Two years ago, I set a goal to run a marathon in under 3 hours.  It was an ambitious goal, something that was probably at the limit of what I was capable of physically.  To provide some added motivation I decided to pick a race where maybe, just maybe, I’d have a chance of winning.  After doing some research I found the Pacific Crest Marathon, which usually has a winning time of just under 3 hours.  Was I cherry picking?  Yeah sort of, but ultimately the goal was to go sub 3.  The possibility of winning was just an added dose of mental motivation.

Before the start of the race, I walked around scoping out the competition.  Everyone looked about as nervous as I felt.  But to my relief no one looked particularly intimidating…except for this one guy.  Like many great runners he was short and all muscle.  He was wearing pink knee-high compression socks and a bright green T-shirt that said, “Running Sucks.”  This guy exuded confidence, cockiness even.

When the gun went off, he took off in a sprint and was soon out of sight.  Just a minute into the race and already I knew that my chances of winning had evaporated.  In a way it was kind of a relief.  Now I could just focus on the time goal and not on this ridiculous idea of winning.  The race went well.  I ran a 2:58 and finished in 3rd place overall.  The Running Sucks guy jogged in the last few miles and still won by ten minutes.  Supposedly he took it easy because he had another marathon to run (and win) the next day.  Who the hell was this guy?

marathon junkie

His name is Chuck Engle, but he’s also known as the Marathon Junkie.  He races almost every weekend and has won more than 150 marathons.  The interesting thing is that even though he’s a great runner, he’s definitely not at an elite level.  There’s no way he could qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials or finish in the top 100 at the Boston Marathon. Yet this a guy could win over 90% of all marathons…it’s crazy.

So, is he cherry picking?  I don’t think so, not if he’s winning the vast majority of the races he enters.  He knows that he can’t compete with the truly elite, so instead he focuses on winning smaller marathons.  Nothing wrong with that.  Wish I could do the same.  I’d love to win a race someday, but for that to happen it’s gonna have to be at a marathon without the Junkie.

birch bay

Last weekend I ran the Birch Bay Marathon up near the Canadian border.  My buddy Chuck and I drove up there together.  It’s a beautiful course, right on the water with views of a bunch of snow-capped peaks.  It’s a small town race and for the first time in a long time I thought maybe I had a chance of winning.  I try not to get my hopes up, but it’s kind of fun to indulge in the possibility.

The weather was perfect, low 40’s, no wind.  I trained hard through the winter and felt both strong and well-rested.  Chuck and I were warming up in the parking lot when a jeep pulled up with an Oregon custom license plate that read, “26.2”  Even before he got out of the car, I knew it was the Junkie.  There’s no escape from this guy.  It’s like he knows when that audacious thought of winning enters my head and shows up just to crush my ego.  Damn that Junkie.

Not that I really cared.  Once again it took the pressure off.  Now I could just focus on running a smart consistent race.  Beforehand Chuck and I agreed to both try to run PR’s (personal records).  Chuck would go for a 1:37 in the half marathon, while I’d try for a 2:57 in the full.  All I can say is that Chuck is a lot better at keeping promises than I am.

The race was super low-key.  The start/finish line was simply drawn in chalk across the road.  One of the aid stations was staffed by a mother and her two boys, who handed out little Dixie cups of Gatorade.  It rained a bit during the first hour, but in general the conditions were optimal.  I passed a few people early on and then ran the rest of the race alone.  Along the course there were probably more seagulls than spectators.

I finished in 3:01 and got 5th place overall.  Of course the Junkie won easily and was already on his way back to Coos Bay, Oregon by the time I finished. Chuck ran a 1:37 and set a new PR.  When he finally gets his Achilles fixed up, I’m sure he’ll shave a few minutes off of that time.

Afterwards we ate a couple of bowls of the famous African peanut soup at the Colophon Cafe in Fairhaven and paid a visit to Village Books, one of the great bookstores in the Pacific Northwest.  As far as I’m concerned I’d rather have a good time with a friend than run a good time in a race.  What do you think of that Junkie?