre-race snacks. There were a few dirty dishes left in the sink. The bedroom felt bare and without decoration, and felt generally soul-less. The bathroom had a lack of basic amenities like shampoo and conditioner, and had a lone bar of already opened soap sitting at the sink.

The entire living space further fueled my anxiety and uneasiness, as I can be a bit of a germophobe. I realize it’s a contradiction with trying to be a rugged traveler, but it’s something I’m working on. I didn’t even feel comfortable sitting anywhere in the house, but just kept reassuring myself it would only be for one night.

To try and shake my apprehension, Joel and I met back up with Sabina at Urban Artifact for a drink, which is a brewery and music venue that was converted from the historic St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. The brewery specializes in fruit and sour beers, which didn’t disappoint after having the flavorful and refreshing Kaleidoscope sour. Despite the amazing beers on tap, it couldn’t quite sooth my angst. I sat quiet with my mind running on overdrive from a general feeling of dread, feeling guilty that I wasn’t being my normal self.

I thought that food would help improve my mood, and was excited to have Joel experience Boomtown Biscuits & Whiskey. The familiar space uplifted my spirits temporarily, and the food was to the high quality I remember it being on my previous visit. However, with a full day of Joel getting only a few hours of sleep in the car, and me on the verge of a constant panic attack, we were both exhausted. We were about as useful and interesting as mannequins occupying a space. I decided it would be best to pick up a few supplies from the store and settle in for the night.

As I was getting items around for the race the next morning, Joel began frantically throwing items out of his bag in a frenzied search. He made the realization in his deliriously tired state, he forgot to grab his toothbrush that was sitting right by the door back in Michigan. It was at this moment that I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. I felt terrible for dragging Joel along on my trip when he had no sleep. I felt bad for being such an anxious mess when I met up with Sabina, and having her drive all the way to Cincinnati just for me to be a lifeless shell of my normal self. And I was also mad at myself for letting a space that didn’t meet my standard of cleanliness dictate my mood and tear me down. I was ready to drift to sleep and have the day come to an end.

The next morning I woke up with plenty of time to eat and perform my pre-race rituals, eager to make Ohio my 8th state on my 50 state journey. As I went to open the microwave to reheat my leftovers from the day before, I was surprised to find a plastic tray of chicken and broccoli already occupying the space. Who knows how long it had been sitting there, as it certainly didn’t belong to Joel or I. The smell was disgusting, so I quickly threw everything away to get it out of my mind before I started freaking out again.

I began to calm down as we made the drive to the start of the race. No matter how I’m feeling, running has a way of clearing my mind and putting me at ease. Maybe that’s why it has become such an addiction of mine over the years.

As the music blared over the speakers prior to the start of the race, the familiar adrenaline was coursing through my veins. I was getting into that focused and determined state of mind, ready to soak in the Blue Chip City. As flames shot from the top of the banners and “High Hopes” by Panic! At the Disco played over the speakers, my adrenaline was through the roof as I passed beneath the starting banner, and physically felt the heat of the flames above me.

Within the first couple of miles I crossed the bridge into the state of Kentucky. Crossing state borders on foot is an odd and exhilarating experience, even though Cincinnati is nestled virtually on the Kentucky border. Like traveling on a bike or motorcycle, running allows one to experience the sights and the smells of a city first-hand, making the traveling experience pure and genuine. That state border served as a metaphor in my head, crossing that imaginary line we drew on maps to experience two states on foot that have a completely different connotation when brought up in conversation. But I digress.

Miles five through ten remained hilly, and my poor pace reflected that. I was trying to find a rhythm in the race, and seemingly out of nowhere shortly after, I found it. I don’t know if it was the medication for my respiratory infection kicking in, the sheer adrenaline from the race, or the fact that I was finally letting go of all the unease from the day before, but either way my confidence was building.

I was knocking out miles effortlessly, and found myself surrounded by a group of aspiring Boston qualifiers. They were obsessively looking at their watches, fixated on pace and rhythm. When I told one of my aspirations to re-qualify that day, he offered words of encouragement, saying I was on pace to do it.

As if the name doesn’t give it away, the race has an obsession with pigs. In fact, the city was once nicknamed “Porkopolis” because of all the stockyards and the meat packing industry. The spectators who line the streets to cheer on participants are referred to as “Street Squealers.” Despite my expectations, unfortunately none of the Street Squealers squealed like pigs in a black metal fashion to encourage runners along their route. However, I’ll never forgot the look of horror one woman had after grabbing a cup of what she suspected to be water being handed out by the volunteers (referred to as “Grunts”), and throwing it down in utter disgust realizing it was a cup full of bacon. Apparently that was the last thing she wanted around the halfway mark.

With a few miles to go, I became one of those obsessive Boston Marathon aspirants that was staring obsessively at their watch. In my delirious mental state, I knew it was going to be very close on hitting a time in 3:00:00 or under. I forced myself to run as fast as my legs would carry me, forgetting all about the fact that I was fighting off a virus that affected my breathing.

As I approached the “Finish Swine” and saw the clock above, I became disheartened. My official time ended up being 3:00:13, missing the qualifying standard by a measly 13 seconds.

I seemed to be haunted by the number 13. And while I should have been utterly upset and frustrated, I was in surprisingly high spirits. I had no expectations going into the race, especially considering I was coming off a subpar marathon only weeks prior, and was battling a virus. The fact that I still came that close to re-qualifying for Boston made me pretty damn proud, and gave me the kind of confidence boost I needed. It was a step in the right direction for getting my time back down to where I once was.

After devouring a complimentary slice of pizza like a Goddamn barbarian after I finished, Joel and I wandered to a popular brunch spot. Upon walking in to the long line of hungry patrons, Joel and I were approached by a pleasant waitress who asked us the best question any food establishment can conjure: “Would you like a mimosa?” The answer is always yes.

Renewed and re-spirited, we talked over brunch about the trip, eager to start making the drive back home. Despite the preceding experiences, we knew the imperfections of the trip would make a funny story in hindsight. As for me, I was proud of myself for overcoming all odds stacked against me to stay focused and do what I came to the Buckeye State to do. Our sights were already set on my next race in Colorado the following month, with the hopes that Joel would be a little more rested and me a little less on-edge for that trip.

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