20 April 2014

Parking Wars

Peace has settled in by the fact that I’m going for a run tomorrow and nothing I can do will really change the outcome, save avoiding hot chili tonight. Peace has also settled because I know the only thing I need out of this race is a so-so performance to requalify, after which I can work on a placement-improving time in a fall race, if that’s in the cards. In fact, the only thing that’s really got me sweating is navigating the crowds tomorrow in a Boston that’s a third bigger than usual, and if yesterday’s expedition experience to the exposition was any example, that could be a surprisingly competitive event.

The Boston Marathon expo is always packed to the gills, a safety hazard just waiting for an unfortunate event, and our time there yesterday showed no exception. But we knew we were in a different class from the start, when my usual target parking structure put out the unwelcome sign, no room at the inn. Knowing that Dearest Daughter the Younger had made plans for our day, meaning that we didn’t have the luxury of trolling for something better. Against my better judgment, but operating under duress, I bit the bullet and pulled into the Pru Center garage.

I’m frugal in both my personal and business lives. There are few cases where my attitudes differ between those realms, but parking is one of them. If I have to take a meeting in the city, I pay (or let the company pay) what it costs to park in the city, which in Boston can be absurd. But in my personal life, I’ll blow the fifteen minute walk to cut that price in half. So it killed me to think that I was eating close to forty bucks just to pull into the place, especially since I knew from experience that once in, there would be no place to park. Yes, a garage that charges a small fortune yet has no space. You can wait in line and let them stack your car twelve deep but we knew we needed to stop at the vehicle for Part Two of the day’s adventures, so that wouldn’t work well. So we trolled…and trolled… and trolled…looking for anyone leaving.

Which brings us to one of the things that I love about our sport: the people, even the stars, are just so normal. Nice people, approachable, unassuming, generally not coddled, cloistered, or distant. Thus it was that we inadvertently tried to weasel a parking place from two of the greatest female runners in the country.

Four ladies by their car, could be packing things up, hard to tell. Window down, hey ladies, you coming or going? Coming? Ah well, we’ll keep trolling, no big deal. But this is one of the reasons I bring Number One Fan, also known as Dearest Daughter the Younger, along on these adventures. To me, four normal people. To her, instant excitement. No, I hadn’t noticed it was Kara Goucher and Lauren Fleshman. But then, I don’t recognize half the people I meet. Heck, that’s why I’m in sales, right? DDY, on the other hand, was right in tune.

We offered up quick and polite greetings, which they and their friends returned, and as we trolled off again to our eventual somewhat less-than-legal (but who’s counting at forty bucks a shot) slot jammed between a pillar and a maintenance door, we laughed at our coincidental meeting. Right, DDY taunted, you just tried to steal Kara’s and Lauren’s parking spot.

Like I say, people in our sport are so normal. No town cars or coddling treatment here. And I’ll bet it took them twenty minutes to find that spot, just like us. Plus we got a nice wave of recognition when we greeted them again as they hustled in past us inside the hall on their way – likely a bit late due to the parking – to do their appearance.

Besides her annual pilgrimage to enjoy sixty seconds chatting with her Number One Idol Ryan Hall, DDY also lit us up on a casual group run being led by none other than her Ryan’s wife Sara. Thus it was that bellies stuffed with every energy-food sample known to running man, lugging bags of goodies, we slipped back into Pru Parking Purgatory to make the Clark Kent-to-Superman transformation, and emerged ready to run – on a nearly perfect, save a bit windy – Boston spring day.

Did I mention how people in our sport are so normal? Sara, like Ryan, is simply a delight, a truly kind and sweet person, at least when she’s not voraciously kicking your posterior on the course. About twenty or thirty runners of all ilk gathered, including her parents, again the nicest people, and off we plodded for a few miles around Our Fair City. Taking our turns chatting with the Main Attraction meant having plenty of time to chat with a lot of other cool and interesting people from around the country. DDY had her time with Sara, chatting about the work of their Hall Steps Foundation and the project that she, DDY, is thinking about organizing for service in Haiti next year. Truly a pleasant afternoon!

In what other sport, I ask you? Just show up and shag flies with the Red Sox? Skate with the Bruins? Take passes from Tom Brady? Unless you won some sort of radio station contest, I don’t think so… I love our sport.

But back to the crowds. Topping the parking wars, topping the impenetrable crowds in the expo (where some booths had Congo lines just to get in!), it was apparent that this year is a dimension larger. Trying to jog down Boylston on our way to meet Sara, I’ve never seen the finish line tourists so thick. If this is what it means to field thirty-six thousand versus the usual twenty-four thousand, I just hope they’ve booked a lot more porta-johns for the village tomorrow. It’ll be interesting indeed!

Peace. Joy. Run.

11 April 2014

Of Two Minds


Ideas for this column morph between the time that they are born, which is often on a run, and the time that they end up on this page. Tonight, I wrote the word schizophrenia, thinking of the common belief that the disorder involves a person being of two (or more) minds. A quick search revealed that it is not, in fact, the same as multiple personality disorder, and in any event, I can hear the howls now from the mental health community that my use of these terms lightly is not politically correct. Whatever… it’s a good thing that not many people read this stuff.

In any event, I am clearly of two minds in these two weeks leading up to Boston. Mind One says I have turned a corner, I’ve broken out of the depths of my post-surgical, post-clot training funk and am in fact ready to turn in a respectable, though certainly not exceptional, performance come Patriot’s Day. Mind Two keeps finding things that are hurting, breaking, failing. You could call this a simple confidence problem, but with Boston number eight and marathon number twenty on the horizon for ten days hence, I've done enough of these that I’m pretty much past worrying about this stuff. Yes, there is a small bit of pressure about re-qualifying, but given Boston’s dismaying changes this year, failure on that count wouldn’t be the end of the world. No, these two minds are based on real crossed signals.

In short, I have no idea what to expect come two Mondays from now. That’s kind of a weird place for me, since I’m usually fairly aware of where I stand.

There’s no question my training has – at least until the last week or so – taken a turn for the better. Only six weeks ago my training partner The Real Deal (I’m going to have to talk to him about that name, it just doesn’t flow…) had to graciously hang back while I crashed and burned on our first twenty-miler. But we hit the streets again three weeks later for a recap with far better results. This time the roles were reversed – it was his turn to flame out at sixteen – but despite that pace interruption I still sliced off thirty seconds per mile, and he too notched a big improvement even on an off-day. Merely a week after, we synced up, neither on self-destruct this time, and knocked off another quarter-minute per mile over twenty four. He flashed his characteristic strength, dropping us to our fastest miles of the day at the twenty-mile mark, and while that wore heavily on me, at the end I knew I still had two more miles left in the tank that would have produced an easy re-qualifier.

Capping that, we hit the track a few days later for my traditional pre-marathon confidence workout, a full set of ten Yasso 800s. Planning to start slow, we went sub-three-minutes from the first iteration, and finished strong with our fastest of the night coming last. Sounds great, right?

But wait. I’ve run a mere fifteen miles in the last seven days. That’s not because of any planned taper. That’s because things hurt, and not just the usual things. Yes, the Achilles is omnipresent, with all of its weird permutations, pain above, pain below, pain on the inside, outside, flipside, sunny-side. But since when have I gone out for a run and actually stopped because of an inexplicably sore knee? That’s now persisted for two weeks? No, kiddies, this is not good.

Over the last month, I’ve been pulling out all the stops. On the advice of a friend, I even tried a couple of sessions with a chiropractor. I failed to see how twelve minutes, four of which involved cracking my back, was going to help my ankle all that much (and no, I don’t think those sessions are the cause of the knee issue), so I called that quits quick. I’ve been icing bits like mad – with some positive results, I must say – that nasty lump on the Achilles is smaller than ever. I’ve returned for a few more sessions with my Diabolical Physical Torturer, getting feet, ankles, yes, even the knee kneaded, scraped, zapped. I’ve jammed balls into my feet, wrapped tapes and straps around various parts, and upped the ante on the anti-inflammatories. And still, things hurt; most worrisome is the knee, which could stop me cold on Marathon Monday.

Hanging over all of this, of course, is the unknown of the lungs. An email exchange with Lady Doctor proved inconclusive (barring enduring a lot of tests, which I got the impression would prove interesting but inconclusive), so I can’t say whether residual pulmonary damage lies between me and Boylston Street, but I can certainly say there are plenty of days that I’m sucking wind. But to be fair, the pace that comes out of those wind-sucking sessions seems to be getting quicker.

So it’s obvious there’s a zero-point-zero-one percent chance of a repeat of last year’s lifetime best (non-zero, as gale-force tailwinds could occur). And despite my training partner’s confidence in me, the odds of hitting three hours rise only slightly to perhaps zero-point-five percent at best. But re-qualifying at my gnarly age requires only three and a half hours, less a comfortable margin for the cut-off in the current system. Chances of reaching that bar? Well, which mind do I listen to? After all, it seems, I have two.

One Last Dig: After the follow-on rant in my previous post about Boston’s new security rules, I agreed with both Dearest Spouse and several of my running compatriots to let it rest. It is what it is, and I will deal with it. Boston Scared. Boston Suspected. But I can’t resist one last dig. A couple of days ago the Boston Athletic Association published a set of frequently asked questions and did say that runners can bring a pair of shoes, but also disallowed putting them in a bag which might actually keep them dry. This was, of course, in direct contradiction to what they told me on the phone, but hey… Let’s just hope it isn’t raining hard.

But better yet, today they published this colorful chart of what you can and cannot bring to the Athlete’s Village. I give them points for cheerful selection of colors and pleasant layout, but let’s see… They list six items that are acceptable to bring to the race including – I can’t make this up – a yoga mat. By my count, five of these things have nothing to do with actually running a race. And conspicuously missing from the list? Shoes.

28 March 2014

Placing Blame


A couple of weeks back I penned my intense dismay at the security-driven changes to Our Beloved Marathon, and squarely placed the blame on the backs of the Boston Athletic Association and the race director, Dave McGillivray, starting that he should have known better. I did feel some remorse about singling out Dave, but to be Harry Truman about it, the buck stops there.

In the weeks hence, I’ve heard from several sources that the changes were driven by law enforcement, not the BAA. I don’t doubt those statements, but I’m not retracting my targeting of the blame. It was – and still is – the job of the BAA to work with law enforcement to ensure reasonable safety (remember, total assurance is unreachable) while not interfering with the runners’ ability to run their race. As I stated a few weeks ago, I’ve got no issue with having bags searched, being asked to minimize gear or carry it in clear bags, arriving a little early, and so on. But I’ve got a huge issue with being separated from the gear that I need to run my best race.

For the moment, I’ll ignore issues like the insult delivered to our soldiers being excluded as if they were ‘common criminal bandit runners’. I’ll focus on the practicalities: having the right attire, no matter the weather, when the gun goes off, and having the right attire, no matter the weather, at the far end so as to avoid hypothermia. I think those are fairly basic needs in any marathon, and they are basic needs I expect race organizers to take into consideration and not compromise on.

As it stands now, I can’t take anything into the Athlete’s Village that I can’t wear or I can’t fit into a five-by-five-by-fifteen inch fanny pack. The BAA’s web site makes clear what is allowable in that fanny pack: “food, nutritional products, medicine, identification, cell phone, home/hotel key or other similar and necessary small items”. I can’t check any gear at the Village, so whatever I don’t run with, I have to throw away – including the fanny pack. And I can’t check warm, dry clothes for after the race unless I board the buses at the Boston Common at six in the morning. For those already in Boston, this works, even if the clear plastic bag is small. For those of us who live near the starting line, that makes no sense. To get to the Common (and find parking) means leaving at a ridiculous hour…just so we can get on a bus back to our home turf? Wear me out before the race!

When this was announced, I sent a very respectful email to the BAA. I acknowledged their need for more security, accepted it, and focused only on the gear check policy: why those who live or stay near the start were excluded. No response.

I followed up several days later with a Facebook post on the Marathon page. I received a number of likes from runners, but from the BAA? No response.

Two weeks later, the BAA sent an email asking me whether I’d use the gear check service – yes, the one on the Common at six AM. I wrote back, this time a bit tersely, that I couldn’t tell them until they addressed the fact that there was no realistic gear check available to me. No response.

A week later, the BAA sent another email again asking whether I’d use the gear check. My response this time lost some points for tact, but still, I requested an answer. No response.

A week after that, now a full month since my first message, I wrote again. No response.

Two days later, the BAA emailed more information on the new security, including the allowable contents of the fanny pack which I noticed did not include shoes. I wrote one more time – fifth try, sixth if you count Facebook – requesting the courtesy of a reply. Finally, yesterday, they called me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t home. But I called them back today, and ran into the maw of a shredder-chipper. I came out the other end stunned at how I was treated by the people to whom I spoke.

To be fair, I didn’t hide from them the fact that I was highly dismayed by the changes. But I told them, as I have said all along, that while I understand the need for more security, not allowing runners to bring what they need was the real problem. I held no fantasies that I’d get any big changes, but I asked that we try to fix the problem at least in terms of clearly understanding what would be allowed. I figured it was better to be clear now than to have a debate when boarding the bus in Hopkinton – at which point, of course, it would be too late to make any adjustments. The conversation, recounted here, was astounding. I’ve shortened it to spare you pain, but most of what I attribute to the BAA reps are direct quotes I jotted in my notes. Hang on for this ride…

First, I explain that I don’t mind discarding old clothing at the start, but if the weather is iffy, I may not even know what good racing clothes I’ll need until the last minute, and I don’t want to discard good racing clothes. I don’t expect to get anywhere with this, but I’m really surprised where it goes.

BAA Rep A: Then wear old things.

Me: I race on a team. I wear a team jersey, not old things.

BAA Rep A: You don’t need to wear that.

Wow. What can I say about that? On to the next topic: If it’s wet or raining, I’ll need dry shoes at the starting line. I don’t mind discarding an old pair, but your guidelines say I can’t bring anything but the fanny pack, and your list of the allowable contents of the fanny pack doesn’t include shoes.

BAA Rep A: You can carry them around your neck. They can’t be in a bag.

Me: Um, if it’s raining, they’ll get wet around my neck, especially if they can’t be in a bag. Can I put them in the fanny pack? And can I put them in a bag in the fanny pack so they don’t get wet? (About this time BAA Rep transfers me to BAA Rep B.)

BAA Rep B: Sneakers (yes, she called them sneakers) in a bag are not allowed. If you can fit them in your fanny pack, you can bring them.

Deep breath. OK, that was crystal clear. I don’t want to have this debate at the bus in Hopkinton, so I try for more clarity. Right! So if I’ll have to discard the fanny pack (we debate about running with the fanny pack, I try to explain that racers don’t race with luggage), what exactly constitutes a fanny pack? Can I make one out of a bag? Does it have to be strapped around my waist?

BAA Rep B: (Starts accusing me of harassment and other mean nasty things.) No, the fanny pack doesn’t have to be around your waist.

Me, befuddled. So if the fanny pack doesn’t have to be around my waist, isn’t that just a bag?

BAA Rep B: Why are you splitting hairs? Bags are not allowed.

Me, utterly lost: What is the difference between a fanny pack and a bag that fits your dimensions? Does it have to have a zipper? Please, I don’t understand the rule and don’t want to get stuck when boarding the bus.

BAA Rep B: I will not tell you if you can bring a bag. It may work, it may not. She proceeds to berate me again for harassing her, and hangs up on me.

Maybe I am splitting hairs, but when I get to the shuttle bus loading point, I don’t want to have a debate with a Blackwater-lookalike private security guard about whether my homemade fanny pack meets their definition (I have no intentions of throwing away a perfectly good real one). It makes sense to be certain up front. So, like a marathoner – we never give up, right? – I call back. I get BAA Rep A again. Look, I say, I really want race day to go smoothly. All I need to know is if I show up with a dry pair of shoes in a bag that fits within your fanny pack dimensions, are you or are you not going to allow me to bring it to the Village?

BAA Rep A: Please hold….three to five minutes pass…You can bring your shoes in a bag no larger than that size. Stop harassing us. Hangs up.

Wow. I feel like a valued customer. I left out plenty of this conversation. I won’t claim to have been angelic throughout, but I will certify that I kept my cool the whole time. Dearest Spouse, who can be rightly harsh on me when I’m not nice to people (which, sadly, does occur), overheard a decent portion of this conversation. I pleaded with her for complete honesty, not that she wouldn’t offer it anyway. Was I OK on that call? Yes, she assured, and noted that the speakers on the other end clearly sounded like they’d had enough of these questions. That’s probably true, we both agreed, but it was no reason to treat the customer – the runner – the way they did.

So if it’s wet, I think I can bring dry shoes in a bag the size of a fanny pack. But I’d better duct tape it around my waist to be sure. You never know. You’ve got to hand it to them; this is unique. I’ve never worried about having access to shoes for a marathon. I’m sure gaining experience. And I still don’t get why baggage buses have been banned by law enforcement. If the BAA is willing to accept (presumably searched) small clear plastic bags of dry clothing before boarding the bus at the Boston Common, why can’t they accept them before boarding the bus in Hopkinton? Yes, they’d have to bus them to Boston, just like they’ve done for years. Except there’d be a lot less of them, they’d be a lot smaller, and they’d be pre-searched, safe cargo. Go figure.

Let’s face it: law enforcement doesn’t know about running marathons, not do I expect them to. But the BAA does. The process of developing the new security guidelines should have brought together these two fields of expertise. It didn’t. The BAA gave in where they shouldn’t have and didn’t need to. Preventing me from checking dry clothes for post-race doesn’t make me any safer. Making it difficult to have basics like dry shoes doesn’t make me any safer. All of this theatre security doesn’t make me any safer. If someone is determined to stage an attack, they will. And treating me poorly because I question these basic errors is inexcusable.

The result is a race where elites won’t notice the difference, with their needs attended to (as they should be), and the marathon-as-a-life-goal runners won’t care, because they feel no pressure for time performance and inconveniences aren’t so critical to their success. But the competitors – of which Boston has a higher percentage than any other major marathon – will find it a hostile place.

The BAA should know better.

22 March 2014

Qualified Paradise


Amidst the anguish of the ankle and the blather on Boston, Dearest Spouse and I took a few days earlier this month to do the second honeymoon thing. Having hit twenty years of bliss nearly a year ago, we were well overdue for this escape, despite
not having universal buy-in on the idea from all parties familial. It was time to cash in the “I got bumped” airline voucher I’d been sitting on, as well as about ten years of Marriott points, and head for a warm place at a cold time.

On that count, we scored completely. The Florida Keys served up five days of almost constant eighty degrees,
plus or minus only two or three (even at night!), at least until the “cold front” came through on our final day. While that front did pack a mighty thunderstorm, we found great mirth that even at the depth of the storm, cold meant sixty-seven (fear not, reader, it
quickly rose back into the seventies), while back home our spawn wallowed in single-digit nights. Smirk.

The trip? Fantabulous. (Believe it or not, that word passes spell-check.) Kayaking through the mangroves. Wandering the Everglades among the gators, crocs, and more cool birds than one can imagine. And even though tourist towns aren’t really our
thing, even the trek out to Key West delivered charms of its own, like the eighteen-inch iguanas. Mostly, time to savor the company of my beloved. But this column isn’t a travelogue. It’s about running. And that’s where
the paradise of the Keys requires a little…qualification.

Living up to my reputation for doing somewhat foolish things, on the day before Dearest Spouse and I flew south, I ventured out for a twenty-one miler with my training bud Issam (he of vague nomenclature that only weeks ago defined for himself a new blog name, which was subsequently vetoed by his local familial authority, and now has elected to be called “The Real Deal” in these pages). Considering how poorly my training has been going, I felt the need to stab at a twenty and assess the State of the Union. Real Deal felt the same need, so stab we did.
It wasn’t pretty. The only good news for me was that by ten miles in, I wasn’t thinking about the Achilles all that much, since most of my body was in open revolt. By the end, I’d logged my second slowest twenty-plus in history, not an encouraging result, and various body parts were seriously unhappy with me.

It occurred to me that inflicting such damage just before our grand expedition could have been a serious buzz kill. Fortunately, I got away with it, and our getaway went unmarred. Through the travel day, the kayak day, and the Key West day, I gave the body a rare three-day break from running, and the body rewarded me by not feeling even remotely sore from the long outing.

But Florida had yet to be checked off the list of States In Which I Have Run, so I couldn’t possibly leave without notching state number twenty three. On day four of our journey, I trundled out of the hotel for a morning jaunt, seeking the bliss of gliding through a sub-tropical paradise.

Ah, was I wrong, and not just wrong, but doubly wrong. Wrong number one? Everything hurt, and hurt a lot. Never mind bliss, there was no joy in Mudville, or Coral Keyville, or wherever. The ankle, which had behaved admirably over previous days, seemed ready to snap as I tried to loosen it up in
the first half-mile, and it didn’t get much better after that. Other parts joined in the parade of objections. And that pleasant air rapidly reminded me that while eighty felt so good to someone accustomed to ten, it was still eighty, and I wasn’t really ready for it.

Wrong number two was somewhat expected, based on prior map research, but surprising in its ferocity. For all the pleasures that they Keys dangle to lure visitors, the truth is that they are in large part a lousy place to run. First,
there’s the flatness. We’ve got bigger snow piles here than the highest rises on the Keys (save their landfill, and the snow mountains behind the supermarket down the street might even challenge that). Other than a small rise out of the hotel parking lot and an almost
imperceptible swell over a small boat channel, the tedium of zero change on the “Z Axis” quickly made even short distances stretch interminably. Second, there’s the simple fact that most of the Keys, including Key Largo where we were based, consist of US Route 1, for all intents and purposes a superhighway, and dozens of spur roads, most of which travel from Route One to the water and stop. To cover any amount of mileage, you pretty much have no choice but to
sidle along the high-speed traffic till you reach some of those spurs, then weave in and out of their tendril-like dead-ends, hoping for a glimpse of the sea at their termini. And finally, there’s the sad fact that the beauty of the Keys is not to be found on these routes. Not only can you not reach the sea in most places, all access points having been built over with palatial estates and closed off to mere mortals, but you see very distinctly the division lines in our society. Tucked
behind the backs of the Route-One-facing businesses, the places where everyone else lives show a stark difference from the archetypical seaside playgrounds of the one- or at least the five-percenters.

Translating this to reality, I slogged up the tiny slope from beach level at the back of the hotel to highway level and headed southwest, traffic roaring past. First chance available, I cut off the highway, but that street extended only a
tenth of a mile, if that, off the road. At least it allowed me to traverse the service lane behind the strip malls. But it ended quickly, forcing me back onto the noisy main drag. A ways down another side road again provided escape. Again, it served up a loading-dock view of the Keys, this time leading at its furthest extent to a sea-facing spur, perhaps half to three-quarters of a mile long. Lined with homes of increasing value as the sea drew nearer, there were no views, and at the end, only gates at the final, largest manses, preventing any access to peaceful or pleasant spots of contemplation. The only option? Turn around and go back the way you came. Loops don’t happen here.
And the next day? From where we were based, there was no other option, barring getting in the car and driving somewhere else for a different version of the same recipe. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. The fact is, there are very few places where you can cover any amount of distance that don’t include Route One. The walking and cycling trail that parallels the highway, largely complete (but not yet at our hotel, and in any event, it was being built on the far side of that wide swath of traffic, difficult to access) improves the experience
somewhat, but frankly, not much. It’s safer, but no more peaceful.

Places like this remind you of what you’ve got back home. New England might be cold and snowy, but we’ve got back roads, your choice of hills from killer to the occasional
nearly flat, and more options to build intriguing loops than I’ve used up in nine years. Were I to live on the Keys, life as a runner would be agonizing at best.

Go to the Keys to kayak the mangroves at Pennekamp. Go to the Keys to wander the beaches. Go to the Keys for the funkiness and history of Key West. Go to the Keys so you can sneak back to the mainland and check out the Everglades. Go to the
Keys with the one you love. Just don’t go to the Keys hoping for a good-weather location to boost your training. It’s not that kind of paradise.









13 March 2014

Intense Dismay

Bib numbers were posted for Boston today and the streets should be filled with mirth and glee. Instead, I feel intense dismay, which is a politically correct way of relating the far stronger feelings I hold. The leaders of the Boston Marathon appear to have forgotten who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. They appear to have forgotten that Boston Strong means we will not let the bad guys win. And most dismaying, they seem to have forgotten what it means to race a marathon. They should know better.

For the record, this year, if I make it to the starting line in my wounded state, I’ll be wearing bib number 1980. I remember 1980, it was a pretty good year. People may have been rockin’ to their Walkmans, but they didn’t spend all day staring at smartphones. But I digress.

A week or so back, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) announced their new security guidelines in the wake of last year’s bombings. Some tightening was in order. What they did went well beyond reason. If you missed it, here’s a few highlights, paraphrased: First, all runners are suspected terrorists. Second, even soldiers are suspected terrorists. Third, spectators will now be more thoroughly caged by barriers of the type that were clearly effective in containing blast damage last year. Fourth, if you had any expectations of truly racing, you’d better hope for perfect and predictable weather, even though this in New England, where the predictable part is a fantasy.

Dave McGillivray, race directory is a runner. Dave McGillivray should know better. Instead, Dave McGillivray publicly stated, “The lesson here is that individual runners have to take personal responsibility for themselves,” and, "The runners will adapt." On his first comment, frankly, I’m offended. Is he implying that we haven’t done that in the past? What personal responsibility is he referring to? If he means that we should bring what we need, that’s going to be rather difficult since we’re no longer allowed to bring anything that doesn’t fit in a fanny pack to the race.

I have no issue with disposable marathon clothing. You go to Goodwill, you spend a few bucks on ratty warm stuff, you discard it at the start, it gets collected and given back to Goodwill. Rental clothing. But Mr. McGillivray seems to have forgotten that with variable weather, we bring more than rental clothing to the race. It’s common that you don’t decide the right layers until the last moment. Sleeves? Singlet? Even tights if it’s nasty? This isn’t rental clothing. This is the good stuff, like club jerseys. Stuff that you fully expect to get it back in your baggage.

Mr. McGillivray seems to have forgotten that it is, on occasion, wet and miserable. And on days like that, with hours to wait before the start, a pair of dry shoes for the race makes a world of difference (or for some, racing shoes). I’m OK with wearing old ones to the athlete’s village and discarding them (I’ve done it), but under the new rules, you can’t bring the dry shoes – unless you put them in a fanny pack.

Now, at the risk of offending my four-hour-plus friends (and with the way my Achilles non-recovery is going, I might be one of them this year), anyone who intends to truly race Boston doesn’t wear a fanny pack stuffed with gear. I’m already an oddball in that I wear a fuel belt, a rarity in the sub-three-hour crowd. Now I need to wear a fanny pack, too? Or if I don’t want to race with it, since a fanny pack is all I can bring, I’ll have to discard it as well if I’d like dry shoes (if said shoes fit in said fanny pack). Goodwill doesn’t have many fanny packs. (Shoes in fanny pack = OK. Shoes in clear plastic bag = Not OK. Huh?)

Wait a minute. Who were the criminals last year? Wasn’t one of the challenges in solving the crimes the fact that we didn’t have a clue who they were? Don’t we know who the runners are? Don't they, after all, sport a giant license plate, a big number that identifies them to the world? Go ahead, search my bag. Verify there are no large heavy metal objects in there, I’m fine with that. But if we’re going to get all TSA about this and worry about shoe bombers at a marathon, we’re going to have a serious shortage of podiatrists.

Of course, being denied the ability to bring the gear needed to dress for changing weather is now irrelevant, since there’s no longer any baggage check at the village. You can’t send that club shirt home anyway. New York tried this one, but relented when they realized it wasn’t a very good idea.

Further, like New York, people come from all over the world to run Boston. Many if not most don’t have friends waiting downtown to supply them with dry clothing at the finish. They depend on that baggage check for warm, dry clothing at the other end. No worries, says the BAA! We’ll give you a tres chic heat poncho at the finish! Ignoring the fashion faux pas, which we as runners really don’t care about, once again, Mr. McGillivray should know better. Any marathoner knows that a depleted body is difficult to re-warm under the best circumstances. if it’s even marginally chilly, and the winds downtown make this likely, sweaty clothing will easily trump any poncho. And if it’s cold and rainy, no poncho in the world will prevent the onset of hypothermia. You simply have to remove the wet clothing. How do I know? Wineglass Half in 2011. Hyannis and Martha’s Vineyard in 2013. Three immediate memories of near if not actual hypothermia. It’s not fun.

Want a real disaster on your hands? How about forty degrees and rain, and five or ten or even twenty thousand cases of hypothermia? Last year the weather was fine, and when thousands of runners were stopped short of the finish, unable to claim their bags, there were still many pictures of seriously chilled runners. Imagine that on a nasty day.

Ah, but the BAA will allow you to check a small bag of dry clothing. Now, the photos I’ve seen of this bag make me doubt that you can fit a pair of sweats or fleece inside, but let’s assume for the moment that you can. There’s a catch. The only time and place you can check this bag is on race day on the Boston Common where the buses leave for Hopkinton. If, like me, you live near the starting line, you’re out of luck. If, like thousands of visitors, you are staying in hotels outside of the city, you too are out of luck. There’s simply no way and no time for everyone to find their way into the city so they can get on a bus out of the city. I’ve written the BAA pleading that they need to offer a similar accommodation to those catching the shuttles in Hopkinton. To date, no reply.

Is this what Mr. McGillivray meant by us taking personal responsibility?

But let’s move on. Who can you trust in today’s world of terrorists? Apparently not the United States Military. The BAA has decreed, no bandits whatsoever! Indeed, your loved one can’t even jog along with you for a half mile for encouragement. I’ll avoid the lengthy discussion on that topic and jump to the punch line. The BAA has determined that the tradition of United States soldiers “rucking” the course in full gear constitutes unauthorized participants on the course and has been banned. Unless that soldier has a bib number, he or she cannot march on the course. [Ed. Note: I should clarify, I am not condoning or condemning banditry here; just stating that soldiers on a ruck do not, in my view, constitute bandits!]

Now wait a minute. If, God forbid, another incident occurs, those United States soldiers are just the people I want on the course. I don’t know about you, but I trust them. Ah, you say, but someone could disguise themself as a soldier, carry that big backpack, and… Well, let’s face it. if someone really wants to stage an attack, they’ll find a way. Barring soldiers won’t stop that.

But if the BAA doesn’t trust soldiers, who do they trust? Apparently, mall cops. Security personnel will be doubled, including a mix of police and private security. Bring on the cops, we love and respect them. (Though apparently the idea of someone impersonating a cop and carrying a weapon doesn’t raise an alarm like someone impersonating a soldier and carrying a backpack, but I digress). But private security? Exactly who are they? Have they, like our soldiers, taken an oath to uphold the Constitution? So we trust them, but not our soldiers?

And finally there is my favorite. Besides telling spectators basically not to bring much (who’s going to hand out beers to the five-hour-crew? …they deserve them!), there will be a significant increase in crowd barriers, both metal and ropes. Now that makes me feel a thousand percent safer. After all, we know how effective those barriers are at containing a bomb blast.

Or maybe it’s to protect me from those evil fans? We’ve all seen the pictures of the Duel in the Sun and earlier days of the Marathon where the crowd closed in so tight that there was barely room for the runners. But that’s just not the case today. The crowds are well behaved (yes, even at the beer-fueled colleges) and respectful of the runners. Never once in seven years have I been impeded by a spectator. So what’s the point in this? Just to keep those unauthorized people off the course? And what happens if they, like the chicken we watched amusedly in Key West last week, need to cross the road?

Clearly some increases in security are in order. Searching bags, even runners’ bags, is not unreasonable under the circumstances. A security perimeter around all spectator areas on Boylston Street as well as key locations like Kendall Square makes sense. More video surveillance, no matter what your opinion of the NSA, offers both preventative as well as forensic benefits. Significantly increased police presence, bolstered with the National Guard, to patrol the entire route would not only help prevent a repeat tragedy but enhance both spectators’ and participants’ feeling of safety, since no matter how strong, we must be vigilant. As we saw with the brilliant police work following the tragedy, human intelligence, backed up with technology, is key.

And some of the restrictions they’ve place on runners, like banning weight vests and large backpacks, are common sense moves. Last year while marshalling at the Groton Road Race, just two weeks after the Boston bombing, I chased down a runner wearing such a vest. I assumed – and sincerely hoped – it was a weight vest, but who could be sure? It looked like what a suicide bomber would wear. It was frightening. We don’t need that.

But theatre security is nothing other than theatre. It doesn’t solve anything, and it only creates skepticism among the public as to the efficacy of the efforts. Worse, targeting and unnecessarily restricting the actions of the runners is simply wrong. Separating runners from the equipment they need to perform at their peak is wrong. Putting runners at risk of hypothermia is wrong. Assuring us that we will adapt strikes me as odd; evolution to withstand hypothermia takes many generations. Adding insult by telling us that we have to take personal responsibility is infuriating. Yes, we need to be vigilant. But we are not criminals. We are runners, we are resilient and strong, and we don't want to see our event reduced to a choreographed dance where we are the mice in the maze.

I love the Boston Marathon. Let’s not cripple it. Please, let’s have clearer heads prevail.

01 March 2014

Assumptions, Part Two


Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it gets better. A couple of months back I ranted about the online fitness programs not just offered, but forced upon me and my fellow co-workers by our Mighty Employer. Forced, as in at the end of a financial gun: do this stuff, or you’ll lose real dollars. (If you missed that episode [at this link], it’s required reading before you move on.)

Now, we all know that employment is entirely about the concept of do this stuff, or you’ll lose real dollars, but we expect that the stuff in question has something to do with what we do for a living and what business our employer is engaged in. But Mighty Employer has deemed that healthy living is important, and while I agree whole-heartedly with that, I find their assumption that we’re all not living healthy today to be at best misguided, and at worst rather insulting. And I find the stuff that they deem translates into healthy living to be little more than an online game, and not a terribly captivating one at that. At the end of the day, it comes down to the fact that if I click on web sites, I get money. Sounds like a scheme from a late-night infomercial.

As I’d noted last fall, I met with the benefits manager behind this wacky scheme. As you might have guessed, that meeting when nowhere. Her mantra was simply that everybody’s doing this. I won’t argue whether that’s true, but that doesn’t make it sensible. No amount of reasoning would sway her from the program. It didn’t matter how much I already ran or what sort of evidence I could provide to substantiate my miles, I had to waste time and click the buttons.

But hey, I was already on my way to earning my cash, because as you also read last fall, I’d already enrolled in the Energize® program and had already been fed that thrilling report that told me to use a bathroom on a different floor. I expected the onslaught of helpful tips, coaching, chiding, and scolding to start gracing my inbox any day. But something even funnier happened.

Nothing.

Maybe it was because I’d told the Electronic Overlord that I wasn’t a slug. Maybe the nameless faceless application decided it trusted me. Or maybe it was simply lame. But for whatever the reason, absolutely nothing happened. Not one email. Not one communication of any sort, once that initial seventeen page bucket of blather report started my journey to better health. Nary a peep. Nor for Dearest Spouse, who’d also signed up.

Knowing that this was for real cash (for which, I note, tracking and assuring credit became a career in its own right), I wasn’t satisfied to let it rot. I duly signed on to the corporate wellness website, where there were still absolutely no messages of encouragement, status, or anything. After a month, I had to hunt for the link to the thirty-day progress survey I’d been told about within that famed Seventeen Pages of Vapid Verse. I’d tell you about said sad survey, but it would spoil the fun, because I knew I wouldn’t reach my goal – which had nothing to do with exercise but everything about the coin – until the ninety day progress survey, at which point I’d be deemed to have completed the program.

Between thirty and ninety days, I again felt lonely, ignored, and emotionally abused through neglect by this program. Oh, the excitement they’d promised! Oh, the benefits I’d gain! Oh, the help they’d offer! And I got nothing. Remember that song from A Chorus Line? I felt nothing…

Ninety days, and yes! The progress survey link again appeared in that magical website. Certainly this one must be comprehensive, complete, and captivating, a true capstone! Silly man! To expect such wonder! No, I’m afraid it was exactly the same survey as I’d seen at thirty days, except that first it asked me if I wanted to take the program again. What program? The program that didn’t do anything? After refusing the repeat, the same three brief pages I’d seen at day thirty reappeared. That was it, three pages.

Page One: You made it! Can you fathom that you achieved your goal of getting though three months of Energize®? It must have been so hard with all the requirements we sent you, which were…oh yeah, nothing. And so when they ask if, as a direct result of this program, has anything changed, can I lie? If I did so, my self-esteem might suffer, and they do seem to be concerned about that, so I’d better be honest.


Page Two: Not worth reproducing here. You said you ran, hiked, and lifted weights. Did you?

Page Three: Are you confident you can increase your level of activity? What, are you trying to kill me? As if I’m not doing enough now? I cannot tell a lie. NO! Are you tied to an Almighty Pedometer tracking device? (Remember this, it comes back to haunt us later.) And, my favorite question: Does your life suck or not? If I say yes, do I get a gold star for working so hard?


Now, after the intensity of that questionnaire, I’m just worn out, but fear not, it’s over. Yes, that was it. And that helpful information they promised me at the end? Just another empty promise. So it’s time to bid adieu…because, Can you believe 3 months have passed since you first took Energize? Holy crap! I took Energize? I thought that was ibuprofen!


For all that, I get fifty bucks. Four hundred and fifty to go.

There are other ways to earn this glitter, but being as the accounting system behind this scheme is considerably less than optimal, you’d better keep playing the game and racking up bonus points to be sure you’re not shorted. And so I am now merrily wasting time clicking on another web site, using that Almighty Pedometer (remember that question? …yeah, they sent me one) to count my steps to supposedly walk across Europe with a bunch of my co-workers. Oddly, though the goal is healthy living, no other form of exercise matters to them, just steps…so yes, I convert everything to steps, wouldn’t you? Game the system, click the website… Of course there’s no assurance that any of the numbers that any of the participants in this curious program are punching into the web site are real. But I’ll give them credit that this one at least leverages peer influence, and this time they are peppering me with annoying emails, some of which actually have some good advice, like…


Let’s face it, they’re singing my tune here. Are you able to pick your kids up from school on foot? Sounds like my Pre-Marathon Rant blog post from a couple years back. Leave the car and do errands on your own two legs? I ran to City Hall at noon a couple days ago. Heck, I might have actually appreciated Energize® if they’d given it some sensible teeth like this.

Thus I return to my statement from last fall. Americans do desperately need to change their ways. And it’s not wrong for employers to try to push people down that path. Healthy encouragement is, well, healthy. But treating everyone like the average and ignoring the accomplishments of those who are doing what is called for – and on top of that, threatening financial loss for not lining up for a dose of this inanity – is a recipe for serious dissention. And creating programs that measure success by solely by counting website clicks is completely counterproductive insanity.

Must go now, I need to enter today’s steps into that web site…

24 February 2014

One For The Thumb

It’s pretty clear that my injured, hobbled world isn’t changing soon. It’s pretty clear that Boston is a big question mark – do I run it and risk not re-qualifying, or defer and guarantee the consecutive streak ends at seven? But it’s also pretty clear that one way or another, life goes on. The sun still rises, it still snows in New England in the winter, and late February means it’s time to run the Hyannis Marathon Relay with my local club.

Hyannis is an end-of-winter ritual that usually comes with weather that reminds us that it’s not over yet, despite my annual pronouncement that spring starts on March First (no matter what the calendar says). Hyannis is four and a half thousand people converging on Cape Cod, briefly waking it from its mid-winter devoid-of-tourists-and-almost-all-signs-of-life slumber. Hyannis is a bit of old home days, meeting friends, enjoying the camaraderie of racing (even with friends in funny hats) we share frequently in the summer but more rarely in the winter. Hyannis is a mix of a few perpetually overzealous (and somewhat edgy) course marshals countered by plenty of more friendly and fun volunteers (like the terrifically enthusiastic water stop crew at the thirteen mile mark) otherwise starved for running excitement. But mostly, Hyannis is the tradition of winning the Men’s Masters Relay and walking off with another set of hand-painted clam shells, in my view one of the cooler awards on the New England racing circuit.

Winning this category traditionally hasn’t been all that hard, as the competition hasn’t been all that stiff, in part because it’s often conflicted with another New England event that draw the big guns (as it did again this year). Still, finding four old farts over forty who are in sum total pretty quick isn’t the easiest task, and we’ve never enjoyed an unopposed year (nor would we want to). Part of the mystique is that we never know just how many teams are out there in our division, let alone who’s on them, and even while on the course, with the mixture of team types, there’s really no way to tell. So there’s no other option than to let ‘er rip full steam, and tally up the wreckage later.

But having won the event for four years, this year we came with a hole in our fabric. Each of those years, our lead-off man was John Tanner. After last year’s win, we had no way to know we’d lose him a mere three weeks later. This one was for John, our fallen soldier, and it was fitting that post-race, our team captain “You’re Awesome” Dan delivered a fitting dedication to him from the awards podium. Which sort of gives away the outcome, but let’s face it, you knew that anyway. We came looking for number five, or as “Mean Joe” Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the seventies, owner of four Super Bowl rings and looking for the fifth called it, “One for the thumb”. He didn’t get it. We did.

Into his shoes stepped my long-time training partner Issam, a man not only of superb racing ability but also of shifting preference for a blog name. We occupied a mile of our post-race back-half-of-the-course run debating his new preference to be known as Mile High, owing to his preference for shorter races including the mile, but at my insistence including the asterisk that his choice has no relationship to either the stadium or the newly legal recreation of the state of Colorado.


Every year I counsel Awesome Dan not to rest too much of his self-worth on another win, as we just can’t control who will show up. Every year I expect that crew of ringers to appear. And some day it will happen, but for yet another year, it didn’t. We should have known the gods were smiling on us from the start. I mean, with four and a half thousand people showing up, what’s the chance that upon arriving late, the parking marshals would usher us to the Executive Parking Spot literally (I’m not exaggerating this) ten feet from the starting line. Clearly, an omen.

On top of that, it wasn’t raining, snowing, or even all that cold. There would be no repeat of last year’s hypothermia. Decent weather for Hyannis? Go figure. But as always by the sea in the winter, oh, the wind, she did blow, and knowing how cold that wind blows down by the beach, right up till ten minutes before my leg I was still clad in tights despite the mid-forties air. I knew I could cheat fate since after all, I had a changing room parked ten feet from the starting line, which happened to also be the exchange hand-off zone. Gee, how convenient! Minutes before my leg I pulled the trigger, hopped in the back seat, off with the tights, on with the shorts, into that glorious windy day.

And just in time, as our second leg man Eric appeared five minutes ahead of expectation. Mile High Issam had singed the pavement with six-flats and hit the Craigsville Beach exchange zone ahead of every other relay team, no matter their age. Eric turned his expected seven and a halves into a pace closer to sevens, and met me with our team still second overall. I proceeded to run the slowest of my five Hyannis third legs, indeed, just about my slowest race ever of that distance class, not quite holding six and a halves into the same stiff wind that Mile High had conquered so easily. Still, I clicked off four or five full marathoners and held our second place ranking till I handed it off to Awesome Dan, at which point I would know nothing till getting back to the hotel headquarters and waiting for news.

We hung at the exchange zone for a few minutes until seeing the next relay team who were clearly youngsters, then a few minutes more to verify no threatening old guys were near, before heading out for what had always been John and my traditional back-forty cool-down run, only this year, no John. But with fine weather and Mile High at my side, despite the pesky Achilles making its presence known once again (I’d pretty much ignored it during my leg, the discomfort of the inadequacy of my lungs taking precedence over all else), we had what one of the most enjoyable back-forties of my five Hyanni (plural of Hyannis, right?). Nothing beats a casual slog, watch free, scenic route, perfect weather (away from the wind on the back side), chatting it up with the water stop crews, picking up lost and found stuff, dropping to the street for push-ups for a particularly enthusiastic youthful course marshal crew, and contributing some inspiration to a few full marathoners along the way.

In a twist of irony, my last minute change won another runner a burst of late race adrenaline when he spied my togs and determined that, wearing split shorts, the epitomic opposite of the ghetto-blasting knee-obscuring basketball skirt-shorts of the masses, I must have been a contender (say that like Brando) – one he had to take down. He caught, he took, but since we were no-longer-contenders (nolo contendere?) he didn’t gain any places from us. Still, it lifted him through mile twenty-five, a boost that any marathoner appreciates. In another twist of ironic fun, we caught the women’s winner about three-quarters of a mile out and offered up a little good-natured taunting to assure she wouldn’t fade and risk her spot. Turned out she had a seven minute lead, but at that point, who knew?

Great fun, but what happened to Dan? Had he held on? We hadn’t seen anyone who looked like a threat, but we weren’t exactly paying full attention during our pleasant jaunt. And so as happens every year at this event, the wait for the verdict was, well not agonizing, but at least a little angst-ridden. Several soups, snacks, and secreted beers later, our reward was bestowed. The mildly disappointing bit was that there was only one other men’s masters team. Our two-fifty-seven, second best among our five trips around the circuit, topped them by a good seven minutes to earn our clamshells. But winning a field of two lacks a certain, how shall we say, flair? Making up for that, however, was the knowledge that we had indeed held our second overall place among the ninety teams of all sorts, including the youngsters. There was no award for that, but we were happy to settle for some good old fashioned satisfaction.