10 August 2014

You Raced Where?

I’ve got this thing about privacy. Yes, I post my adventures for all to see. Yes, I gave in last winter and got on social media. No, I’ve nothing to hide, I’ll hand my phone records to the NSA. Still, I’m somewhat old school in that I really don’t like to advertise my travels in advance. Hey, you never know, there are wackos out there, right? As a result, those of you not otherwise in on my plans via local chit-chat might find it surprising that Dearest Daughter the Younger and I just ran a half marathon in…where? Yeah, Eugene, Oregon. Tracktown, USA. The very same. And I never warned you it was coming. Keeping you on your toes, mind you.

It’s not unheard of for me to race in far-flung or obscure places. I have traipsed off to Seattle and Kentucky, but those were for national meets that were only held in, well, Seattle and Kentucky. A plain old garden-variety half marathon? Aren’t those available all over? Answer: Yes, but… Blame this one on DDY. It was her idea.

The evening I came home from the Boston Marathon (I had, frankly, forgotten it was that particular evening, but DDY reminded me), she, who had been hinting at wanting to do her first half marathon for some time, announced, “Dad, I’ve found the race for us!” Before getting to the punchline, I have to remind you that DDY is track & field Superfan Numero Uno. Her bedroom door and walls are shrines to the stars of the sport, sporting autographed bits from race expos, marathon posters, and other things that generally envelop her in a sea of Ryan, Galen, Meb, and others. Most kids her age crave bad pop music; her obsession is all things & people motile on foot.

“Dad, I’ve found a half marathon that finishes on the track at Hayward Field!”

I can’t recall if this was before or after dinner, but it is notable that I didn’t cough anything up.

Let me get this straight… You want us to go to Oregon to run a race we can find around the corner just because it finishes on a certain track? But as I said that, I cannot lie, I knew it was sacred ground. But seriously? You want us to spend how much on airfare, car, hotel, food, not to mention time off, planning effort, and all that jazz to run a race we can do here at home just because it ends on the X-Y coordinates… where the Olympic trials were, and will again be held… where Prefontaine and legends hath tread…where…wait a minute, why are we even talking about this?

“Dad, I’m going to get a job and I’ll help pay for it!”

By now you know. She did. We did. And you don’t fly all the way out there, just run the race and come home. We made it an epic adventure, a saga you will hear more about. But for the moment, we’ll stick to the prime objective of this expedition: We ran the Eugene Half-Marathon, for her, her first, and for me, another notch in my quest to regain some sort of racing shape. She succeeded brilliantly. I, well, I succeeded; I’ll leave it at that. And we had the time of our lives.

Since DDY came off the “Around the Mountain” carriage road at Acadia back in June with a smile on her face, I knew she’d cover the distance in Eugene. I didn’t care how fast or slow she did it. All that mattered to me was whether she’d walk away from this as a triumph or a living hell; the latter certainly putting a damper on future miles. But before I’d find out, I too had a race to run.

And Eugene put on a pretty good show. The run up was a little over-produced, to be fair, with a few too many cheesy emails, but I’ll chalk that up to comparing it to the subdued New England scene, where running is so in our blood we don’t feel the need to rile up the troops on a weekly basis beforehand. Not that running isn’t in the blood of Eugene and Portland, but this event clearly drew from far more than just the Oregon Duck and Nike corporate headquarters crowd. Fine, rev ‘em up a bit, it’s just email. It’s all just part of a solid organization effort.

But at the same time, Eugene was a madhouse. As it turned out, not only were thousands in town for the marathon and half, as well as the shorter races the day before, but the entire world was in town for the IAAF World Junior Championships – essentially, the track and field Olympians of 2016, 2020, and beyond. The town felt like the Olympic Village, and to our fortune, we were able to catch a few hours of said quasi-Olympics the day before, on that track at Hayward Field where we’d be finishing the next morning. Yet another layer of the mythical added to this pilgrimage…

Amidst that aura the gun went off at six in the morning. Or, as Robin Williams crowed in Good Morning, Vietnam, “It's 0600 hours. What does the "O" stand for? O my God, it's early!” Seeing it hit ninety-something later in the day, fifty-six at six was a worthy reward for rising before four. Fine, we’re up already, belt out that national anthem (getting the words wrong), but get us on our way.

In a word, or to be more accurate, two words, mostly uneventful.

There was no real racing for me, no obvious competition, no duels or showdowns. It was a hard, fast run, plain and simple, targeting a goal that seemed like a reasonable stab toward racing redemption. I’d self-seeded at an hour twenty-five, three minutes off my best, yet in my current state, a bit of a stretch. I’d like to say I monitored my progress to hitting that target, but once past mile four, the only real sin committed by the Eugene folks became apparent, as it became clear that monitoring with certainty wasn’t going to happen. Mile five, missing; mile six, early; seven, eight, and nine, entirely uncertain; ten nowhere to be seen. At four I was on target, hitting the first hill feeling pretty good. By the second hill at eight, the misfortunes of injuries and lousy training were already rearing their ugly heads, but without decent mileposts (yes, still no GPS watch for me, call me a purist Luddite) I really couldn’t judge how ugly it might have been. By the half/full split at ten, the field was so sparse (I’d end it nearly half a minute behind the previous finisher), it was just a game of trying to stay focused, stay intense, stay on the goal, and in the face of some blinding early morning sunrise, don’t trip over anything and stay on my feet.

Being accustomed to the full event, the half wraps so quickly. In no time, there were the gates of Hayward Field. There was that track, only hours before the host of the best youth of the world, and over the years the home of legends. No amount of late-race agony can prevent you from kicking it up with all you’ve got for your half-lap through the Holy Cathedral of Track.

Yes, I hit my buck-twenty-five (allowing for some change), and yes, I even took home (or at least they’ve promised to ship me) hardware for third in my old fart category, but there was unfinished business. You don’t travel all that way and spend all that dough and not be there to share the moment and get a picture with your daughter finishing her first on the track at Hayward Field.

But security and traffic flow made it impossible to hang around and wait. Off the track with you, you’re finished, move along! So we had a plan, hatched and planned, knowingly winked at and ignored by a particularly friendly volunteer. Time to execute!

Off the track, recover, retrieve the mini-camera from one of our checked bags. Key step, tear the D-tag off the back of my bib so as not to screw up the timing. And head out backward on the course…with a crucial pause at the unofficial beer stop at twelve-point-one, since I certainly couldn’t avail myself of that joy during the race. Back to the twelve-mile water stop, baffle and amuse the volunteers by jumping in and working the water stop (“Wait a minute, you ran, now you’re here working?” “Yeah, it’s a habit”). Realize with some embarrassment that you’ve forgotten what she’s wearing and hope to God you don’t miss her…and a few minutes later, along she came. So, what would it be, smiling or grimacing?

“Whatever you do, don’t give me that water! I’ve drank way too much!” Otherwise, smiling. Big smiling. Not even annoyed at Dad jumping ahead and snapping pictures (almost all of which came out wicked pissah blurry) smiling. Huge relief!

She cruised mile thirteen, and with me in tow for my second pass into the stadium, rousing up cheers from the crowd for her, she had her Moment of Zen on the Sacred Track at Hayward Field.

The fact that she sliced more than ten minutes off her expectations was gravy.

The fact that we got a couple of great pictures, Dad and DDY, there in that Holy Spot, was better.

Yeah, we traveled cross-country for a not-so-plain-old half marathon. We’ll both remember this one for a long, long time.

21 July 2014

A New Form of Abuse

To hear the crowd talk, you’d be forgiven to believe that leaving the streets and heading for the trails cures cancer, feeds the hungry, and brings peace to Gaza. Or if you don’t want to go that far, you might at least believe that trading pavement for the soft, comforting terrain of off-road will relieve your aches and pains and help you avoid injuries.

Er, exactly which injuries were they talking about avoiding? Today I sit with wounds aplenty, ranging from scrapes and cuts and bruises to things that I’ve considered might be broken (only later to decide likely not, though said judgments may have been endorphin-influenced). And this isn’t the first time this has happened since the trail running bug bit, not to mention plenty of other bugs on those trails. Maybe I’ve avoided some injuries, but clearly I’ve just traded them for an entirely new set and discovered a new form of bodily abuse.

I’m by no means new to trail abuse. I’ve been doing it for decades, but generally at slower speeds and in hiking boots. This year’s latest entry into that category so fondly known as the Death March came on our annual escape to Acadia. Dearest Daughter the Younger announced that unlike our usual leisurely Acadia outings, this time we’d traverse the entire east side of the island, touching almost all the significant (and a number of less significant) summits in one shot. Thirteen summits, seventeen miles, six thousand feet of up and another six thousand down, ten hours on the trail (portrayed nicely in the attached summit collage she put together, you’ll have to click and expand that one to hope to see any detail!). To tell you that no body parts were harmed in the making of this movie would be a bald-faced lie. Abuse was heaped on plenty of parts, toenails were sacrificed, shins scarred, you name it. But that’s not news.

Nor is it news that while in our favorite park, DDY and I once again enjoyed a number of delightful runs on Acadia’s vaunted carriage roads. It’s noteworthy that DDY stretched her longest to eleven miles – and a tough eleven at that – “Around the Mountain” for those of you familiar with the area – in preparation for her upcoming first half marathon (while Dad rather irresponsibly changed plans mid-run and tacked on a few more for a hard fifteen before going back to meet up – yeah, I needed that).

But it is news that one of those carriage road runs started with a couple miles on trails, a rare outing for me and a new experience for DDY. She found it rather cool to have to slog across beaver bridges on a run; a bit more interesting than counting telephone poles. And the unpaved surfaces did, at least at first, feel better on my rather battered body. So the stage was set, my interest piqued, and I was just waiting for a catalyst, which conveniently arrived several days after returning from Maine in the form of a notice that a certain corporation to whom I’ve sworn non-disclosure was sending a pair of trail shoes to test. Well, that sealed the deal. If they were sending me trail shoes, I guess it was time to dive into trail running.

Courtesy of the shoe deal, I’d suddenly shifted from rarely running a trail outside of cross country season to having a weekly quota of trail miles But I didn’t have to look far to find the trail running community. A group within my local club that calls themselves the Water Buffalo Faction (an unauthorized faction they like to say, the name obscurely pulled from the classic Veggie Tales tune – trust me, if you’ve had kids, it is classic) already had the trail disease and was just waiting for a new host to infect. Let’s just say my resistance was down. And once infected…the disease begins to do its damage.

Really, I should’ve known better. A year or so back, dragged into a trail run with some of my Greater Boston buddies, I’d come away battered and bruised, doubting my eyesight or at least my sure-footedness. But when they called this time, I was so chomping at the proverbial bit that it didn’t matter that the trail shoes hadn’t yet arrived. Into the woods!

Upton State Forest proved no match for our intrepid quartet that morning; its trails tame and serene, far from the alpine stumbles to which I’m accustomed. But Hopkinton’s Whitehall Reservoir changed our tune, turning significantly more ‘technical’ as the jargon goes. Technically, it just means something closer to what I think of as a trail: rocks, hills, turns, fun, and…ten miles in, a toe failed to clear a log, and you know what comes next. You really don’t think you’re going all that fast on these trails until you’re plummeting headlong into a date with the dirt. This time I was lucky, hitting soft stuff with an artistic three-point landing consisting of face, chest, wrist doubled under. Though I quite literally ate dirt, no blood was shed. Not so lucky was buddy Barry, who bought the farm a mile later with somewhat nastier results.

A few days later the bruises made themselves known, but these are badges of honor, right? Keep in mind that I’m no fan of the “show me how tough you are” fad events (or as the Center for Disease Control has called them, bacterial love-fests for your digestive system); I’m rather on the purist side. But these aren’t artificial hazards, they’re about as real as rocks and roots and slick hillsides can get. And there is no hefty entry fee. So yes, I guess these are badges of honor, and they multiplied over the next several weeks, setting the stage for Sunday’s arena of abuse, the Mammoth Trail Half Marathon, an inaugural event brought to you by The Water Buffalo Faction.

With a target half marathon coming up in only a week, I jumped into this as a last minute last big training run before the main event. Goal Number One was simply to not hurt myself. And based on how this article has progressed so far, you can guess how well I attained my goal.

Despite being within running distance of home, I’d never set foot on any but about a mile of the course, so it made sense to hang with one of its creators. He warned be repeatedly about the back side of Cedar Hill, where he’d dropped – literally – one of our local running buddies a few days earlier. Reaching that spot, it really wasn’t so bad – until he reminded me again, and like an idiot, I took my eyes off the trail, glanced around to view the scene of that former crime…and it was dirt-eating time once again. This time the landing wasn’t so soft as back at Whitehall, and for the next couple miles I had to think about whether there might or might not be a crack in my right ulna. At least this pondering distracted me from the continuous thorny leg assaults, imposition of various bruises, and other similar insults.

I’d bargained to stick with my native guide, but by mile eleven the flies grew so thick (see the postscript) that I had no choice but to high-tail it out of the swamp, take the lead, and take the event – not all that much of an honor being there were a mere thirteen of us brave souls – but a nice culmination to the last few weeks of trail-mania. It was a fair trade, a win in exchange for only a moderate amount of blood.

Run trails! Avoid injuries! Right, who are they kidding?

Flies, Damn Flies, and Statistics! One thing I’ve picked up on quickly running local trails – or perhaps it has picked up on me – is the astounding local population of deer flies: big, annoying, painful (if they get you) and stupid, but mostly annoying. But our Water Buffalo Faction lit me up on a low-tech yet effective weapon, the deer fly patch available from Tred-Not. Effectively a simple glue trap, when stuck onto your hat, the annoying dummies (recall I said stupid), who have a habit of dive-bombing your head, pretty quickly get lucky and get stucky. As it turns out, I seem to have an attractive aura about me, making me not only the favorite of the flies but also of my fellow runners who know that if I’m around, they’re that much safer. What an honor!

06 July 2014

Soviet Revisionist History

There is, as they say, a first time for everything. Since I started penning this blog, I’ve never missed entertaining my throngs for a whole month. Yet it’s happened. June came, June went, and you found yourself with a surprising extra twenty minutes on your hands, having not been distracted by my blather. I know that you all put that time to good use, solving world hunger and analyzing the chemical mix that produces the odd orange glow on the Speaker of the House. But if you spent a moment of that time pondering my whereabouts, please call off the All-Points Bulletin. I am alive and reasonably well, and I have no intention of stopping this periodic nonsense.

But, you beg, why the absence? I could simple say I’ve been busy, and it wouldn’t be a lie, however it’s actually a bit more curious than that. While you might find it hard to believe, I am sensitive to avoiding undue repetition of theme. The whole idea of this running column, pun intended, is to celebrate the adventure of running into the later years, when we’re not only not spring chickens, but we’re fast approaching, if not already past, the mid-summer poultry stage. A lot of the story of running hard and competitively as a master – no, wait, make that a senior now – is dealing with inevitable injuries and health issues. But how many times can you hear me whine about stuff that hurts? I’ve got to keep this upbeat, or I will inspire you to run…away.

In late May I’d written a column called “Bozo”, referring to that famed blow-up punching bag of our youth and waxing poetic on how Bozo always got back up again. Keep it positive! I wrote how my training seemed to be turning a corner, and how things were looking up. But a more timely issue popped up demanding air time that week, and Bozo was put on the shelf for the following episode.

Only days later, another issue popped up – this time in my right hamstring, this one sudden, painful, and in the middle of a set of two-hundreds on the track. Coach Dad had devised a diabolical workout for Darling Daughter the Younger where we’d start at a relatively easy clip, and reduce our target by a second on each rep. Since I spotted her ten seconds on each, the difficulty level was just about right for each of us. But on number five, Mr. Hammy went pop about fifty meters in.

The good news of the night was that DDY not only finished the workout and made her time target on number ten, but I had the fun of watching her discover a new gear from the sideline, watching her stride, rather than from behind playing chaser. But my frustration over this bodily failure made the pain of the injury that much worse. Another training break, right when I’d hoped to ramp it up!

It just didn’t seem like the right time to opine on how well things were going, so Bozo went back on the shelf, and after a few hyperactive weeks of work and vacation thrown in for good measure, suddenly, it’s July. How did that happen?

By now the ham is healed, and while other stuff still hurts (what else is new?), the big issue is that rather than having seven weeks of solid prep before my next target race, I’ve gotten in only one good one and have a mere three remaining. But that’s how life goes. I’m be playing catch-up in my training, and I’ll also be playing catch-up on a few interesting topics here, so stay tuned.

Now you know the rest of the story, but there is still that blow-up punching bag sitting on the shelf…what to do? I hate to let a bit of polished prose go to waste, so here’s the plan. Those of you old enough to remember the cold war knew how our comrades on the other side could rewrite history to match their world, and do it with a completely straight face. So I’m taking a page from the manual of Soviet Revisionist History. What was that I mentioned about not posting in June? No, that was simply not true, comrade! Look, my last column was published on the final day of June, and you can read it here! Do not believe that propaganda! We speak only the truth!

30 June 2014


[Ed. Note: This was written in late May. See the next column, “Soviet Revisionist History” for my lame excuse as to why it’s being published in July but dated June.]

What do economists and runners have in common? Both can truly recognize trends only in hindsight, but both claim the clairvoyance of being able to spot those trends well before they’re proven. In that respect, I’d say that meteorologists have a better track record. Despite this, I’m going to call the Florida race before the hanging chads have been plucked from their ballots. On second thought, that brings back really, really bad memories. Forget I brought that up. Please.

We’ll take a different tack: a funny thing happened on the way to the forum last week. I got there faster than expected. And the economist-runner within wants to point out what could be a good trend. Is this, or is this not, the return of at least some of that vaunted mojo?

The point of this uncompensated writing odyssey was and still is to explore the adventures of running and racing later in life. Plenty my age and older run, jog, and stay active, but being the competitive type (no, really, me?) and being blessed by my Creator, whoever or whatever he/she/it may be, with the ability to move at a decent clip relative to most of my peers means that what I try to relate in these pages is the skewed vision of someone who tries to compete like a somewhat young guy but who happens to live in the body of a somewhat old guy.

A big part of that young / old dichotomy is the overriding reality that the old part will win. I will slow down. I will grow less competitive in general, even if I hold steady among my aged peers. That’s hard to accept until it’s forced on you, and so each time I’m knocked down, it’s human nature – or at least my nature – to try to bounce right back to where I started, like those blow-up Bozo the Clown punching toys we whacked as kids. (Disclaimer: I never owned one. I don’t regret that, either.) As kids, we’d hit Bozo hard to try to make him stay down, but he always came back up (excepting that final, piercing blow, which I never witnessed). As adults, we’d like to think we can do the same, but we know it won’t last. One of these times, we won’t get all the way back up. I’m not talking about that final piercing blow, just the one that makes us come up a little… deflated. The question is, which time will it be?

Before the Achilles devolved so badly as to force surgical action last summer, I was arguably in the best shape of my adult life. I knew that electing for repair work would knock me down, and that getting back up would be hard work. I didn’t count on the bonus blow of the clots making the return path that much steeper. And now I wonder if I’ll rise back up fully, or return a little… deflated. Will it be this time? Or not?

Last week seemed to hint toward the not side. The leftover wounds from Boston were fading, the sun was finally out after a week of gloom, and something clicked. I know from experience that changes in my fitness come in chunks rather than in smooth progression. A chunk seemed to happen. My body felt better, my training pace dropped, and as noted earlier, I got there, wherever there happened to be on several successive days, faster. No, the Achilles annoyance didn’t, and probably never will go away entirely, but the rest of the machine seemed in better tune. It felt like maybe, just maybe, oh so long after last summer’s knock down, I might be finding that mojo again.

Then again, check back in six months. All those economists can probably tell us how we were really doing, and perhaps I will be able to as well.

31 May 2014

A Tale of Two Races

It was the best of races, it was the worst of races… And no, I can’t fool you; while I consider myself reasonably well read, I have not read Dickens. But this past week, that theme wouldn’t leave me as I considered the racing news that recently drizzled in.

Often something exceptional – either good or bad – stands on its own and screams its exceptionality to the world, but when both exceptionally good and bad appear at the same time, the contrast can’t be ignored. And that’s what came about recently. News arrived about two races, either of which would have made me stand up and take note due to their noteworthy status, but they arrived within days of each other, and their noteworthiness ran in opposite directions. These two races made me re-examine the question of what constitutes a race in our beloved sport: When does a race cease to be a race and simply become a vehicle for some other agenda?

Consider what I’ll call Race L, a ten kilometer event aimed at both competitive runners (yes, there is prize money) and recreational runners (yes, there are shirts). Early bird registrants were welcomed at the whopping fee of ten bucks, a fee which rises by five bucks tonight to a mere fifteen, and hops up another five per month till the worst-case scenario of thirty bucks on race day.

Then consider what I’ll call Race A, is a five kilometer event aimed squarely at recreational runners (yes, besides shirts, there are medals for all finishers – in a five-K). Early registration thudded on the table at forty bucks. And it too went up tonight, though it’s not yet clear how much. Yikes.

First the punchline, then back to the details. I stood up and publicly said, to the effect, “What, are you kidding me?” and got more than one person good and mad at me for doing so. I don’t regret it. I’ll say it again. What, are you kidding me? Forty bucks – and rising – for a five-K?

I’ve railed in the past about for-profit event promoters and fad races (see this post, which though two years old, recently received a great reader comment!). Both of these genres aim to suck P.T. Barnum’s favorite audience to pay large amounts of money for overpriced or overproduced (or both) events teetering on, and often falling into, the category of entertainment. I usually fall back on the saving grace that at least the participants are being physically active rather than just going to the mall, but even that’s slipping away with events that boast that they won’t time you, and in exchange, you don’t really have to run. As if to taunt me, yet another appeared in my inbox this week, another variation on the color run thing – or in short, an opportunity to pay someone money in exchange for them throwing crap at you. Old P.T. was right, there’s one born every minute.

As disturbing as this trend is, that’s not my point tonight. My target is instead the charity gala ball run. My target is the attitude that runners constitute an ATM, a ready source for cash. My target is that far too many “race” events really aren’t held for the purpose of holding a race at all. Hypocrite Alert: I’ve helped out at charity gala ball runs. In and of themselves, they’re not evil. But ask yourself two simple questions: Would you go down to the town civic hall and shell out ten or fifteen bucks for a spaghetti supper to benefit XYZ cause? I’ll bet you would. Now, would you go to that same hall for a thousand-dollar-a-plate dinner for that same cause? Well, would you?

In the first case, it probably wouldn’t matter to you what the cause was, so long as it wasn’t the Society for the Advancement of Axe-Murderers. You’re getting a fair deal, you’ll probably see your friends and have a good time, and even if you could have boiled up that spaghetti at home for three bucks for the entire family, you’ll walk away happy. In the second case, if you’re passionate about the charity and you’ve got that kind of cash, you might do it. But if you’re ambivalent, you’re probably absent. And you might find yourself rather irritated if you’re pressured to ante up.

Now, a thousand bucks a plate is a lot of coin, so that’s an easy call. But where’s your limit? Five hundred? One hundred? Fifty? Or start at the other end. Ten bucks for a plate of spaghetti is easy. What about fifteen? Thirty? Fifty? At what point does the price of admission shift you over from a feeling you’re getting value from the event while adding on a feel-good for helping the charity du jour, to knowing that you’re making a donation, and that the event is only secondary?

Translate this to racing. Plenty of races benefit a charity – in fact, it’s fair to say most do (even big for-profits which do lip service to charity while pocketing the rest, but that’s a different topic). There’s nothing wrong with holding an event that delivers value to the participants and ending up with a pile of money which the organizing team uses to do good. That’s noble. But at what point does the price of admission shift you over from a feeling you’re getting value from the event while adding on a feel-good for helping the charity du jour, to knowing that you’re making a donation, and that the event is only secondary?

When is it a race that raises money? When does it become a donation that’s got a race pasted to the side to gather donors? When it crosses that limit, I’d suggest that if you’re passionate about the charity and you’ve got that kind of cash, you might do it. But if you’re ambivalent, you’re probably absent. And you might find yourself rather irritated if you’re pressured to ante up.

I’m repeating myself intentionally to make a point. Races like “Race A” have, in my view, crossed that line. Race A is a donation with a race tacked on the side. This is, in my view, a bad trend in our sport, and it’s not just Race A. In the last year, I’ve shunted aside multiple requests for my advisory services from groups who want to raise money and think that a race is the perfect vehicle.

Enough! We runners are not cash dispensers! We are runners first. We are willing to put out reasonable cash for a good race. And it’s not the absolute amount that makes the difference. We all go to inexpensive races and we all go to pricey ones as well. We expect a big city marathon to cost a lot because it does cost a lot to put it on. And to some extent, race bling can compensate for race price, if it is relevant and useful bling. Sorry guys, a medal for a five-K is useless.

To make it worse in the case of Race A, the heat is on. My local club, which selected this race for its race series (innocently enough before its absurd price was announced) is now applying that pressure. Show the flag. Ante up. Support the cause!

Enough again! I joined this club to run, not to be told what charities I should support. I don’t mind being asked, but I do mind being pressured. Further, I find it a really bad idea for my club to be promoting this bad trend in the sport. And finally, I absolutely mind being told that I shouldn’t raise my voice in protest. Sorry, you can’t force my acquiescence or my silence.

I have no objection to the charity in question. It’s a worthy cause. And if I decide to support it, I’ll write them a check (and get a tax deduction in the process, something I don’t get for an overpriced race). But I won’t support further turning the concept of a race into a cash machine.

Thankfully, I can vote with my wallet and my feet, and I have a choice. So let’s go back to Race L. In fact, before I hold this race up as a paragon of virtue, let me remove the mystique of anonymity from it: it is the Level Renner 10K, slated for this August. The irony here is that in a way, this could even be classed as a for-profit race. The guys putting it together publish Level Renner, an excellent online running magazine (yes, that’s the correct spelling, and no, I don’t know its origin). I don’t know if they actually succeed in making much money, but it’s clearly a business. Thus they further prove that what’s important is the motivation and the attitude of the people behind the event. Whereas many for-profits are out to maximize that profit, and events like Race A strongly resemble charity gala balls with runs tacked on the side, these guys are runners and simply want to put on a great race for runners. Period. Their web site says it better than I ever could:

The Level Renner Road Race 10k was born out of the desire to provide an excellent racing experience for competitive and recreational runners alike. For competitive runners, this race is first and foremost a competition and the LRRR 10k is determined to give its regional and elite athletes the best experience possible and the recognition that they deserve. This event will not be a carnival with the race as an afterthought. The race and the competition are the focal point. For recreational runners, our goal is to inspire and motivate you to give your best effort. We want to provide you with an outstanding racing experience. As such, The LVL10K is a USATF sanctioned event.

I love the part about it not being a carnival. They speak to me. And when I thought of writing this column, I spoke to them to get a little more insight into their thinking. Their message is simply refreshing:

In short, we want the road race to be about the race. How novel of us, right? I was at a race recently where they forgot to announce the winners. That is unacceptable. So, we decided to create a race that focuses on the runner. We want to provide an excellent racing experience without the price gouging. Last year if you registered in May, you got a shirt (and more) and a timed event on a wheel-measured course for $10, plus we had 75 raffle prizes in addition to the ~$1500 prize purse, and we gave out Top Finisher pint glasses to the top three in each age group. As you can imagine, we didn't really give a hoot about a financial structure. Making money was not the goal (how refreshing). Putting on a marquee event for runners by runners was.

It was the best of races, it was the worst of races… You can cast your vote for a donation with a race tacked on the side and spend forty bucks (and more, shortly) for a five K with a finisher medal (and a “Finish Time keepsake receipt” – sorry, I just couldn’t resist pointing that one out), or you can cast your vote for a real race targeted at providing the best experience for runners, fast and slow, for a reasonable price. I don’t even see that as a question.

Your choice matters. It sends a message and determines what you will see in the future. What do you want your sport to become? Think before you register.

16 May 2014

Back to the Streets

Somewhere around mile two, in the middle of the Clinton Tribute Five Miler last weekend, with the Hill From Hell looming just ahead, it occurred to me that I’d sort of lost my racing brain. How hard should I be pushing at that point? Really, I’d kind of forgotten that fine detail. That’s what happens when you take a big gap in your racing. That’s when it’s time to get back to the streets.

What I’ve disliked nearly as much as constantly sucking wind during my journey back from the injured reserve list has been being largely absent from the racing scene. I’ve raced here and there, on New Year’s, at Hyannis for the relay, and of course at Boston, but each of those was a pins-and-needles affair, hoping I’d be in solid enough condition by race day in order to avoid a train wreck. (Yes, I know, I hear you saying, “What, are you kidding me?” Remember, it’s all relative.)

Till very recently I haven’t felt the readiness to jump in when the opportunity arises. But a few days back a page seems to turn; my training condition seemed to brighten. Conveniently, that page turned just before a local race I’d already signed up for, thus providing a quick snapshot of whether that readiness was real. And the verdict was…? Well, not fabulous, but not too shabby, either.

So if you’re going to dive back in, dive back into the deep end, right? Don’t pick an easy one, make it a challenge. The hills of Clinton, Massachusetts seriously qualify to fill that role. If you look at a map of Clinton, you’ll notice a huge structure: the dam that holds back the Wachusett Reservoir, the faucet of Boston and its burbs. If you look at a topographical map, you’ll notice why they built the dam where they did. You’ll see lots of hills surrounding a steep and narrow valley. Clinton grew up as a mill town for obvious reasons. Clinton excels as a challenging racing town for the same reasons.

The Tribute Five Miler is a curious race. While a decent set of real players usually show up, the event is largely a local affair, centered on the annual lauding of a couple of exemplary citizens selected each year for their service to the town. Scads of locals sporting team shirts come out to run in support of their favorite “tribute” (no Hunger Games cracks, now, they don’t kill them). The level of support is grand and speaks well for the community.

This isn’t unusual, of course. What’s curious is that these teeming teams, which like any of these local events include plenty for whom this is the biggest physical effort of the year, aren’t tackling the typical five kilometer jaunt around the local park. They’re tackling a five miler, already longer than your usual couch-to-race end-game, and further, one of the toughest five milers for many miles around. The Clinton course falls on the brutal side. Whether those once-a-year folks realize this is unknown; perhaps they might not be so gung-ho if they saw an easy five-K in a flat town for comparison. But they get out there, and they do it. Yet that’s not all: to make it more fun, this one starts uphill, relatively uncommon. I admit it’s a source of mirth watching the local youngsters bolt out with abandon, only to fall back wheezing before topping out a mere third of a mile in.

OK, so maybe they lack a bit in common sense and racing experience, but wheezing on topping out is what this one is all about. Put this course in perspective: I ran it only once before, two years back. That year I’d just run my best five-miler at the Freezer in January, and two months after Clinton, I’d top that with a new best at Carver. I was in top shape, but sandwiched between those two pleasantly flat speed-fests, the Clinton course stuffed me a full minute and a half slower. Sure, it was hot that day, but it was hot at Carver, too. The difference? Four significant hills.

Fast forward to this year. This year’s Freezer, my first race post-surgery, was one of the slowest five-milers in my logbook. While I expected progress since then, Clinton forces you to keep your goals modest – not to mention that it got rather toasty again this time. I’ll let you cheat and look at the last chapter and tell you I landed a half minute below my Freezer time. Now, if you can follow all this twisted logic, to me that was a two minute gain on the five-miler. (Huh? You scratch your head… well, it works like this: if Clinton was a minute and a half slower than the Freezer last time, and a half minute faster this time…Aha! …you say, now I get it!) In short, it was good enough for a Saturday’s work.

And work it was. After holding back a bit while watching the follies on the initial rise, the second hill, just past the mile mark, hit a lot harder than I’d remembered it should. After which, just for fun, the only flat mile-long stretch brought the Joy of Headwind. It was about halfway into that wind that it struck me that I’d sort of forgotten how to race.

I’d toed up for only three races since last year’s Boston, and in none did I have to address the speed called for on this day. The Freezer was just a test drive. By the time Hyannis rolled around, I still hadn’t regained any speed, so a solid run for the team was enough to celebrate; time was secondary. Boston was about pacing and strategy, not speed. But this was a five-miler, to my mind a long sprint, where the game is pushing past the limits that your brain is setting to protect you, but which really just slow you down. There’s a huge mental component of knowing how hard to push. You only learn this by successively pushing, each time a little harder. Take time off, and you forget.

I had to learn it back. Back during the sharp dive leading to the one mile mark, I had to remind myself of how to race downhill. Let go. Fall forward. Use the hill. Don’t run protectively. Pushing up the second hill, I couldn’t decide if my legs were heavy because I should push them harder, or if perhaps because I was really stupid to run eight-hundreds, even if casually, two nights earlier. How hard was too hard…especially knowing that just ahead lay the Hill From Hell?

The message here is that racing is largely mental, except, of course, for the physical part. The good news is that all of these mental gyrations fell by the wayside because the second half of this race is the physical part. You stop thinking, because you’ve gone to Hell, or at least you’ve reached the Hill From Hell. All I need to say about this lovely stretch of road is to remind you of that dam. The Hill From Hell rises in fits and starts and puts you atop the southern bulwark for this massive monument of civil engineering. In fact, you end up a good bit higher. And then, when your legs are fully rubberized, you beat the living tar out of them screaming from above the dam level, down the dam hill, to bottom of the dam valley. Dam.

But you’re still not done. Another big climb, not as high as the Hill From Hell, but unlike that one, steady, no pitch variations, no respites for the very, very weary. And coming off that one, shredded, it’s time to sprint the last half mile home, the last two blocks of which are punishingly downhill.

I hate this course.

I love this course.

It’s brilliant, of course.

As it was, by the time Clinton’s signature feature arrived, all the passing that was to pass had passed. I wouldn’t see another runner ahead or behind, but obviously didn’t know that yet. Not that I would have slacked off one bit, but it might have been comforting.

Though it would have been bad form if this was a mystery novel, I already revealed that time and pace-wise, things turned out pretty much in the range I’d hoped for. So much for suspense, right? But there was still a little mystery: were there any old dudes up front? I didn’t think so, but you never know, as I’d lost track of a bunch of folks in the initial uphill surge and really didn’t know my overall place.

Nor, it seemed, did anyone else. On average, I notched eighth place overall of a crowd shy of three hundred. Average, I say, because a spectator pegged me at seventh, and an official in the chute said ninth, and they were both wrong. And oddly, they’re not big on posting the results for this one, since the local paper likes to hold onto them for a scoop when they publish…a full week later, so if I hadn’t crashed the scoring table, I still might not be sure. But the truth did trickle out: one master ahead, but a mere youngster, a forty-something, so yes, the fifties were mine, and one of the obscenely large trophies of one of the most trophy-heavy races around now is seeking a home in my office. Darn thing doesn’t fit on any shelves…

Now, I just have to start doing this a lot more often so I can remember how this is all supposed to work.

Odd Bits, Part One, Fame? Checking in, I had the unique experience of being recognized by a reader whom I really only knew through online interactions. I love to tease myself about how few read my blather, but there really are perhaps a few more than a few, and I certainly appreciate you taking time out of your day to enjoy the fruits of my obsession.

Odd Bits, Part Two, DDY Conquers!
Dearest Daughter the Younger, with the goal of her first Half Marathon on her mind, took on the famed Hill From Hell. It slowed her down but did not kill her, as she completed the course end-to-end, with no breaks. More on that Half Marathon Quest in later columns…

Odd Bits, Part Three, Hot Stuff! In a truly odd turn, not only did a fire break out on the course, but it literally broke out during the course of the race. As I passed through the two mile mark, I noticed nothing. Granted, I was in a perplexed fog, but billowing smoke would have been hard to miss. Mere minutes later, as DDY passed the same spot, the smoke was pouring wildly, and minutes after that she’d have to dodge the fire truck racing to the scene (while, it’s interesting to note, another fireman also raced to the scene from the other direction, as he was in the race). Nix one minivan, but happily no injuries.

Odd Bits, Part Four, Green! This being a local race, I ran it in green with my local club, the Highland City Striders, rather than in GBTC red. Besides, the after-party is in an Irish establishment so it had to be a Green Day.

12 May 2014

An Open Letter to the Boston Athletic Association

To the Boston Athletic Association:

Weeks have passed since the Mother of All Boston Marathons, the Boston Marathon of Redemption, the Boston Marathon that wore out a good percentage of the televisions of America well before the starter’s gun with absurd levels of media coverage, some justified, some shameful in its hounding treatment of last year’s victims. The spotlight was on you, and you came through.

But thoughts have been brewing in my head since race day, and while it’s later than I’d planned, it’s time to get them on virtual paper, even if it means delaying what would have been my topic for this week’s column. Now in the hindsight of the event, there are things that need to be said.

First, let’s not let the problems obscure this, it was absolutely fabulous. You did a phenomenal job choreographing thirty-two thousand runners and a nearly unbelievable fifteen thousand volunteers. You enrolled as many volunteers as there were people in the town I grew up in, and they all knew where to go and what to do, and they all did it with aplomb and smiles on their faces. They are all saints, and your skills in logistics are truly amazing every year, but even more so this year. Bravo!

But let’s address the dark side of the equation: the security response to last year’s tragedy. Anyone reading this column regularly knows I have not been shy in my criticism of several aspects of this year’s security plan. Should, through the viral magic of the Internet, this missive actually arrive in your offices, I have no regrets if you go back a few weeks and read my first and second columns on the topic, as well as the “Last Dig” at the end of another pre-race column. I was harsh then, and I am sticking to my views now. Some of what you did for this race made perfect sense. But some of what you did made it harder for the runners to do what they came for. And worse, some of what you did put runners at risk. That which was wrong needs to be corrected.

Let’s be honest. You dodged a huge bullet because it was a beautiful sunny day, in fact a bit too beautiful, bordering on hot. Because the notorious New England weather cooperated, you got away with the bad stuff that I was most vocal about. While you should congratulate yourself not only on another brilliantly executed Boston Marathon, but also a safe Boston Marathon, please do not assume because it was safe that this year’s security plan should simply be replicated next year.

Because it wasn’t raining and had in fact been dry for several days prior, the Athlete’s Village wasn’t a mud pit, and starting the race in dry shoes wasn’t a problem. Considering how difficult it would have been to bring shoes and other gear to race in – and keep them dry till starting time – based on the rules you laid out and the clarifications – or lack thereof – that you provided on the phone (as detailed in my previous columns), you dodged that bullet.

Because it was a beautiful day, it was easy to guess by six AM what to wear when the gun went off hours later. Nobody minds donating old clothes before the race, but nobody wants to discard good stuff. Had the weather been iffy such that appropriate wear couldn’t be determined till race time, runners would’ve has to race in sub-optimal clothing or lose gear they’d rather have kept.

Both of those issues had the potential to impact runners’ performances. That’s bad news for a world-famous race comprised in a typical year of eighty percent qualified – read competitive – marathoners, probably the highest percentage of any major marathon in the world. That’s wrong. But never mind performance; let’s address safety – not against terrorism, but against the elements.

Because it was warm, you got away with the ridiculously unfair no baggage policy that applied only to those who boarded shuttles in Hopkinton. Why living in or staying in a hotel in a western suburb should disqualify a runner from a basic service available to others is beyond me. Your position that we were supposed to travel into Boston in the wee hours of the morning to drop a bag so we could take a bus back to where we live was, frankly, ludicrous. As a result, if we didn’t have a friend handy at the finish (and many didn’t), we were left with no dry clothing for after the race.

The “heat poncho” you handed out at the finish was a significant improvement over the usual Mylar sheet. But even that poncho wouldn’t have provided adequate shelter for dehydrated, depleted marathoners on a cold, windy, or worse, rainy day. Even with the temperature in the low sixties, I enjoyed the poncho while in the sunshine of Copley Square, but found myself shivering and cold once I stepped into the unavoidable shadows cast by the Boston skyline. Running a marathon will do that to you. But after all, it was a beautiful day, so it didn’t matter, right?

Wrong. Do you realize how lucky you were? Marathon Monday was gorgeous. So was Tuesday, the ultimately perfect day for a recovery jog. Then things went downhill fast. Wednesday my training log reads, “Ugly rainy windy cold”. Saturday: “Cold 44 degrees miserable rainy blech” (“blech” being a word that means pretty much what it sounds like). And through most of the following week, New England slogged through rainy, windy days with highs generally in the forties. Allow me to translate that to post-marathon terminology: hypothermia weather.

Had Marathon Monday fallen two days later, you’d have had thousands of dehydrated, depleted, and hypothermic finishers with no dry clothing. Putting a heat poncho – or anything – over soaked clothing won’t stop heat loss. I know, I’ve been there, several times. And it wasn’t just the luck of two days later. That weather held for over a week. It’s pretty common this time of year.

In short, by denying a large class of runners the service of transporting dry clothing, you put those runners at serious risk of hypothermia. That was a very wrong thing to do and has to be fixed.

I could reiterate my pre-race complaints about misdirected security, about how the runners should not be targeted as potential suspects, but you can return to my previous columns to read those thoughts if you haven’t already heard them thousands of times already. I should, however, point out that despite this suspicion of the runners, there was a mysterious lack of verification of those same runners. Reports of counterfeit bibs hit the media after the race (read here and here and just search on "Boston Marathon counterfeit bibs" for more), but rumors of such practices were known well beforehand. Simple measures such as policing popular websites and scanning chips before allowing runners to board shuttles would have increased security far more than preventing me from bringing dry shoes in a clear plastic bag.

So let’s take stock here. On the plus side, these things worked:

  • Increasing police presence and surveillance was a no-brainer, clearly a smart thing to do.
  • Implementing crowd control checkpoints and strongly suggesting limits on spectator bags, coupled with a stated policy that all bags can be searched, again made perfect sense. It was, after all, two spectator backpacks that started this mess last year.
  • The security scan that runners went through as we boarded the shuttle buses was only a minor inconvenience and in general made sense.

But on the minus side, these things need to be fixed:

  • Not allowing runners to bring the gear they need to race was wrong. The policy that a fanny pack was acceptable but a small bag was not was absurd. (I should mention that a friend was stopped at the shuttle security check because they were carrying – I’m not making this up – a tiny Dunkin’ Donuts bag with a single muffin in it.) Use limited size clear bags to make them searchable, set up an airport-style scanner perhaps, but you must allow reasonable running gear. (Muffins would be nice, too.)
  • Not allowing ALL runners to check dry clothing to the finish was wrong, and poses a safety hazard. If you don’t want to bring back baggage buses at the Village, provide them at the Hopkinton shuttle stops. But don’t make us wander through next year’s finish chute in cold windy rain, shivering violently in our soaked togs under a mediocre poncho. (Worth noting, a friend who worked the Village in the morning reported that since everything not carried in the race was discarded, the Village ended up looking like a war zone. I know I left a bottle of sunscreen and other items hoping others would get use out of them, but knowing they’d all end up as trash, part of a tremendous eco-disaster. That is simply wasteful.)
  • Not checking the veracity of bibs at the shuttles by scanning chips was an oversight which invalidated the no-bandit policy and significantly weakened overall security.

Yes, Boston 2014 was a huge success, and as I have said, you should be rightly proud. But please work to correct the problems for next year. Please don’t be seduced by the need for theatre security that is highly visible and to which you can point in the event of an incident to say you did all you could. Don’t blindly accept all requests from the law enforcement community without a full understanding on both sides of their impact on the most important component of the race, the runners. And don’t be fooled into believing that nothing happened solely because of the plan. We all know that a determined crazy could have still created mayhem.

I thank you for your consideration.