27 November 2015

Odd and Unexpected

Yikes! A month has slipped by. You can, of course, thank me for the time you’ve gotten back while not reading what I haven’t published. It’s not that there haven’t been random ideas swimming around in my head (though I am in no way a competent swimmer, which saves me a lot of money by keeping me away from triathlons), it’s just that those ideas haven’t seen time to jump from neuron to (electronic) paper. So let’s start catching up on those random thoughts by starting in an odd place and making our winding way to an unexpected place.

I experienced an odd moment a couple of weeks back. Really, we all did, but I’ll wager most of you didn’t notice it. Just before two in the afternoon a couple Fridays back, it occurred to me that we hit 1-3-5-7-9-11-13-15, or, in military time, 13:57:09 on the 13th of November 2015. Yes, it’s nerdy, but that is what I live for, and I am proud that one of my running friends figured it out when I merely mentioned ‘odd moment’. Our type sticks together.

That odd moment was appropriately timed, hitting during an episode of wild New England weather where I’d left the house in shorts (and thankfully at least long sleeves) for an unseasonably warm and sunny fifty-seven-degree November afternoon jaunt, only to find myself periodically pelted with wind-driven and seemingly frozen rain bullets as waves of doom sped over skyward. But just as that odd moment was about to arrive, the sun returned to deliver one of the richest double rainbows of recent memory. And to make the moment odder, unbeknownst to me, at that moment Dearest Daughter the Younger was enroute to reconnoiter the course for the next day’s cross country championships, and DDY’s peeps, following behind, caught the Japanese Rainbow, where instead of a pot-o-gold, there’s a Honda at the end. Odd moment indeed.

And so we segue from odd bits peppered by weather to the family theme peppered by weather. DDY’s cross country meet, wrapping up her high school career, was notable mostly for its bone-chilling wind. But otherwise the weather gods have smiled upon our clan of late. Dearest Spouse wrapped up her Couch-to-5K program on the finest of gorgeous fall days. Her ‘graduation’ race, a small gathering of current and recent C25K grads, was a bit anticlimactic, she having read ahead and already run not one but two 5Ks during the term of the program.

Having already run earlier that morning (and of course eaten a donut, this was, after all, a Saturday) and not seeking any more miles for the day, I arrived with every intention of hanging in the shadows; after all, this was Dearest Spouse’s day, not mine. But the program organizers pointed me out to a sixtyish gentleman, one of the returnees, who was seeking a pacer to drop his time. Several lame attempts at hiding later, I found myself coaching him down the rail trail, doing my best to distract him from the coming task of coming back up. Shortly after we spun around for the uphill return, Dearest Spouse surprisingly appeared, not nearly as far back as I’d expected, or, for that matter, as would be good for her pace. Puzzled, but with no intention of getting in the way of her day, I focused my concerns on my charge, chatting up a blue streak to continue my strategy of distraction, and brought him home well ahead of his ambitious target. One charge down, a happy guy, and one spouse, who’d seemed to have gone out too fast, to go.

As it happened, my assessment wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t so much DS as it was her young running friend who’d gone aggressively rogue on the outbound leg – dragging DS along for the ride – and was now paying the price on the back nine. This event not being in any way competitive, DS stuck with her, and once again, the coaching team of Cattarin & Cattarin (this time the other half) found itself coaxing a charge back up the hill and across the line. Two charges down, the second one not so happy, but DS perfectly happy and fully graduated.

And then, what’s a C25K grad to do, but…sign up for another race! Quick, before rational thought talks you out of it! …which gives us a segue from family peppered by weather to family racing in general, which brings us to that most populist of events in running, the Great American Turkey Trot, or, the non-Catholic way of confessing and atoning for your dietary sins before they are committed.

The road to any starting line is pocked with potholes (especially in New England), and DS managed to find one, taking on the true nature of a runner by somehow popping a calf muscle a week after C25K and experiencing that injury-versus-race-date angst that only a runner knows. She healed in time. I, on the other hand, went the other direction. On top of the nagging left knee injury courtesy of that ridiculous (but fun!) White Mountains trail run, which was piled on top of the chronic left knee as yet unidentified annoyance, everything went achy again down south on both sides. Why? Who knows? Bad glucosamine? New shoes? Age? For whatever reason, I’ve been a hurting pup. Strike One! Thus I was looking at the Stow Gobbler 5K as a family outing, not a serious race.

Not a serious race means not tapering or resting, so on top of the aches and pains, Thursday arrived on the heels of four ten-mile days, two of which were at least partially hard workouts. Tired legs. Strike Two!

And let’s add an insult to this fracas. Ever organized, DS not only planned our day-before early number pickup, but went so far as to set out said tags for quick access in the morning. Terrific planning on her part, as usual. But the execution on my part was a bit lacking. The good news? I figured out before we got to the race that I’d left mine behind. The bad news? We were almost at the race by that moment. So while we had enough time to get back home for the pickup, my pre-race routine was considerably less than desired. Crappy warm-up. Strike Three!

This is, of course, a setup to segue from the general family racing theme to the unexpected place. But by now, based on the structure of this column, you knew that.

It’s not unexpected that when the race starts, I take all of the reasons why this should be a lousy day and toss them aside. Somewhere inside, that racing mentality commands this to happen. What is unexpected is that the results didn’t look like the aftermath of a three-strike lead-in.

There wasn’t a moment of cruising in this one. Being a Turkey Trot, where everyone and his brother shows up for their one race a year (and good for them), the crowd was large – almost a thousand – and the stampede off the line almost seemed Grand-Prix-like. At least forty or fifty leapt out ahead by the quarter mile. Though many faded in the next quarter, just holding pace with those who didn’t seemed unusually hard. I repeatedly forced myself to stick with this clump or that just to hold the intensity, because my body had no interest in doing so otherwise. But the clumps kept disintegrating as more and more fell off the pace, making holding that intensity difficult.

Mile one clocked in quite reasonable for a decent race, but knowing how hard the start had been, my head told me I’d already started the long fade. Mile two’s number, also quite reasonable, somehow didn’t pierce the fog that said this was just another ho-hum outing. Had it, I might have seen an opportunity to really slam the hammer rather than simply hold on. My bad on that one.

With three-quarters of a mile to go, both the women’s leader and a gentleman whom I knew to be masters class (this race had no fifty-plus division) crept up, crept past. Letting the woman go was easy. Letting the master go, being fairly sure there were no others ahead of us, was a bit tougher, but cognizant of all the slightly busted parts, and leaning on those tired legs, it seemed the rational thing to do. And hey, he’d recognized me on the starting line and said he’d actually read the blog, so call it a bit of charity in my heart. And we both got the same cheesy medals. And I made a new friend. So really, I’ll take second. What’s not to love?

I caught the woman, who told me flat out that she had no intentions of sprinting in, and that it was all mine. Really, I said, what’s to have? I was just figuring I’d photobomb her finish-line victory shot. I slugged it in with her a second behind.

The unexpected part? In my mind, I think of times I’ve run in years past, and don’t tend to think that years past were in fact years past. New ages should bring new expectations, but it wasn’t till later in post-analysis that this became clear. On crossing that line, the time on the clock was decent, but not exciting. Only later did it become clear that I’d just turned my best road 5K since hitting age fifty (two and a half years back) and not only my best age-graded 5K since fifty, but my third-best age-graded 5K, period. On three strikes. And to sweeten the day, DS, who’d previously run every one of her 5Ks at roughly the same pace, sliced off a minute and a half. Sweet.

So there you have it, a month, boiled down to a few pages, from the odd to the unexpected. It’s always an adventure. Time for turkey.t

01 November 2015

Arbitrary Events

There’s something inexplicably attractive about borders and edges, both physical and logical. Admit it. How many of you have visited Key West and not gone to that street corner with the odd nautical marker that claims to be the southernmost point of the continental United States (never mind that it’s on an island, not a continent, and there are clearly some rocks below the monument that stretch further southward to the water). Yep, done it, and also did South Point in Hawaii, and even the end of the odd spit of land that sticks out from Canada into Lake Ontario, which isn’t the southernmost bit of anything other than the odd spit of land it sits on. But this isn’t about points of land or southernmost things, it’s about arbitrary designations in general, and the pleasure we derive (at least us OCD types) from reaching and crossing them. And I’ve had a couple of them of late, all of them arbitrary, all of them enjoyable.

Probably the easiest of recent oddities to make sound somewhat sane was crossing the milestone of twenty thousand miles. It’s a cool round number, very big to some people, embarrassingly small to others, but interesting enough. It came about on a trail run and of course warranted a selfie at the moment of momentous mileage, after which it was rapidly forgotten and the slow slog began to what I hope will become thirty thousand (admittedly, I’ll probably first take note when the total equals the circumference of the Earth, which again only a nerd can find cool and interesting).

But really, who cares? It’s not true that I ran my twenty-thousandth mile that day. There were thousands in my youthful days, never accurately totaled, being the days before God invented spreadsheets. Further, pages vanished from those early years’ paper logs to discreetly disguise days when running log turned more toward diary. Let’s face it, youthful musings, even when mixed with youthful miles, sometimes didn’t need to be preserved. In short, there’s no accounting for, well, days when there was no accounting. And besides, even I can’t truly accurately log every stride. So this claim of the ground I’ve covered since the start of the second lap, is entirely arbitrary, and that’s before we even get to the arbitrariness of English units of measure themselves. But hey, twenty thousand miles is worth noting. And that arbitrary event came a mere forty-eight hours after another one of a different sort.

A few years ago I set out on a quest to run every mile of every street in my city. Partly it was a way to overcome the winter blues and partly it was just plain nerdy – in short, right up my alley. But it raises an interesting question: what’s the value in running in different places? The alternative, taken to extreme, would be to circle the track – the same track – for every mile of every run ever (actually the true extreme would be life on a treadmill, the same treadmill, and plenty of people do this…I pity them). Clearly that’s not a very interesting way to go through life, so we mix it up, one route one day, another then next. It’s a short leap then to start looking to seeing the world on foot. Indeed just today I had the pleasure of adding three more to my list of Massachusetts towns in which I’ve run, having spent a few hours on the truly lovely Mass Central Rail Trail with one of my local running buds. His idea to head west to this gem (for which I thank him) delivered a delightful route and a change of scenery. I think we can all see the value in that.

While I doubt I’ll ever become a fifty-stater marathon tourist, I respect what they’re doing. I just do it on the cheap, using opportunistic runs rather than dedicated trips. That’s not to say I haven’t hauled off to some distant races, but it’s not a habit directed at the states themselves. But if I find myself somewhere I haven’t run, I’ll try to change that status. So while I’ve set foot in forty-nine states, I had, until a few days back, run in only twenty-four of them, when I found myself in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’d already run in North Carolina. Ah, but not South Carolina.

But I had no rental car, and it was a good eight miles from hotel to the border. And I had no time, this being a twenty-four-hour business trip, for a sixteen-miler – really more, since stepping over the border and stepping back wouldn’t really constitute a good faith effort of running in the state. Time to get creative, and times like these are when you appreciate having fitness-oriented co-workers. When you propose something a little odd, but targeted at a good workout, they tend to get it. They understand that things like that can be big motivators for fitness commitments.

As it worked out, one of my teammates – importantly, the one with the car – was big into Cross-Fit. Cross-Fitters, it seems, are as rabidly dedicated to their workouts as are nerdy OCD runners. So just wait for the right moment…and…sure enough, said teammate mentioned wanting to find a ‘box’, as they call their gyms, for a workout in the morning. I love a person who agrees that a hotel fitness room and its pathetic treadmill is simply not an acceptable form of exercise, barring dire circumstances. Cool. So, um, what’s the chance you can find a box that happens to be south of here? Play it cool, play it gently, then lay it on…because I’d like to run into the next state. Done properly, this sounds entirely rational to a fitness-oriented type. Cross-Fit Boy was on-board.

Meeting schedules, time zones, seasons, and route logistics found me the next morning being dropped a half-hour before sunrise on a pitch-black side street off a major arterial road in a part of the world I’d never set foot in, carrying only a scrap of paper with some route scrawlings – should my memory fail me – and Cross-Fit Boy’s cell phone number. Not that I had a phone to call him on. And he hadn’t even dropped me at his gym, as that would have added more distance than time allowed, so I’d have to find my way to that gym sight unseen, or he’d have no way to find me.

One might easily find this to be entirely absurd, and it was, but it worked.

The Carolinas are not particularly runner-friendly states. Once off the heavily beaten paths, which are equipped only with leg-crushing concrete sidewalks, few roads have shoulders. And like a fool, I hadn’t considered darkness when packing my bags (out of practice from winter lack-of-daylight mode I guess) and had no lights, let alone bright clothing. Moron. So each approaching car drove me off-road onto the hopefully non-ankle-turning dewy grass, hampering progress.

But my timing was stellar, or perhaps just lucky. As the pre-dawn light made turned navigation considerably simpler, I crossed the unmarked border and kicked the clicker to twenty-five. Sticking to my good-faith rule that this had to be more than an in-and-out, I ticked off a couple miles inside the border – certainly not in a very scenic area unless you find corporate distribution centers to be particularly pleasing vistas – before turning back to the north and executing the plan to find that gym – without even needing to reference that scrap of parchment.

Does it matter that I ran a couple miles in state number twenty-five? Well, what kind of story would there be to tell if I’d just hit the treadmill in the hotel? However you choose to motivate yourself, go and make yourself some stories to tell – even if it takes entirely arbitrary events to do so.

24 October 2015

Marathon to Mountain

I’ve had plenty of years in which to do plenty of foolish things, but last week’s escapade ranks high on the list of what I like to call DDTs – or Don’t Do Thats (which are closely related to DTTDs, or Dumb Things To Do, but that one doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily, and I admit I stole both of these terms from a co-worker in the eighties, but whatever…). Less than seventy-two hours after crossing the finish line at Mohawk-Hudson, I found myself summiting Owl’s Head in New Hampshire’s White Mountains with Dearest Daughter the Younger on an eighteen mile odyssey that included fifteen miles of trail running. If that isn’t a DDT, I’m not sure what is.

Most of my compatriots already think me a bit daft for not only running a warm-up before a marathon (no, I don’t do a warm-down afterward), but insisting on running the next day. In my defense, I claim age, both from the sanity perspective (it’s long gone) as well as the tied-in-knots effect. Without a warm-up, I won’t hit stride till mile two or three, an unaffordable delay in any race, even a marathon if you’re racing it. And nixing the next day’s outing generally means subsequent days will find me twisted like the rubber band on those wind-up airplanes we played with as kids. Well, at least we old farts played with them; now they’re powered by some derivative of fossil fuel and lithium ion batteries, but ours had rubber bands. And we liked them.

Though most who’ve run a marathon really don’t want to hear this, my post-race days usually aren’t too bad. One result of high-mileage training is that the distance of the marathon doesn’t cause too much distress, though the intensity certainly can. Day-after damage varies based on the pace of the event, the nature of the course, and so on, but other than a little forty-eight-hour burn (that tendency for muscle soreness to peak on the second day after), I’m not usually in the “Oh My God It’s A Staircase” set. Yup, it was a big race, I ran hard, I hurt a bit, I run it off slowly and gently over the next few days and try not to do anything truly stupid like racing within a week or two.

So it was this time. Following Mohawk Hudson, I felt pretty good – in fact, remarkably good. No real damage and only light muscle aches. A gentle trail run with Dearest Spouse the next morning, followed by a couple of mile walk in the woods later that day, meant that Tuesday’s forty-eight-hour mark was as close to a non-event as one could wish for. Which left me with a problem. DDY, diligently working her way through New Hampshire’s Four-Thousand Footers, had had her eye on a certain obscure spot known as Owl’s Head for some time.

Owl’s Head is obscure for a number of reasons. It’s the only summit of the forty-eight without a maintained trail – the last mile is an unofficial herd path leading straight up a rock slide, then arduously up the remaining elevation to the summit ridge. It’s not only wooded, and therefore somewhat unrewarding (though the views from the climb up the slide are sublime), but it’s so tangled up top that the true summit was only found ten years ago. My previous ascent twenty-three years back reached what was thought to be the top but is now known to be a bit shy (though the Four-Thousand-Footers Committee graciously accepts either summit). But mostly, it’s just a long way from anything. It’s an eighteen-mile round-trip from the nearest road, much of which is not terribly exciting hiking. Back in ninety-two, when running wasn’t in my activity bag, I’d done it in traditional boot-and-big-backpack style, and it had taken close to forever. This adds up to Owl’s Head rarely being a sought-after summit, but it’s on the list and you have to do it.

DDY had been posturing to hit the Head for several years, though the timing just hasn’t worked out. Last year we abandoned plans the night before thanks to an injury of mine that wouldn’t succumb to the healing power of wishful thinking. But this year – you tend to target this for the fall, typically a drier time, because there are plenty of tough stream crossings enroute – DDY happened to have a day off both school and her job, and that day happened to be…three days after Mohawk Hudson. I’d said it was a maybe at best, but when Tuesday found me basking in my non-injurious state, I had no leg to stand on (pun intended) to say no and certainly didn’t want to be the buzz kill a second year running (another pun intended). And let’s face it: the foolish side of me really didn’t want to say no, anyway.

I don’t want to think about what time we dragged our butts out of bed to hit the road. I’ll only recall that we hit the trail a few minutes past seven as the sun struggled to light the landscape through heavy overcast. Rather than hiking style, we went at this in trail-running minimalist fashion: hydration packs tanked to their absolute max (which proved unnecessary and weighty on the forty-to-fiftyish day), both packed beyond their capacity with the barest minimum of gear. Not owning true trail shoes (mine are lightweight with little support, not up to the rocks on a long day in the Whites), we set out in old trainers – mercifully aged versions, expecting levels of abuse which we wouldn’t wish
on any valued pair of shoes (and which did, of course, come to pass).

It’s about nine miles in with eight stream crossings. But this is the fall, when water levels are low, and it hadn’t rained much of late – at least where we live. After burning a tremendous amount of time searching for a crossable spot of the largest flowing obstacle (the GPS trace of those minutes was rather
amusing), we learned from a passing hiker that it had in fact rained cats and dogs the night before. At least we now knew it wasn’t our lack of rock-hopping skill that made the effort so difficult! By our return trip only a few hours later, that same crossing had eased considerably.

We had no unrealistic expectations of getting though this journey anywhere close to dry. We were simply relying on enough relative speed so as not to care about our saturation state (certainly one’s pace on White Mountain trails, especially inbound grading uphill, can’t be called speedy, but speedy relative to a traditional hiking assault.) While trying to avoid the mud, rivulets, rivers, and various joyously hydrated surprises, we cared less and less as the day wore on about missteps. Early day cries of, “I got it!” (meaning wet), faded to simple acceptance of a constant state of wet.

Though slow and frequently interrupted, we managed to keep running, more or less, for about seven and a half of the eight miles to the slide, finally giving up any pretense of moving faster than a hike as that turn drew near. The slide itself was a welcome adventure, not nearly as steep and arduous as I’d expected or remembered from my last trip, and never frightful like our climb up the Tripyramids a couple years back. Below spread a patchwork of brilliant fall gold interspersed with green, unexpectedly duo-tone, reds and oranges
remarkably absent. Above, the trace of the Franconia Ridge vanished into the low overcast, which we soon entered, greeted with a chilling summit wind challenging our minimalist gear, as the path cut relentlessly uphill. For a path that was said to end at the new summit (after bypassing the old non-summit), the final apex was surprisingly elusive, farther north than expected and nearly undiscernible in its supposed maximum altitude. It was easy to see why generations hadn’t noticed it before.

Peak bagged, for DDY one closer to a major life goal, for me one closer on my second circuit of the collection (in harmony with the title and theme of this blog), bodies thoroughly chilled after barely twenty minutes up top, and nine miles outbound awaiting. Just off the slide, we hit the running switch again and by comparison barreled our way downhill, hopping the rivers with ease, perhaps due to slightly lower water, perhaps due to the learning curve of the day, perhaps simply because on the way out, getting very wet bothered us less by the hour. (DDY captured this action in a shot so ironically timed with falling fall foliage that I seem to be showing off how Adam might have dressed had the Garden of Eden been located in New England.) The final flat slog out on the Wilderness Trail, timing strides to span the leftover railroad ties and dodging increasing numbers of short-walk leaf peepers venturing from the parking lot (getting a fabulous show, mind you) found our energy flagging but our spirits soaring over not just the accomplishment (for DDY, this was her longest run and hike), but the audacity; mountain to marathon in three days, serious DDT, notched.

18 October 2015

Almost Perfect

Magic happened around mile five of last week’s Mohawk Hudson Marathon. Just after screaming down the quad-crunching descent from Blatnick Park to the Mohawk River, a coffee klatch formed that turned what had started as a decent but tenuously nervous race into a day for the record books. No, I didn’t eclipse my all-time fastest marathon, but on an age-graded basis (and as a Certified Old Fart, I love age-grading) it was my best. Indeed, on nearly every measure, but one in particular, this one was Almost Perfect.

Many marathons, this one no exception, provide pace groups to assist runners to reach their goal times. But I’ve never seen a race with a pace group targeting sub-three hours; there generally isn’t enough depth in the field to make it worthwhile, and besides, folks in that zone usually have very specific goals. But by mile five, we’d built a cadre of at least a half-dozen, maybe as many as ten, all hammering so solidly and steadily, that we declared ourselves to be the two-fifty-five pace group.

At one point, holding the front line of this formidable posse, someone cracked a joke about our lack of a pace-group sign, and in a foolishly euphoric expenditure of energy I knew I’d want later, I swung my arm up to carry that imaginary standard for a while. It was a worthy investment. The energy I gained – indeed, we all gained – from our alliance far outweighed any we spent on chit-chat and silly gestures. And the mental boost I got when the rest of the youthful gang figured out how old I was felt like someone dumped a can of nitro down the carburetor.

It’s a beauty of the sport that while we’re competing with each other, we’ve got each other’s backs. At the simplest level, it’s trading off gels and beverages and the like, but at the deeper level it’s like hooking yourself to the outside of a moving freight train. You’re not sure it’s safe to continue to hold on, but you know that jumping off is going to really hurt, even if you aim for a soft landing spot. So you draw energy off each other, tell yourself to damn the torpedoes, and motor on.

From the start in Schenectady, I wasn’t certain what I had in me. The ghosts of the achy and ugly months of sub-optimal training leading up to this race pointed to a conservative run, though my heart had targeted this one since the spring for a blow-out performance on a flat and fast course. The perfect foggy forty-five at launch, which would rise only to the mid-to-high fifties when the sun broke through, hampered only by a surprisingly strong headwind at various points, was a siren call to let ‘er rip. But the head kept saying no, don’t be a fool, the body isn’t ready to let loose, just be reasonable, turn in something respectful, and go home sated if not truly satisfied. The only pre-race decision I could garner was a non-binding pact made during warm-up with a young gun named Dan. We agreed. Nothing stupid. Conservative start. Aim for seven-ish.

That much I pulled off. Not seven, but not too far below it as to make me nervous. But things heated up as things do, so by the time our gang coalesced, the gremlins were running amok in my brain clanging alarm bells. Did it really make sense to be burning this pace? Clearly, this was work, and having clicked off fewer than a fifth of the distance, a whole lot of me was saying that this developing race plan really wasn’t a good idea.

So why was this race Almost Perfect? Certainly the result speaks for itself. Clearly the weather, save for that pesky headwind, was ideal (and the post-race warmth made chillin’ by the waterfront with A-One Support Team Dearest Spouse toasty and comfortable). Socially, it was one of the most enjoyable race alliances ever. Then there was the surprise of learning I’d won my age group (and, as it were, topped all older competitors, avoiding that annoying asterisk) – a surprise as I’d learned only the day before that this was the USATF Adirondack Grand Prix marathon. And above those bits was the fact that this the most evenly paced marathon I’ve run, ever, with effectively even splits, a mile-split range spanning less than thirty seconds, and finally, after twenty-three tries, a marathon with every mile under seven minutes. All of that was great, but none of them alone made this one Almost Perfect.

What made this one so satisfying was the mental victory. As the pseudo pace group formed, the back of my head was nothing but doubts that I’d sustain that pace past the halfway mark. I went with it anyway, knowing that the bulk of my marathons have unfurled in survival mode. But this one took a far different path.

As that halfway mark nears, the course is forced to deviate from the flatness of the Mohawk-Hudson bike trail by the stark barricade of the Adirondack Northway. Dropping sharply to duck under the freeway, it quickly climbs back to the rail trail on the other side. Throwing caution to the wind, I found myself powering up the grade, still questioning my sanity, but by now listening to a new mantra that simply said, “Why stop? You don’t have to.” At this point the bulk of our squad began to scatter; we were only three or four when we hit the actual halfway point, so close to two-fifty-five pace that had we actually been the pace group, we’d have been doing a knock-up job. And then we were two, just Utica Joe and I, powering over the mild rise around mile fifteen, forcing each other not to waver not by any desire to beat each other but by that unspoken knowledge that each was each other’s mobile anchor. By the time he finally dropped back at eighteen, my cumulative pace had dropped to its fastest point of the day.

And from eighteen on, it was chutzpah and a little bit of pride that took me home. Chutzpah, audaciously ignoring physical signals, counting down, driving, feeling entirely in control thanks in large part to having run the course and imprinted it in memory. Pride, knowing that Dearest Spouse would be stationed at twenty, and gee, wouldn’t it be nice to look good? (Answer: Yes, and the result was one of the few race pictures ever snapped where I’m smiling and looking like something other than Death Warmed Over.). And once past that photo-op, still in control, the final miles along the Hudson, which I’d feared would be amorphous and unending, instead turned into hunting season, picking off the late faders, the class which would have been mine on most days.

To be fair, mile twenty-five was the slowest leg, though still a few seconds under seven. But that last point-two was, by a decent margin, the fastest. Dearest Spouse, perfectly positioned for a finish line shot, noted that I melted into the arms of the finish line staff, but the truth is that I didn’t really need to, it was mere convenience. Though the needle was on E, there were enough drops left in the tank to finish the job in control, on time, under budget.

Almost Perfect because it was a mental triumph on top of the physical win. Almost Perfect because after Boston, which was probably my best-executed edition of that race, this one, though on an undoubtedly easier course, came off, from an execution standpoint, even better. Almost Perfect because, let’s face it, none of these will ever be entirely perfect, so this is about as good as one can hope for.


Killer Award? Race officials made clear that awards would be presented at the scoring tent immediately, no ceremony, no shipping them home, so I swung by on the off chance I’d won some swag. Having learned at the expo that the race was USATF Grand Prix, I really didn’t expect anything. It was a moment of glee to learn that not only had I placed a lot better then I’d thought, but that I had in fact won my division. Step to the next table to get your award! And then, it was a moment of disappointment to learn that my award was…a hat. Well, um, OK, I suppose it’s a lot more useful than a plaque and doesn’t have to be dusted, so a hat and some honor, OK, I’m good with that. Though I wish they’d put the Hudson Mohawk Marathon logo on the front. It’s a small gripe in an otherwise fabulously run event. Kudos to the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club.

Location, Location, Location! Since I’ve started running with the Greater Boston Track Club, the Boston Marathon has taken on a new dimension. The amount of cheering you get wearing a Boston singlet in a Boston race is downright uplifting. But this is Albany, New York, and though I consider it part of my home turf (from my college years and now Dearest Offspring the Elder’s college years), it’s not home course advantage. When our pace gang had dropped to only Utica Joe and I, it was he, wearing a Buffalo Bills shirt, who constantly pulled the cheers. And he wasn’t even from Buffalo! And me? I remember one guy yelling, “Go Boston!”

It’s a Small World After All: One of the early members of our pace group, Jan, hailed from the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. A little chit-chat established a common link, a mere one degree of separation, in that he was friends with my neighbors who have a mountain lair in the area. That in itself was amusing enough, but a later exchange with said neighbor turned it up a notch. Turns out I’d actually met Jan and his wife on the trail in the ‘dacks a year earlier. Just goes to prove one of my maxims: be nice to people, you might run into them again! (Find Jan at http://www.adkrunner.com/)

Start Early on the List: I lost track of Dan, with whom I’d made the “Don’t be Stupid” pact during warm-ups, almost immediately after the start. I was happy to learn he’d hit his goal of breaking three hours for the first time. He said it was on his bucket list. I don’t know many twenty-five-year-olds who already have a bucket list. That’s marathon mentality: Start your preparations early!

Personal Touch: It’s always nice to have a local contact when travelling to an out-of-town race. A few months ago an Albany area runner looked me up for reasons unknown and we struck up an email friendship. What’d be the chances we’d actually be able to find each other and meet before the race? Easy! Hang out in the port-a-john lines and you’ll see everyone. I’m happy to report that Alex exceeded his goals by a considerable margin.

Recovery? Damage was amazingly light. Dearest Spouse and I went for a casual trail run Monday morning and a short walk in the forest later in the day. This recovery would have been easier than almost all previous marathons. Would have, but for the foolishness of three days later. But that’s for the next posting…

09 October 2015

Wind At Our Backs

Mayhem starts seem to have become the rule this year, first at Clinton, then at the Police Chase, and again this past weekend, where an oddly narrow start lane created when the timing company laid out only enough mat for about four of us to toe the line became even odder when a faint shout of “GO!” emanated from somewhere behind us and started the stampede. No race officials out front of the pack, no ‘Runners Set!’, no warning whatsoever. The two youths (or ‘two yoots’; I simply cannot write ‘two youths’ without thinking of My Cousin Vinny) standing beside me took off like banshees as yoots are prone to do. I could stand there, argue that that might not have really been the start (and probably get trampled), or just go with it. Be free, spirit, just run.

Thus started the third annual John Tanner Memorial 5K, and thus I found myself instantly playing catch-up, ten to fifteen yards behind. Wizened Old Goat Mentality quickly calculated Option A, these yoots were for real, and if so, there wasn’t much I could do about it, or Option B, these yoots were typical yoots with unbridled enthusiasm that would burn out within a mile. As it would turn out, there was an Option C which would come to pass, being a bit of both, as they’d end up coming in numbers two and three, but only after a taste of Option B and a display of some yootful indiscretion.

A quarter mile out, Yoot One came back quickly to me and was dispatched, but Yoot Two held his lead. Another quarter mile and I’d erased that to pull even, in doing so prompting his indiscretion. While ours is generally a gentlemen’s sport (was it only two weeks back I called out to correct my competitor’s wrong turn, leading to my own thrashing at his legs?), it’s still a good idea to stay a bit aloof, and keep your intentions and your mental state somewhat to yourself. Ah, the follies of yoot. On pulling even, he blurted out, “Man, your fast” (or maybe ‘Damn’ but I won’t irritate his folks by recalling the exact word) to which I simply replied, “No, I’m old.” Mystery gone, it was clear we were in Option B mode, and merely a half mile in I already knew it was time to put him away. Another tenth up, with a small rise and a turn coming, one small surge opened the gap which was never to close.

That didn’t, of course, eliminate the possibilities of someone else picking off said yoots behind me and settling their crosshairs on my posterior, or even a yootful second wind, so even when I was able to see the considerable lead I’d built by the turnaround, it was no time for rest by the weary. But the cool thing was, I wasn’t really weary (not that you’d guess that from the typically horrid shot of me approaching the finish – courtesy of Racewire). I don’t think there was much more in the way of speed on the throttle, but by and large, this race felt pretty good. Hard work? Of course. Worried till the end (needlessly, finding out later that my margin of victory was nearly two minutes)? Of course. But firing well on nearly all cylinders? Yeah, for the first time in a long time.

Not surprisingly, I haven’t won a lot of races in my running career. But of the few I’ve won, I can’t recall any that were on a purely out-and-back course. I have to admit that the experience of leading all the way through the back half of the out-and-back was, frankly, a lot of fun. Many times I’ve grunted a cheer when the leader, who’d already made the turn, passed me by. This time it was my day, and once past the few running breathlessly near the front of the pack, nearly everyone chimed in with a huzzah or two – or a bit more, like the folks walking outbound, cracking jokes (about themselves) about seeing me already returning before they’d hit the mile mark. Their support was a big lift – and also a solid clue, since I didn’t hear any cheering behind me, hinting there weren’t any yoots – or anyone else – sneaking up for a last-minute surprise.

Given any other day on any other course, number one probably would not have come up on the dial. I hit the line twenty seconds ahead of my last outing two weeks back and more like forty when adjusting for what appeared to be a slightly long course, but while relatively good for me, I’d have been relatively toasted – by quite a bit in fact – in most fields. This was no Grand Prix event, so winning wasn’t a fabulous feat. But on any given day, it’s all about who lines up. And while it’s nice to notch a win, it was even better to notch a win at John’s race. Having sat out the first edition, volunteering but injured and out of the action, and having missed the second due to a conflict with last fall’s marathon, it was about time to run the race honoring my dear lost friend, and extra sweet to come home with a trophy emblazoned with his name.

After all, this one really wasn’t about the competition, it was about John, and John’s passion for a little boy suffering and succumbing to from a rare disease. It was about that boy’s family and extended family – including John’s – continuing to come together to bring about some good in the world in working toward a cure. Readers of this column know that I’m not a fan of races designed solely to extract dollars from runners for a cause. That’s because nearly all of those races have nothing to do with a runner. This one, on the other hand, is very different. These folks didn’t decide to hold a race just to raise money. They decided to hold a race to honor a passionate runner, who himself was passionate about advancing the cause to cure Batten’s Disease. In light of that, a little mayhem at the start is trivial; it merely adds character to an event well executed.

And John was, in a unique and special way, literally there with us. A brave soul named Cheryl made the trip from Pennsylvania to run (run/walk, but who’s counting?) her first 5K with her son…and a piece of John’s foot bone transplanted into hers, curing an injury that previously had refused to heal. We think of donating a heart, a liver, a kidney, but John and his family’s generosity offered up all usable tissues – and Cheryl was living, running proof that gifts like that make a big difference. In truth, John’s wind was at all of our backs.

But there was yet more fun. Dearest Spouse, always fit but typically not one with a hankering for running, made the exception and gave in to our special obsession, and in John’s honor, made this her goal race. She has, in fact, been hitting Couch to 5K sessions now for over a month. Despite having not yet graduated the program, and having not yet exceeded twenty minutes of straight rapid propulsion, she kept herself in gear for over thirty to finish in an ironic time of thirty-one-oh-seven. I rarely quote specific times here, but this one deserves it and is worthy of the label ironic because if you do the math, five kilometers happens to be exactly three-point-one-oh-seven miles. Exactly ten minute pace. Yes, you just heard me mention that the course measured a bit long, so she was really going a bit faster, but it’s more fun to ignore that for the moment and enjoy the coincidence.

The belly laugh moment of the day was reserved for the ride home, and came from my neighbor who’d joined us for the trip out and stoically withstood his chronic hip pain to turn in a respectable showing on the course himself. As he related it, when I sailed past his outbound trek on my inbound leg, the woman he happened to be running with at the time let out a simple, “Whoa!” to which he replied, “Yeah, I’ve gotta’ ride home with that.” Somehow the use of the objectified ‘that’, rather than ‘him’, struck me as seriously funny. If it doesn’t hit you that way, well, trust me, it was, and you had to be there.

Meanwhile, on Another Topic: The official Boston Marathon results book arrived in my mailbox a month or two back and I’ve been meaning to point out two fun bits since then

First, though I’m sure there are plenty of typos in a results listing of this scale, it just so happened that the person listed three slots above me finished in the rather unusual time of 2:58:81. Perhaps just for a moment the world of timekeeping decided to go metric, and that was eighty-one tenths of a minute? (It’s also notable that nine of us – count ‘em, nine – all chalked up the identical time, to the second.)

Second, in the team competition, I found it rather amusing that in a race of over twenty-five thousand people from all over the globe, not only did three Massachusetts-based Masters teams – Greater Springfield, Greater Lowell, and Greater Boston – finish sequentially (among seventy-one scoring teams from all over creation), but that I could count the entirety of two of those sequential teams as friends: Mike as a professional colleague, Ken as a teammate, E.J. as a friend and perennial rival (not that I’ve given him much completion of late), and both David (known in this column as The Brit) and Issam (known in this column as He For Whom No Blog Name Has Ever Stuck) as frequent training partners. Yes, it’s a world-class race, but this chunk of the results just happened to be our very neighborly corner of the world. Just to make my sister laugh, I have to say that I guess it is a small world after all.

02 October 2015

Counting On Some Race Magic

You’re never ready for the next race. Once you accept that, the rest isn’t exactly easy, but it’s a little more palatable. With just over a week left before my fall marathon, I’m nowhere near where I imagined I might be when I hitched on for this one last spring. But Dearest Spouse put it in proper perspective, noting that I could fret about how well I’ll run and what place I might snag, or I could just go run a marathon and enjoy it (at least to the extent that one can enjoy the late miles in any marathon). Making that mental shift is harder for me than it should be, but some effort in that department, and maybe a little reliance on some race magic, should get me through.

It’s been a rough couple of months in Lake Wobegon, and though I don’t live there, it’s been rough here, too. The best laid plans of catapulting off a solid Boston, training hard over the summer with a plethora of quality tempo, bursting into a fall race brimming with energy, and therefore signing up for one of the fastest courses in the east, well… Those plans pretty much just laid down and died. As of a couple weeks ago, I was considering bagging the whole thing. After all, why dump good money into travel costs for dubious results?

But somehow this thing called running always manages to surprise. A not-entirely-terrible local five-kilometer a couple weekends back suggested that perhaps, just maybe, I wasn’t dead yet. Emboldened, I of course did something rather silly and pounded out twenty-three the day after the race. It wasn’t great, but then again, it wasn’t bad, either. Then quite by accident I found myself cracking an old record and topping ninety miles for a week – still shy of that single hundred-miler from my youth, but otherwise the most I’d ever piled on in seven days. Wait, I hear you say, whaddaya’ mean, “By accident?” You didn’t notice ninety miles? Well, no, I was just running a lot trying to regain what I’d lost over that rough stretch. Heck, no wonder my legs were tired.

A family road trip to my native Upstate New York lowered the output for a couple days, with a flat and rather healing outing along the big lake in Syracuse and an intensely non-flat – but highly leisurely – outing with Dearest Daughter the Younger in Corning, a run which sported a notable DTM Ratio of 3.6 (Deer To Miles). And all of that was the setup for a swing back through Albany for more clan visitation, and key to our tale, The Test.

Back in June I’d run the first half of the Mohawk Hudson course, logging a solid pace through the initial twelve and three-quarter miles. I didn’t expect any surprises on the back half, but I know that seeing the course – even a generally flat course largely on a bike trail – adds that element of familiarity that gives you a bit of mental control, especially in the high miles. When the body is turning to rubber, you want to know exactly what ground you’ve got left to cover. So it was that after a light free breakfast at our finishing-line hotel, Dearest Spouse deposited me for a chilly forty-six degree launch at mile twelve-seven-five, then headed back to the far end for her and DDY’s run, artistically timed to correspond with my hopefully triumphant appearance on the Albany riverfront.

Sounds like a grand plan, right? The cool thing is, it worked. With about a mile to go, I swept past them on their outbound leg, indeed feeling triumphant, conveniently timed for a spin-around cool-down to meet them back on the course. NASA couldn’t have coordinated it better. We even made it back to the hotel in time for a second free breakfast before they shut things down (which, by the way, set us up nicely for a third breakfast, this one not free but hearty, with Dearest Offspring the Elder, a couple hours later…ah, one of the joys of running is an unlimited license to eat). And that arrival was triumphant because I’d passed The Test. I’d convinced myself that there was indeed a marathon lurking in me, and that it would in fact be worthwhile to toe the line in two weeks.

Right out of the gate, my crusty, creaky, achy-breaky body of recent weeks came alive. Perhaps it was the chilly start, necessitating some rapid internal combustion. Perhaps it was the light duty of the day before, hinting that if I can manage to back off on a decent taper, perhaps my overtrained legs have more in them than they’ve let on recently. Or perhaps it was just that race magic, the combination of adrenaline and the simple knowledge that now is the time to turn the knobs up. Whatever it was, the knobs turned, the engine fired, and by the time I plunged off the trail at milepost seventeen and a half – a quick drop just as nasty as I’d feared from my memories of the area – I was hitting sevens cruising south through Cohoes and Watervliet. Convenient timing brought me through a gang assembling for their Sunday morning group run – just seven minutes later and I’d have had company, but would likely have blown my pace – and about an hour later blew me across the finish line of a local race just being set up. Call that an easy win.

The familiarization aspect worked. Mental notes of rail trail tunnels, entrances, landmarks like the old street-car station. That nasty drop. Visuals and feels for the distances of the highway crossings. Answering the mystery of how to get back on the trail for the last six-plus, having driven the highway above hundreds, if not thousands of times, and having never seen the tiny underpass we’d follow – who knew? Solving the odd branch in the trail shown on Google Maps yet never referred to in the course notes. (Answer: it’s not there, your bad, Google.) And perhaps most critically, laying out the last mile in my head for that inevitable painful final push.

By the end, I’d clocked an average pace a good quarter-minute per mile slower than I’d clocked on the first half in June, and quite a bit off what I’d need for a truly competitive race. But I’d also clocked the most solidly paced training run since, literally, June. Indeed, I’m not dead yet.

I won’t tell you it’s been all peaches and cream since that day, but it’s been considerably more decent than it’s been in quite a while. The question has been answered. I am indeed in for Mohawk-Hudson. One more local race this weekend for a tune-up, a taper, then I’ll just hope for a little of that race magic to sew both halves of the course together – and to help me hold it together!

23 September 2015

No Pity

It’s a fair cop. One of my club-mates chided me via social media after this weekend’s local Police Chase (did you notice that pun?…fair cop…Police Chase…oh, never mind). “It's hard to pity a runner that came in second today, only bested by a runner almost half his age,” wrote he in response to my last blog posting. Yeah, less than twenty-four hours after publishing my previous penning on the frustrations of the past few weeks, I did pull into the back lot of the local Moose club about ten seconds behind the winning youngster. Nolo contendere on that one. But while pleading no contest to the charge, let me also plead no pity to the intent.

Part of the problem here is thematic, part is timing, part is my tendency to under-predict (or call it an abhorrence of trash talk), and part is, I’d like to hope, plain old healing, though certainly if I’m right on that last part, it’s not a problem at all.

Thematically, this space, this periodic request to burn ten minutes of your day, is here to journal the ups and downs of hacking away toward fun, fitness, and tiny feats of accomplishment all while time incessantly hacks back. So when I bemoan aches and pains, it’s not to goad you into sending messages of solace, but to inspire you to battle through your own challenges.

As for timing, rarely are there hours in the day to allow publishing on an as-it-happens basis, and sometimes, since fun photos that might add to your perusing adventure have yet to surface, that’s not a great idea anyway. Stories back up, and while it’s enough to ask you to actually read this stuff, it’s clearly too much to ask you to read it more often than once a week or so, thus I sometimes feed these tales of adventures out over time. But occasionally that doesn’t work either. Case in point: when the topic is a lousy couple of weeks of training, it makes sense to get it out there before the plot spoiler of the next race. This time, I made it with about twelve hours to spare. And let’s remember, that next plot twist could have gone either way.

Then there’s my reputation for telling my club-mates that I’m feeling crappy, lousy, awful, stiff, sore, or sometimes just plain ugly before many a race. They laugh at me, because somehow the adrenaline of the race (and perhaps it’s the sugar hit of the Gu pack I usually suck down fifteen minutes prior to post-time) usually gets me through in reasonable form. But the fact is, I’m really am often feeling crappy, lousy, awful, stiff, sore, or sometimes just plain ugly before many a race, and sometimes, like this time, even more so than usual. I’m not going to lie. And on those rare days I actually do feel good and ready, I’m not going to foolishly predict any solid performance.

Add it up, and yes, guilty as charged. I published my tale of latest challenges, and twelve hours later cruised home in second place. So my club-mate’s chiding is at least on the surface warranted, but, your honor, I fall upon the court to recognize the justification for my actions.

And yes, the kid who won it was a mere babe, twenty-nine years my junior. And I’d run a warm-up with him to give him pointers on the course. And told him flat-out that I was doing it so when he beat me, I could humorously say it was because I’d shown him how. And then I called him back from a wrong turn he took mid-race. And none of that matters, because he ran a fine race and was well deserving of his victory, and I’m pleased for him.

On another day, I’d have tried to give him a run for his money. But on a day when I hadn’t had a solid run in weeks, when I was nursing a healing hamstring, and when I was questioning whether I should abandon my fall marathon a mere three weeks out (having still not notched a twenty-plus of adequate quality to convince me it’s worth spending the money on the hotel), I had a rational choice to make: put down the hammer and try to catch the youngster, knowing that he wouldn’t go down without a hell of a fight (sprinting against a youngster at my age is not wise or easy), and risk re-injuring the hammy, or keep a clear head and balance the importance of this local race against the bigger looming goal. There’d still be just as many burgers and beers and friends to enjoy them with after finishing in second place, and just as many medals as well, just that mine would read, “Winner of the Old Fart Division” rather than simply “Winner”. It was an easy decision.

From the rather disorganized start, my rival quickly slipped by and surged to put about forty yards between us before settling in for the long outbound climb. By the top of the main rise, I’d shaved off about ten of those yards, and then another ten climbing the last significant bump on the course, and was grinding that hamstring-and-coming-marathon versus local-five-k math, tending toward the former, when despite my earlier pointers, the Bounding Bundle of Youthful Energy ahead of me hit a crossroads and a wall of confusion. Despite my several shouts of, “Straight up!” he elected to go wrongly left and down – go figure. By the time he heard me and figured it out, I’d pulled even.

With a mile and a quarter to go, almost all of it downhill, at this exact point on the course last year I was also neck and neck with my competition for the local crown. But that day I wasn’t in hurtin’ shape, and my competition was a forty-something. This day, sprinting against a twenty-three-year-old while operating on questionable parts, well, just didn’t seem to be all that worth it. As the Bounding Bundle surged out twenty yards again, I wished him well and followed him home, crossing a good twenty seconds slower than what I’d clocked last year on the course, and nearly a minute off the five-thousand I’d run on the track back in July.

Unremarkable was the best word to attach in terms of comparison to past performances, but in contrast to the weeks before – and indeed the very day before when I couldn’t even muster eights on a short outing – it was more than pleasing. So maybe part of this whole pity-prediction-performance problem was indeed some welcome healing, helped along post-race by the burgers, the beers, and the buds (the running buds, mind you, they had good beer). And if so, that’s not a problem at all.