One long lap to kick off May

Ed Carpenter’s 2018 pole speed for the Indianapolis 500 was 229.618 mph, which equates to a time of 2 minutes, 36.78 seconds for a 10-mile run.  Come tomorrow morning, I will barely traverse through a single turn at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in that same amount of time.  *sigh*

Tomorrow, I will join roughly 30,000 fellow “runners” for the 43rd Annual OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini Marathon, more commonly known as the Indy Mini or simply “The Mini.”  (I say runners in quotes because I do not consider myself a runner.  I “run,” but anyone who sees me can quickly tell I am not a runner.)  For 13.1 miles, I will question my sanity and wonder why I not only agreed to such insanity but actually knowingly signed up for it.

This will be my sixth Mini and my 14th half marathon overall.  I first got started in 2012, and, like many of my worst decisions in life, it was pride that got me into it.  Around December 2011, I was texting back and forth with James Black, who before becoming a big-time photographer for INDYCAR, was one of us lowly blogger types with his site 16thandGeorgetown.com.  Somehow the topic of running and The Mini came up.  Neither of us having experienced The Mini before, we decided it would be interesting to give the 5K a shot.  I knew I was out of shape, but with five months advanced notice, surely I could get ready for a 5K.  A couple weeks later, the topic came up again, and he said he had signed up.  FOR THE HALF MARATHON!!!

Sometimes I have a problem setting boundaries and just accepting defeat, and this was certainly an instance of “well if he’s doing it, then I have to do it too!”  So against my better judgement, I signed up for the half marathon as well.  That was December 2011.  I never dreamed I would still be running seven years later.

But an odd thing happened as I got into my training.  I realized that I was actually enjoying it, and I was really looking forward to race day (though I admittedly had no idea what was coming).  I had heard from several people (non race fans mostly) that running around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the worst part of the experience.  I thought surely they must be wrong because I’d think that would have to be the best part of the experience.  You’re running on THE track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Why wouldn’t anyone enjoy that??  Oooohhhhhh…. I’d soon find out!!

Race Day of 2012 was substantially warmer than most of the training I had done through the winter and early spring.  And to borrow one of George Phillips’ favorite words — I am not exactly what one might describe as svelte.  I stand about 6′-3″, and depending on the year, I generally come in between 235 and 270 pounds.  I am not a model of fitness.  As such, I tend to be very sensitive to heat when I run.

Most people enjoy running on sunny days when temperatures reach into the 60s and 70s.  Not me.  I am as happy as I can be when temperatures are in the 20s and 30s (one of the reasons I particularly enjoy the fall Monumental Marathon in Indianapolis).  And cloudy is always better than sunny.  Once temperatures reach into the 50s, I start sweating profusely and getting grumpy.  Race Day 2012 saw temperatures in the low to mid 70s and was sunny throughout.

Just before mile 6, I entered the Indianapolis Motor Speedway through the 16th Street tunnel.  It’s always a bit disheartening to do so from the standpoint that emerging from the tunnel, you see the massive video board ahead of you and the winners are being interviewed before you’ve even gotten to the halfway point.  As I wound my way past the Museum, toward Turn 10 of the IMS road course, and onto the backstretch of the oval, I thought the trip around the track was going to be pleasant.  And quite honestly, for most of the north end, it was enjoyable.  However, exiting Turn 4 and starting down the front straight, I think I would have been more comfortable curled up in an oven.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but between the black asphalt of the track and the sun reflecting brightly off the grandstands on both your right and your left, I felt like one of the bugs I used to burn with a magnifying glass as a child (don’t judge me).  It was brutal, and for nearly three-quarters of a mile, I felt the energy draining quickly from my body.

Thankfully upon exiting the track, there were more water stops and trees lining 10th Street as we made our way back to downtown.  I was very glad and exhausted when the race was over, but before long, I had somewhat forgotten about the punishment of running on the track.

In the following years, I actually learned to anticipate the brutal nature of running on the track and mentally prepared myself for it.  What I started to notice was how much of the history I was thinking about as I made almost an entire lap of the facility on foot.

I’ve driven my car around the IMS oval on a handful of occasions.  While it’s a very cool experience, it goes by fairly quickly, even at 30 mph, and you don’t get much time to really absorb the history you are engrossed in.  During The Mini, I was really able to do that.

When you enter the oval on the backstretch, you do so at almost the exact location where Bill Vukovich was fatally injured in 1955.  It looks vastly different now, but it isn’t difficult to imagine the horror that consumed that location so many years ago.

As I entered Turn 3 during the 2015 Mini, I vividly remember getting to the point where the warm up lane peels off.  I couldn’t help but think of two daring passes that were attempted in this exact location — the first a failed attempt by Sam Hornish on Lap 199 of the 2006 Indianapolis 500 and the second a successful pass by Ryan Hunter-Reay just a year before.  I’ve seen the video of RHR’s heroic pass countless times and thought about how narrow of a gap he shot to complete it.  Standing in that exact spot made the gap look only a fraction as large and made Hunter-Reay’s pass all the most impressive.

Further into Turn 3 was the site of many sad tears through the years.  I thought of Pat O’Connor losing his life at that exact location in 1958 and Gordon Smiley doing so in 1982.  But more than anything, I heard the voice of Larry Henry at top volume and octaves higher than usual describing Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser, Jr. coming together here in 1989 with only Emmo making it through safely while Little Al stood at the side of the track with two sarcastic thumbs up.

As I made my way through Turn 4, it was hard not to think of JR Hildebrand leading as he entered this, his final of 800 left turns, only to come upon a slower Charlie Kimball and end up in the wall within sight of the checkered flag.  I also thought of Emerson Fittipaldi again and how only the slightest momentary lapse of concentration caused him to lose control of a dominant car in 1994, ending his run in the legendary Mercedes-powered car 16 laps short of the finish.

But it is at this point, exiting Turn 4, where the Indianapolis Motor Speedway really presents itself in all its glory.  Finally you see the full majesty of the front straightaway, a canyon of grandstands on either side, the entrance to pit lane and the massive Pagoda on your left, and Turn 1 so far down the road that you can barely see the wall at the far end through the heat waves radiating from the asphalt.  It’s almost impossible to imagine starting the race when standing on the track because the track, only 50 feet wide at this point, feels much narrower than it looks on TV.  You try to image what it would look like to see the empty stands actually filled to capacity with nearly 200,000 people within sight.  It’s more than you can imagine unless you’ve truly experienced it.  When you get to the Start/Finish line, many people will stop to kiss the bricks.  Yes, I have done it, and no, I didn’t consider how gross it actually was.

Once you get past the front straightaway and into the south chute, the aura wears off and the running becomes tough again.  It’s not tough from an elevation standpoint, obviously, but the relentless heat continues to beat off the track and the stands.  You exit the oval just north of the exit of Turn 2, directly across from where you enter, and sneak around the back of the Executive Suites that Tom Sneva, Rick Mears, and Sebastien Bourdais did their best to shower with debris over the years.

Quite honestly, the run down Main Street in Speedway and around the track are the highlights of The Mini.  Getting out to Speedway from downtown via Michigan Street and back downtown via 10th Street are rather forgettable.  Neither stretch represents the best of Indianapolis and getting off those two streets is a happy point of the race.

I will say, however, that the sixth mile of the race, which is run down Main Street in Speedway and into IMS, and the last mile of the race, which is run on New York Street between the White River Parkway and West Street, are the best miles of the race (outside of IMS of course).  Main Street is packed with spectators from the time you step on just north of 10th Street until you reach the round about at Crawfordsville Road and head east toward the Speedway entrance.  (Yes, I have often considered a stop at Charlie Brown’s at the five-mile point, but that would make the last eight miles more excruciating that usual!)  Running down Main Street truly feels like a small town festival where all the town comes out to support the runners.  It’s one of my favorite stretches of running in any race I’ve run.

The final mile is lined with spectators the entire distance as well and is an inspiring finish to the race.  There have been a few years when I didn’t think I could continue to put one foot in front of the other.  In 2016 in particular, I thought I could make it over the White River bridge and the rest of the way home, but Jake Query, IMS Radio Network veteran and a friend of mine for nearly 10 years now, came up from behind and made sure I made it the rest of the way.  Between his insistence that we keep going together and the cheers of the thousands of people along the road, I finally got to the finish line.  It was a slow and painful journey, but I eventually made it.  I’ve never forgotten Jake’s inspiration that day and his willingness to run beside me step for step.

This year, I head toward The Mini significantly better trained than I have been in previous years and am looking forward to hopefully posting my best time in this race.  I made a commitment in January to run 1,000 miles in 2019, and I will start The Mini with about 415 miles under my belt for the year.  This is one race, however, that I don’t run to set my personal record.  It is honestly one of those races that I just run to enjoy the experience.  I’ve actually considered a couple times walking the entire length of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway just to have longer to absorb the magic of the moment.  I probably won’t though.  The competitiveness within myself kicks in and keeps me from doing that.

Being one of the largest, if not the largest, half marathons in the United States, running this event is different that most other marathons or half marathons.  In most races, the start of the race is pretty congested but the runners thin out within a mile or so.  In The Mini, the runners never thin out.  That might be my greatest complaint about this race… it’s just so big.  The organizers really do a fantastic job in every way to make the race go off without a hitch.  I’ve never known of or noticed anything that didn’t go as expected, so the 500 Festival deserves massive kudos for handling 30,000 runners and an unfathomable number of spectators flawlessly.

Even though I sometimes question my sanity for subjecting myself to this voluntary form of torture, I really am looking forward to running The Mini again this year after a two-year absence.  It is a great way to challenge myself, and I love the feeling when I cross the finish line.  But there is really nothing like experiencing the two and a half miles of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on foot and absorbing 110 years of history that surrounds you.  It’s a shame the 5K for this event is run downtown or that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway doesn’t have a 5K of its own because I would encourage every man, woman, and child to participate in that.  I would even love to help organize it, perhaps with large displays and radio broadcast highlights of significant events that took place at various locations around the track.  I’d have to think there are thousands of fans who would enjoy that.

So if you wouldn’t mind, spare a thought for me tomorrow morning, and send best wishes as I and 30,000 other crazies set off on a 13.1-mile journey from downtown Indianapolis to and around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and back.  The weather forecast isn’t looking great right now with rain and temperatures in the mid 50s predicted.

But that is secondary.  No matter how hard it is, I will do my best to keep putting one foot in front of the other, enjoy the moment, and proudly finish my 14th half marathon.  At the end, an awesome medal awaits, and as those who know me well know, I really run for the bling.

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