15 December 2017

Riding High in Style


Five forty-three in the morning isn’t a happy time for many people, and certainly not for a distinctively non-morning person like myself. Or perhaps I should clarify; I’m not so much anti-morning as I am anti-stop-sleeping. Once I am up and functioning, mornings can be the most glorious time; it’s just getting to the glory that’s highly objectionable. So it was that my five forty-three departure from the budget motel next to the interstate was in no way glorious, yet there I was, chugging out in thirty-degree darkness, heading away from that interstate as fast as my stiff and sluggish legs would take me, which at that hour wasn’t very fast.

The fact that I found the motivation to drag my bones from a comfortable bed in order to clock five miles before grabbing the train for a day of meetings in New York is indicative that things have been turning up of late. Not up so much as to declare myself out of the woods; I’m not certain I’ll ever do that (much to the amusement, or perhaps dismay, of my running buds). Incessant worries of re-impending doom will never vanish, nor will twinges in the knee (which have in fact intensified in the last few days), but things are up enough that racing has risen to something greater than futile, and that I’m even on a mini-streak of sorts. While I’ve got nothing on my friend around the corner who has topped four years straight without missing a day, my nearly three months of daily forays have done their dual job of seeding compounded motivation while edging me out of my training slump. At least on some days, it’s starting to feel fun again.

Popping in three races within eleven days, or at least three events labelled as races, was a hint that this is indeed a breakout from the past year of agonizing. I say events labelled as races since I truly raced only one, I mostly raced another, and the third was more of a hard tempo (or a fast training run for you non-runspeak types). Nevertheless, three times on the race course, three times in the results listings, and three times satisfied with the outcome. It’s all good. Even if that knee still worries me.

The hard tempo, actually the middle outing of this trio, was a Home Course Advantage pounding of my local club’s Tough Ten Miler course, Thanksgiving Edition (or technically the Sunday after). I’ve long ago given up caring that it’s really only nine-point-eight-five, not that I’m counting or anything, because the hills make it run like eleven. And being certified OCD, I convert my results before spitting them through the age-grading tables anyway.

On that chilly but fine morning (fine at least until we finished, at which point the windy sleet hit, chilling all to their bones), I joined with former Greater Boston teammate Kris in a mutual non-aggression pact. We agreed we’d run it together, we’d push it together, we’d finish together in a bi-partisan spirit of cooperation (he being distinctly right leaning, I the opposite) that our country could use more of. We picked a pace, we hit the pace, we dropped a few of our friends along the way, and we turned in a time that, while quite a ways off my overall best on the course, actually clocked in as a best on the all-hallowed and holy age-grading scale. Who saw that one coming? Of course, somewhere around mile seven, I commented that if we really were racing, I wasn’t sure I’d be going all that much faster.

But while I hadn’t expected a best, I did expect a solid run, as I’d raced with Kris just four days prior on the real turkey day. Or at least unofficially; as when he’d shown up at Stow Gobbler they’d sold out, so he ran sans-bib. Legal or not, he dragged me to my best outing in a year and a half – so when he suggested coming down for the ten miler afterwards, it was roll-out-the-red-carpet time.

Last year I hobbled into Stow hoping merely to stumble in within a minute per mile off the previous year. Not a minute overall mind you, a minute per mile; it was that bad. I made it, but that wasn’t saying much. This time, Baby Steps, keep it reasonable, I targeted my recent decent outing at John Tanner’s race, aiming for just a hair better. Meeting Kris on the line, his stated goal pace was clearly a bit hot for my tastes, and I wished him well. But a mile in, I found myself hanging a mere ten yards off his flank. Heck, either he’s dogging it, or I’m clicking; either way, milk it.

Two miles in and I wasn’t catching him, but I wasn’t losing him, either. I’m pretty good at on-course math, and the numbers seemed pretty clear that I’d top the Tanner outing – on a known accurate course, to boot – but then things got a little gray. Maybe it was the blinding morning sun, but for whatever reason I was momentarily blinded in the calculations department. I had an inkling that an even minute boundary was within grasp, but I couldn’t get my head around how close it might be.

In cases like that, there’s really only one thing to do. Hurt yourself.

Never mind the age graded scale (which spit out a satisfying number, for the record). I’m mildly proud and very amused that the photos from the end of this one went off the charts on the Death Warmer Over scale. It's kind of a meter that says, yes, you gave it all you've got. And that even minute boundary? Let’s just say it wasn’t close; I didn’t need to hurt myself quite so much to gain that, but I’m glad I did. And as a bonus, Kris, ten yards ahead to the finish, had no bib and so honorably veered off at the last moment. Having already been a fantastic pacer, he turned my tiny little Stow masters’ medal from artificial bronze to artificial silver.

Question: How do you top two solid outings like that? Answer: With style.

A week later it was Mill Cities time, when I shed my Highland City and Central Mass jerseys and turn into a Squannacook River Runner for a day. Not being tightly ingrained in this group (entirely my fault says Mr. I-Can’t-Remember-Names-For-Nuthin’, since they are always of famous hospitality), I make no demands on their team organization. Put me where you need me, I’ll run.

My slight dismay over being swapped off one team, where I was to have run the long nine-point-five mile leg four – my favorite – onto a different team, where I was tagged to run the opener, five and two-thirds miles of rolling terrain in the early morning coldness, was immediately dispelled when I arrived at the pre-dawn team rally and spotted our ride for the day.

And oh, what a ride.

There, idling in the parking lot (since, it would turn out, we needed to keep it running all the time) was a beautifully restored 1965 Chevy Greenbrier van (the first photo, up top...why, you ask?...because Facebook grabs the first picture in the post as a preview, so yes, I'm kowtowing a bit). Before we’d left the parking lot, before we’d seen another team, heck, before we knew if there were any other teams, we knew we had the coolest ride on the block, bar none. Indeed, at one point that day we’d find ourselves stuck in traffic next to a friend in his bright red early-eighties Pontiac convertible – with the top down – and, well, it was no contest. He was cool. We were awesome.

This ride wasn’t without its downside. Seatbelts weren’t a thing back then, nor of course airbags, nor, I’m sure, plenty of other nice comfy protective things in the event of Sudden Ugliness. It didn’t have what you’d call a tight suspension; at times we wallowed about like a pregnant whale trying to damage her calf through excessive drinking. And then I noticed the “Corvair Club” sticker on the back and suddenly realized why the styling was so familiar: this thing was indeed built on the same chassis that made Ralph Nader expect to roll over in his grave. And think if a low-to-the-ground Corvair could roll, what might a high-off-the-ground Greenbrier van do? When we’re going around a leftish turn, downhill, braking hard to turn the hard right into the school where the next exchange zone awaited? Yeah, I had a few tense moments.

But it was oh, so cool. (And later research, by the way, explained that the 1965 model had a redesigned chassis that was not susceptible to the rolls that made both the Corvair and Nader famous. An interesting read worth three minutes.)

The race? Oh yeah, we raced. It was cold. They altered the course just a little, adding another hill (why, thank you!). And I couldn’t find my man for a couple of seconds at the far end, leading to an exasperated shout that I’d be rightly abused for throughout the remainder of the day. And like the Tough Ten Miler the week prior, nowhere close to my all-time best on that leg (even considering the course changes), but age-graded, solid. And most of all, a lot of fun with running friends.

A few months ago, I wouldn’t even step on a race course. Now, three in eleven days. None record-breaking. All smile-inducing.

Meanwhile, back to that morning a week ago outside of New Haven, Connecticut... By the end of that slog I’d snuck up on a few early dog walkers, spotted two fellow early runners, run alongside a commuter jet taxing for takeoff (yes, an airport was involved), had a stint on a path alongside the sea, and yes, started to see the earlies tinges of dawn. All before six thirty. When you’ve done that much by that time, the rest of the day is gravy. It was glorious.

Disappointment can bring you spiraling down, but motivation can build on itself. It takes a lot of effort to get out in less than ideal circumstances, but doing so brings rewards, both immediate and long-term, and those rewards feed back to get you out for more, or, in simple speak, the more you run, the better you run, and the more you’re likely to get out to run some more. Even before six in the morning. But don’t let that news travel too far. People might think I’m up to something, or – gasp! – willing to get up early..

22 November 2017

Expanding Horizons


There are a couple of basic rules in the running world. First, when life takes you places, take your running shoes. Second, the myth of the lonely distance runner is in fact just that, a myth. We’re generally highly social creatures, and you’re a fool if you don’t take advantage of that fundamental truth. Link up with someone and not only will the miles melt away in amusing discourse, but you’re a lot more likely to cook up adventures and expand your horizons.

This week, those adages won me an utterly gorgeous morning running the iconic bridges of New York accompanied by a new friend who made for an effective, willing, and most enjoyable Native Guide. Lonely distance runners my behind…

This is not to say I haven’t embarked on plenty of adventures solo; my running tour of London a couple years ago comes instantly to mind. But you can only do that when you have reasonable leeway and margins for error; when the downsides of something going askew rise, I often take the conservative option and stick with the known, expanding my horizons only slowly.

Thus when Corporate Employer, who has me crisscrossing the northeast and parts random on a regular basis, drops me in Manhattan, I tend to stick to the familiar. From my usual camping spot in Midtown, I pick my way uptown to Central Park, loop the reservoir, then head back south, dodging commuters pouring out of the Port Authority and Penn Station, to get back in the nick of time. Since I don’t go to Gotham just to hang in the office – it’s always for meetings, usually with clients – screwing up the plan would result in a rather embarrassing and dramatic late entrance.

But last week opened a window of opportunity, and that window unfolded in a surprising – or perhaps not so surprising, given the basic truths I held evident earlier – way. The day’s meetings were slated to start a bit later than usual. Ah, an opening to try something different.

Before about two weeks ago, few non-New Yorkers knew about the Hudson River Greenway, but yet another deranged soul with a rented truck slapped it into the national consciousness. I, on the other hand, had been eying it for an ambulatory excursion for some time, with the intent of finally – sixteen years later – visiting the Trade Center memorial. How I’ve missed getting down there for so long was mysterious. How I finally had a chance to get there so close after another attack was ironic.

Still, getting there and back – and hopefully having a few minutes to locate a childhood friend’s name and have a few minutes of reflection, wasn’t a given, even though I plan these things within an inch of their lives. Call it OCD.

Decoding Google Maps along Manhattan’s west side, where docks and piers and parks and highways intertwine like loosely wound DNA, isn’t a certain science. Most uncertain, I couldn’t quite tell if the sinuous strand, clearly labelled at some points, but not so clearly labelled at others, did in fact extend all the way south. So it was that on attaining the trail at 26th Street, I took the stereotypically un-male action of asking the first guy who passed by if indeed this was the Greenway (to which I expected his reaction to be, “Duh, there’s a river if you go thirty feet further west,”) and if indeed the path continued all the way to the end of the island. I’m not sure I communicated that last bit, the important bit, all that well, but I took his lack of warnings of death, doom, and destruction to imply that I wasn’t really off base in my quest. And, feeling a bit like a moron, but mostly wanting to respect his privacy, I took off.

Funny thing about running in New York City. Unlike back home, where it’s an event to see another runner, a rarity to see one heading your way, and a lottery-ticket day to find one heading your way at your pace, in New York there are thousands out on any given morning. There’s always someone going your way. It’s not even that hard to find someone reasonably close to your pace. But faced with this plenty, most of these masses don’t strike up conversations with folks they don’t know. I suspect it’s a matter of practicality. We’re social, but we do like some me time, and with these multitudes, if you chatted up every passing compatible pacer, you’d never have a moment to daydream – or think up blog topics. Folks need some space. Which is why I took off.

A half mile later, he caught up. A few miles later we were buds. It happens. Serendipity.

Introducing myself as being from Boston piqued interest since he was looking forward to his first Boston in the spring. From there, stories spewed forth (one quite notable: he’s got an amazing hundred mile week – which he did in five days! – under his belt – check that out here). He soaked up my chatter without complaint while regaling me with his. Runner chat. Miles melting. Faster pace than I’d do on my own. I needed that. But by the time we reached his office in Lower Manhattan (he’d run-commuted that day), pretty much all I knew was that he was an attorney from Brooklyn, and we’d had a good run. That alone was enough and had made for a great morning.

Ah, the consequence of decisions. Nearly a decade ago I picked the name for this literary serial, with one criteria being that it would be simple to pass on verbally, key since few can spell my name right on the first try. When we parted outside his office I shouted the name of the blog. His email showed up shortly thereafter; connection made, simplicity worked. Good decision.

Oh, and yes, after a wrong turn (how can you miss a hundred-story office tower? I did it…) I got my ten minutes of reflection at the memorial, and found my old friend’s name. Powerful.

The story would typically end there, but this one is just gathering steam. My New York trips aren’t usually all that frequent, but oddly, this week brought me back for a couple mornings – read, a couple potential Big Apple runs. I let my new acquaintance know, but didn’t want to push his schedule. Hey, we just met. Let’s not take this too fast, now…

But he was all in on this, which found me rising earlier than I prefer to meet him in the dawning light along the Hudson. The early awakening was well worth it; now teamed with a Native Guide, here was a chance to expand my horizons without the risk of getting hopelessly lost in the spaghetti of Lower Manhattan (I can handle the Midtown grid, but Downtown is worse than Boston!). Remember, I had to have my butt in a seat for a meeting.


The Brooklyn Barrister picked up on my eye for the iconic, and planned a classic New York river-spanning route. I’ve walked the Brooklyn Bridge a couple times, and it’s long been one of my favorite urban walks, period. Running it added another notch of delight. Running back across the Manhattan Bridge, a structure with all the charm of unplanned steam punk inbred with organic graffiti, with trains roaring by ten feet to our right, but with a stunning view of Roebling’s masterpiece and the morning sun setting the Financial District afire, was simply sublime. And it’s worth noting, that sucker is a pretty serious hill, too. You don’t really get that till you’re coming down the other side and see that you’re above the roofs of the fifteen-story buildings on shore. Nice workout, indeed.

Did I mention that this guy also burned a wicked pace that left me not only with the most miles I’ve ever dared sneak in pre-New York meeting, but quality miles at that. My watch told me we’d been moving, even before trying to guess our actual moving pace considering traffic and my insistent photo stops. Thanks indeed, this was Just. Plain. Awesome. One of those signature runs that you’ll remember and relish for a long time.

As for those photos, hey, you might as well milk it, right? Hours later, when the conference room of colleagues was zoned from a full day of endless blather and slideware, I ended my brief speaking bit by announcing, “And now, your moment of Zen,” flipping that bridge shot onto the screen. Few in the room got the Daily Show reference, but it had the desired effect – both a satisfying break to the day and a reconfirmation of my status as the slightly crazy one in the room – since they knew how I’d harvested the image.

Horizons suitably expanded, I returned to my usual park loop the next morning, finally remembering – as I’ve meant to do for a long time – to pack the phone for some snaps of the sun rising against Central Park West. More bliss. But now I’m dangerous. Now I know that Brooklyn is in range. I might never make another New York meeting on time.

13 November 2017

Thrashing


A few weeks ago, you’ll recall, I won a local race. My local buds laughed when I sloughed it off to light competition. But really… You want proof? How about this? A week back, I dove into the deep end and ran a race labelled ‘Championships’. You can bet that the word ‘win’ doesn’t appear in this story. Do a ‘Replace All’ on ‘win’ and insert ‘thrashing’. It’s good to have perspective.

Just getting there was half the adventure. Having finally turned in my first month of decent mileage in a long time, my body registered mild protest by sprouting a series of flesh wounds designed to test the soul. Back, foot, knee (though not what you’re expecting), oh hell, torpedoes be damned, carry on. I showed up for the thrashing anyway and had a grand time if not a terribly good time.

A week prior, the back, out of nowhere, caught me from behind (go ahead, groan). I don’t often get the spacious luxury of a king-sized bed, so while out in Syracuse to visit Dearest Daughter, that Montana-sized motel mattress was a treat that left me refreshed and ready to meet a local friend for a Saturday morning ten-miler. Ten minutes out of bed, without warning, I couldn’t bend over. Go figger. I’m not one prone to back problems, so this made no sense then, and with tinges lingering a full two weeks later, it makes no sense now. On the bright side, my companion had seriously over-indulged the night before to celebrate his advancing years (he’s finally more than half my age), so he didn’t mind our brutally slow start, and as me achin’ back loosened up I found that for the next week, my only relief would be when I was running, so naturally I ran a whole lot.

Prior to that, it was the foot that injected a bit of drama. What appeared as an odd bruise in an odd spot initiated by an odd pair of shoes that only hurt at odd times left me worried that I’d done far worse and cracked one of those multitudinous mini-bones. Just to be safe, I commissioned a portrait, and Dr. Foot Doctor assured me today I’m merely the proud owner of an osteophyte, or for you normal folks, just a bit of an irritated bone spur. Carry on.

And since good things, or at least things, come in threes, add another to the list, the knee. But not the usual perpetual knee woes; oh no, this one was self-imposed and downright creative. To explain this we must jump ahead four squares and let on that the race labelled ‘Championships’ was in fact the USATF New England Cross Country Championships. And I haven’t run a cross country race in years. And when it rains in a cross country race, spikes are a really good idea. And the forecast said it might rain. And when you haven’t worn spikes in a really long time, and you think you might need to race in them, it’s a really good idea to test them out.

There, buried in the back of the closet… The good news? They were far more comfortable than expected. The bad news? The trails I’d chosen were a bit technical in places, and I repeatedly hit rocks which tossed one leg wildly into the other. Not spike-side-first, which would be ugly, but with enough blunt force trauma to do some damage. Ooh, that’s gonna’ leave a mark!

So into the lion’s den I went, riddled with a variety of maladies, but not about to let them stop me from indulging in a complete denial of age. There’s an odd joy in running a cross country race when you’re halfway through your fifties. Go ahead, act like you’re a teen-ager, slog through trails and woods like your high school days. Age and bodily damage be damned. I’d missed it, and it was good to get back out there. Never mind the odd logic that getting back out there meant jumping into the championships; odd indeed when I hadn’t run a cross country in years. Start big.

I held no delusion that I’d be anywhere close to competitive in a field of ringers, but you can’t get faster in races without racing, so might as well start somewhere. Besides, in this game, even the seventh man contributes, so why not jump in when you just might boost your team, even if you are slow guy? Further, it was good to show my Central Mass Striders team that I really did exist in the flesh, not just in emails, since right when I signed on was when I fell off the cliff and stopped racing.

It’s worth repeating, there’s nothing quite like a cross-country start. In a road race, unless it’s small (read, the competition probably isn’t deep), you’re corralled well behind the fast guys. But a cross country start is egalitarianism brought to racing. For about half a minute as we thundered across the field at Boston’s Franklin Park I was actually in the race, a race labelled championship.

Reality of course took over quickly, and I found myself well back in Central Oblivion, separated from all ahead or behind, in the rear position of a mini-pack of three. Time is more or less irrelevant in cross country – a small comfort of which I’d remind myself when I pulled in two and a half minutes slower than my last time around this circuit, six years prior – rather, it’s all about place and team scoring. Since one of the parties in my mini-pack was an old Greater Boston teammate who I knew was a spry young forty-something who therefore didn’t matter in my fifties-plus race scoring world, my focus became the third guy of our private party, a runner from Greater Lowell who, through some pre-race humor, had revealed himself as worthy of fossilization.

All of this sorting took place quickly, and then? Nothing happened. It’s an eight kilometer race, mind you. Other than a bit of grunting, we just soldiered on in peace, knowing that the game is one of positioning for late race moves, hoping to pick up a place or two and boost your team.

Again, perspective: I’d walk away from the field of combat having finished two thirds back in the field, yet somehow, I was still thinking strategy. This was our little skirmish in the bigger war. I wanted that Lowell guy. I vowed that if I didn’t take him and we landed behind his team by a single point, I’d have to devise some unspeakable self-punishment. You don’t get that in a road race.

With about two kilometers to go, I’d put a few yards on my former Boston teammate, and made a move on Lowell. Though it wasn’t a windy day, as soon as I passed, it sure felt that way, so I backed off; might as well let him do the work. Besides, the last loop over Bear Cage Hill awaited, and I’m nothing if not moderately confident on a hill.

While biding my time, quite by surprise – since I’d thought we’d been all alone in our Gang of Three – a pair of interlopers loped past. Remember that tune, Hot Rod Lincoln? I said boys, that’s a mark on me…

Bear Cage Hill. It’s not big, but your second trip over is just before the mad dash to the finish. Strategically placed, let’s say. On the way up? Lowell, nailed. One of the two interlopers, taken down. Greater Boston buddy, not mounting a final challenge. On the way down? I’m not a downhill guy, I have to consciously tell myself to let go, let gravity, let flail, nobody’s awarding points for style, just stay upright. Off the hill, empty the tanks, Death-Warmed-Over, finish it.

The second interloper got away with his caper, but he’d turn out to be a spry forty-seven, so he just didn’t matter. The other three I chalked up as slayed. So yes, the truth is that I ran sixty-ninth, or I can just say that I took three out of four whom I was actually racing. It’s perspective. It was still a thrashing, but with a small victory extracted from the wreckage.

Oh, and for the record, that point I added to Greater Lowell’s score with the late race take-down didn’t make a hill of beans of difference, but it felt good just the same.

17 October 2017

Write This One Quickly


It’s usually a process. Run a race, let it sink in a few days to allow the salient points to clarify, ponder a few days more on angles to make the story interesting, spend the inevitable additional period waiting for people to post pictures so I can spice up the tale for my quasi-readers who only look at the pictures (you know who you are), find time to start writing, and a week later if I’m lucky, two weeks later if I’m busy, you get the latest ponderings on my little slice of the universe.

Not this time. It’s fast track. Pen the piece promptly. Get it out the door, before it’s too late, before I change my mind, before I inevitably convince myself that no, sorry, this weekend’s wonders were not, in fact, a turning of the proverbial corner. Yessiree, tell the tale while the glow still emanates, while the aura lingers, while I still think things might be looking up.

It’s not really that I won a race this weekend. It wasn’t competitive, though it was fun, and we’ll get to that detail. It’s that I won it with a time and a consistent pace that for the first time in over a year made me think the curtains aren’t coming down on this three-hundred-and-thirty-four-part drama. It is that over the past three weeks, I’ve cranked my training mileage up to a consistently decent level not seen in over a year. It is that we closed our ten-miler the next morning with a few miles of downright quickness, punctuated by a half mile of oh-yeah-that’s-what-I-used-to-do-itiveness. It is the fact that I’ve had enough runs that feel, well, normal, of late, to cast a rosy glow on my view.

The race win was a foregone conclusion after about a quarter of a mile. Of the hundred and twenty participants, a good half were walkers, and a good half of the rest were casual joggers. Of this I can be relatively certain, because we, we being myself and the second- and third-place finishers, opted to jog the course for a warm-down, and it being an out-and-back, we had a first-hand view of a good portion of the field (and endured an endearing amount of runner-style catcalls: yes, we were indeed doing it again, ten whole kilometers; no, we didn’t have to pay twice; yes, we’re somewhat crazy – frankly, we loved every minute of it).

Of the rest of the field, there was really only one guy to beat, a young relative of the event organizer family. Though he popped out to a quick fifty yard lead, he started looking over his shoulder only a quarter mile in, so I knew it was just a matter of time. I took him down by the mile and put him away on the return trip, leaving him a minute back. A further minute behind him rolled in number three, a clubmate of mine, to round out the men’s cadre of Those Who Will Take Home Delectable Maple Syrup Prizes.

So winning this wasn’t really an issue – indeed, it was almost more of an embarrassment (but hey, they had prizes, so somebody had to win it, right?). What was an issue was that for a reasonable effort level (reasonable being defined as, yes, the Death Warmed Over look that I so wished for just a week ago returned, but no, no medical attention was required), I finally turned in a time that didn’t make me grimace. On an absolute level, I have to get used to bigger numbers on the time clock than in the old young days, but still, it wasn’t bad, and when run through the age grading calculator (my savior of growing old), this one chalked up quite nicely, darn close to the magic boundary that’s always defined a good race for me.

We’ll politely neglect to mention that it’s a forgiving course, with only a few mild rolls (and pretty darn accurate, only a hairbreadth long) and that the weather was nearly ideal. Just go with it. Quick. Before I change my mind.

So it was that off I trundled with some nice swag after enjoying what is essentially an extended family reunion, celebrating the life of my lost training partner John Tanner, and the Noyes family’s foundation to advance research to cure Batten disease which claimed their son Nicholas, whom John passionately supported. As I’ve often stated, I’m not big on charity fundraiser runs, since most are just a way to focus on the funds with no connection to the run. This one, on the other hand, honoring a dedicated runner like John, is an apt memorial, and is put on with tremendous dedication and a lot of love. For one day a year, I am honored to be treated like extended family. So yeah, I knocked off Nicholas’ cousin by the mile mark, but the title, well, sort of stayed in the extended family.

All that aside, I’m trying to convince myself that the physical therapy work – or as it’s billed to insurance, therapeutic exercises - is starting to pay off. The pain isn’t gone, not that I really expect it to go away entirely. The weakness isn’t gone, but it is maybe, sort of, perhaps, kind of, mildly abated, and yes, that I do hope to see go entirely. Plenty more obscure balancing exercises on one bent knee are in my future. Soldier on.

So quick, before the next string of two or three utterly horrible training runs where everything hurts, fatigue lames the leg, pace drops off the cliff, and my mood goes back into the sewer, quick, publish this one, and let’s hope this is a hint of better times ahead that maybe sticks.

07 October 2017

Opting Out of Immortality


Until quite recently, the Meh dial has been turned to eleven. (I hate to digress right after my opening statement, but if you don’t get that reference, go here, it’s worth it, it’s a classic.) My trusty Ironman POS (Plain Old Stopwatch) gave up the ghost a while back. It decided I’d run a seriously long workout and simply stopped cold. Not died, as in, dead battery, no display, kaput, no, it just stopped (it was, I suppose, a stop watch, right?). No combination of rhythmic button tapping would budge it from its assurance that eighty five hours earlier I’d started to do something.

An odd combination of events including a credit card hack, an incompetent bank, and the phase of the moon conspired so that its replacement (another thirty-dollar Ironman, I just don’t need the maintenance chores of a high-falutin’ GPS watch) didn’t arrive for about three weeks. Three weeks of glancing at my wrist and remembering that I did not, in fact, know what time it was, but more importantly, three weeks of untimed runs. I have to admit, it was rather freeing. Run slow? Whatever. Miss a day? Call it healing. Racing? Why pay money to run slow with other people, I can do that for free?

It occurred to me that if time really stopped, as my ex-watch insisted, that would make me immortal. But as those three weeks of timelessness drifted by, I had to admit that immortality is overrated. Going down that path means there’s no need to work hard to stick around, but the topic of staying on this planet a lot longer inevitably turns political, so I’ll skip it for now. Suffice to say I can’t just give it up like that. I’ll opt out of immortality and keep up the fight. Meh be damned.

The fight has been notched up to full swing of late. There’s a line in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (utterly brilliant) musical Hamilton where Hercules Mulligan raps, “When you knock me down, I get the [f-bomb] back up again.” Getting back up again is never easy, but I’m trying (some of my co-workers would concur with that statement, though perhaps with a different meaning). So while it’s been a Summer of Silence in the blogosphere, all has not been silent in the background. Doctor Number Three has me working hard with a new Physical Terrorist, and last week it was time to go public, so to speak, and hit the race course again.

Race? For real? Calm down, these are merely baby steps. Start small, start local, start with the Forrest, our local three-point-two mile five-K, a race with almost more medals than people, as well as plenty of burgers and beers afterward. And, as it happened, complete with eighty-five degree heat under intense sun, in late September. Fall, global warming style.

The result? A Personal Worst. Worst ever on the Forrest course, even adjusting for the long course and for that new pesky traffic island they mistakenly sent us around. Second worst five click race ever. Though, if you slap on the age-grading tables, it only hit the bottom quartile, and after all, it was hot, he said, knowing that the heat really didn’t have much to do with it. So I guess you can pull out some redeeming qualities for the first race outing in many, many months.

Whatever, I got back out there. It never felt fast, but it felt solid. It was only three miles, but I didn’t fade. Once we’d done the sorting of the first mile and settled in, I just aimed for a consistent and half-decent pace, and even managed to pick one off along the way, catching the young lady leading the women’s category atop the last hill. Chiding her, “You’re not going to let an old fart beat you on the hills, are you? Let’s go!” I fully expected she’d slaughter me on the down, but instead I put a half minute on her by the end. Lay that on her, not on any heroics on my part.

This was not a race-to-the-death. This was a race to remember what a race was; after all, it’s been since May, and Gate City wasn’t exactly a speed festival. Baby steps. Solid, not crazy, since there wasn’t any crazy in the tank, and no reason to spend it if there was. I wasn’t going to win it, and there weren’t any old farts around to threaten the masters category, so just drive it in, keep it steady, be happy with solid, don’t do anything stupid. Heck, I didn’t even look all that bad at the finish. I’ve really got to work to re-polish that Death Warmed Over look back to perfection.

Not that Death Warmed Over is a goal, but if I can regain that look because I have managed to fill the tank with some crazy, I guess that will be progress. Meanwhile, just to start warding off the Meh, I’ve gone back to the medical world to let them practice some more, since they hadn’t nailed it on the first two tries. Both Doctor Number One (who I very much like) and Doctor Number Two (who I was rather wishy-washy on) insisted there was nothing wrong with that left leg other than inflammation! inflammation! inflammation! Doctor Number Three, looking at the very same image as One and Two, not only saw the sub-kneecap cartilage flaw (which he insisted was not caused by running, thank you very much, it just happened, stop telling me how running trashes knees), he also saw the notes that the radiologist had apparently appended to the image that neither One nor Two had pointed out. Howzat? Three’s theory is that the discomfort that flaw creates may have been making me subconsciously disfavor that leg for a long time, bringing about the atrophy all have detected. His approach is all about strength. Inflammation is an afterthought.

The odd thing is that it’s been a really big hiking summer with lots of new summits from Maine to Washington State including a rather humorous ‘trail run’ at Mount St. Helens, in hiking boots and hiking sun hat, when, a mile out, I realized I had no extra batteries and had to run back to retrieve them.
Not to mention a bunch of chances to really fall off cliffs on some of the steeper Acadia trails we’d shunned for twenty years for fear of losing our kids over the edge and being labelled Bad Parents (and, let’s face it, just for fear, too). You’d think all the ups and downs would have strengthened knees off the charts. But that hasn’t been the case – or perhaps things would be even worse without those vertical workouts.

In any case, my new Physical Terrorist Masochistic Mike (who should be labelled Sadist Mike, but the dual M-M sounds so much better) measured my left quad a full centimeter and a half smaller than my right (Aha! So that’s why I keep walking in circles!). And he’s got me working; this is a guy who can stretch his body and hold poses with unearthly strength and ease that would make a Yoga PhD blush. I, meanwhile, try to do this stuff and my legs just quiver while my fingertips hang ten inches from my toes, like they have since I was eight. But now he’s got me doing everything imaginable standing on one bent leg on my newly acquired balance ball, which lives in my office for instantaneous use whenever I’m inspired. I‘ve got to say, it does liven up conference calls.

Is it working? I’d like to think I’m sensing a bit more strength, my mileage is up the last couple weeks, my pace is improving, and I’ve even had a couple of hard training runs that felt pretty darn good. Yet fatigue still hits early, I’m nowhere near ready for hard core Grand Prix racing, and just finishing Boston this spring seems like the daunting goal that most normal people view it as. But as Masochism Mike rightly points out, it took me a long time to get here, and it’s going to take a long time to get out. Living in one dimension, he calls it, and it’s true, we runners are very good at going forward, but really could use a lot more strength in other directions to keep things strong, in line, and happy.

Immortality would make these struggles entirely unnecessary. But immortality would be a cop-out. If we don’t have to keep fighting for it, what’s the fun?

04 June 2017

Insurance


The funny thing about Nashua, New Hampshire, is that for over thirty years I’ve lived less than an hour away and I’ve driven through it hundreds if not thousands of times on the freeway, but save for some just-off-the-highway shopping stops in those annual desperate pre-Christmas weeks, I’ve really never been there. Sure, the Nashua River Rail Trail, which I’ve run, starts in the city’s rural southwest corner, but that’s like saying you know New York City because you’ve been to Staten Island. No offence to the Island, but it ain’t Manhattan.

It’s not that I haven’t laid eyes on the place. I recall detouring through downtown one day, having gotten a bit lost trying to sidestep highway traffic and there was one business meeting at the country club. A few times I’ve zipped through town with my Squannacook Mill Cities Relay teams (since Nashua is, after all, known as a mill town), once even starting the first leg in the city, but not being the driver, I hardly knew where I was or where I was going save to pilot a quick skip – whether in the van or on foot – over the river to neighboring Hudson. Manchester I’ve wandered. Concord I’ve roamed. Portsmouth I’ve, um, portaged? But Nashua has always been an odd-duck hole in the map.

No more. And despite the fact that for years I’ve often referred to it as “Nausea, New Hampshire”, based solely on the phonetic similarity, I have to say that after this adventure, I rather like the place.

Many choose marathons to provide structure (or excuses) for their tourist wanderings. I’ve never been of that persuasion. While I’m not above taking advantage of an interesting location or course, I’m fairly practical when it comes to choosing my races. That should be fairly obvious from the introduction to this treatise, since I’ve never met anyone who’s booked a vacation for the sole purpose of going to Nashua.

So why did I run the Gate City Marathon in Nashua a couple weeks back? One word: Insurance. Oh, and one other word: Motivation. The insurance part was for me. The motivation was for a clubmate gearing herself up for her first twenty-six miler in a town she called home for five years..

Insurance is a terrible product. Either you pay for it and you don’t need it, or you need it, which means something ugly has happened, and nine times out of ten the process of using it isn’t pleasant. This race was Boston insurance, my premium paid up well before April’s race, to ensure I had a slot for Shot Number Two since I was going into Boston in the unusual and uncomfortable situation of not already having a qualifier for the following year. If I needed this, something ugly had indeed happened on my way from Hopkinton to Boston.

As you serial readers already know, what happened that day wasn’t terribly attractive, but it wasn’t seriously ugly, either. I did requalify, so Gate City wasn’t really needed. But on the other hand, my seeding time wasn’t first-wave worthy, so Gate City was a chance to better it. On the third hand, it wasn’t my last chance to better that time, since under Boston’s rules, while you have to qualify before the fall marathon season, once you’re in, you’re in, and you can better your seed time well into the winter. And that presented a unique opportunity, because, in short, it meant that this one just didn’t matter. So what the heck? Go for broke, roll the dice, see what happens. Really, what’s the worst that can happen? (Don’t answer that.)

At packet pickup I was lucky to meet up with a gent from Nova Scotia targeting a time that last year would have been leisurely, but this year represented the solid challenge of knocking about fifteen minutes off my Boston time. And with the joys of a small race, he was easy to find at the start.

Cutting straight to the spoiler, the outcome resembled a singularity, that point where there is no longer a rational solution to the equation (I threatened to name this column after that term, but was talked off the ledge by less nerdy members of my family). Or perhaps it looked more like a vertical asymptote, an even nerdier but probably more accurate term. Translated, utter disaster ensued as the function Pace approached the limit Finish Line. But still, there are almost always golden nuggets to pull out of every day on the race course.

There was the motivation angle. My clubmate did seem to appreciate having someone to spew pearls of experience in her direction as she went through the first-marathon jitters. Frankly, the “give motivation” aspect gave me a crutch to explain my otherwise irrational act of doubling up on spring marathons, again, after last year’s injurious adventure at Sugarloaf (dose of rationality, this race had no such murderous downhills). I did tell my peeps that I’d bail if it was ninety degrees, but I probably should have chosen a better out: the weather was nearly perfect on race morning, so I had no excuse. Game on.

Gate City’s course is comprised of four loops through the city, though you run the first loop again after the second, making it also the third, before the other two become race loops four and five. Did you get that? Back up, read it again slowly. It sounds confusing, but it really isn’t except for the fact that each loop returns you downtown where you have to be sure to peel off in the right direction for the next one. The upside of this is that adoring fans can watch the start, four passes of their heroes, and the finish, without moving a muscle. The downside is that when you roll in off of loop four in tough shape with the fifth and hilly loop remaining and you run right past your Ace Support Team, you really have to summon the mind of a marathoner to not just say, “Enough!” And that’s pretty much where I was when that time came.

Before we recount the agony of that final loop, let’s take a moment here to recall that I really enjoyed my tour of Nashua, not to mention the race staff and volunteers who put on a fine event. I’d popped in a couple weeks earlier to preview the course, on foot, the only way you can really feel out a course, so I’d had a chance to absorb the many lovely neighborhoods as well as the downright delightful stretch along the canal towpath. This was the Nashua I’d missed these last thirty years. Yes, it’s got its tired mills, it being, after all, a mill city, and every town has a few less-than-pristine streets, but in the whole, it was a pleasant surprise indeed. Probably most important from my preview, I was fully aware that Gate City’s version of Heartbreak Hill came around twenty-three and a half, and frankly, having run it, it didn’t worry me.

Ha. That was on the preview when we ran the loops out of order and covered that last loop second, not fifth, and at a casual pace, not after burning the fastest sixteen mile tempo I’ve run in a year. On race day, it put the final nails in the shipping crate.

Sir Cape Breton and I motored the first loop in comfort, laying down a pace that made me smile, accompanied by casual banter. We rounded the second loop with equal ease, generally having a good ‘ol time; after all, despite being a stranger to this town a mere two weeks back, by now, with my course preview and having heard tales from my clubmate who’d lived in this loop’s neighborhood, I was a virtual Native Guide to my Canadian friend. Into the third lap, on track for the personal best he sought, I threatened him that if he didn’t beat me, we Americans would take Trudeau and force our orange haired embarrassment on his nation. But as we approached downtown for the third time, my fitness was showing its rough edges and I knew my tempo run was over. It was time to settle back for some self-preservation. I wished him well, made sure he took the correct turn out of downtown for loop four (he almost missed it), and let him fade ahead as we hit the pleasant footing of the canal towpath.

My only serious complaint about this race was the dearth, or perhaps just the invisibility, of the mile markers. I’m old school, no GPS watch, so I rely on these things. I missed a full ten markers enroute. Key to the story of my demise, four of those misses came heading out to and coming back in from that fateful loop four, so it’s hard to truly dissect the crash, but it really doesn’t matter. After sixteen, things went south rapidly. The plan to drop back a half minute per mile lasted a mere mile or two before the minor drop back turned into a full-blown drop back and punt.

Remember that comment about needing the mentality of a marathoner to convince yourself to soldier on when things were ugly and the final hilly loop remained. It’s times like those when experience kicks in, or perhaps just stupidity, and you deny every fiber in your body telling you that it’s a really dumb idea to leave the safety and comfort of downtown and instead head out to run a loop of hills. At least I laughed at myself for being right about expecting that it would come to this.

Singularity. Vertical asymptote. Ski jump, but going uphill. Call it what you want. Even before the hills came crushing down at twenty-three and a half, my wheels were gone and my mile splits were rocketing off the chart. I actually had to adjust the axis scaling on my standard marathon splits graph. The rest is a foregone conclusion. Walking the ugly hill. Walking the not so ugly hill after that. Walking the last little bump to the high point on the course. Heck, even walking parts of the downgrade heading back in. When at last the finish clock came in sight, it was dangerously close to a ten-minute boundary that would have been nice to beat. Didn’t. Missed by three seconds. Whatever.

This being a small race, it had grown mighty lonely after the half-marathoners peeled off, so despite the final loop wreckage, I lost only six spots. Post finish I learned that the last guy to smoke me, which he’d done in the last quarter mile, turned out to be over fifty. With age group awards only one deep, for a moment I thought that this might have been fair payback for my stealing the fifties division in the last quarter mile last year at Sugarloaf. Frankly, with my performance, I didn’t deserve it anyway, but the point was moot as we ended up three-four in the division.

I’d entertained thoughts of slicing ten minutes off my Boston time for next year’s seeding. I managed three. But hey, three’s better than nothing, a small improvement, and considering the rough ride of the last year, an improvement nonetheless.

So what about those golden nuggets? How about sixteen miles of solid tempo like I haven’t hit for a year? How about the hope that improved training can stretch that sixteen to twenty-something by the fall to maybe indeed slice off those ten minutes? And how about, despite a crash-and-burn day, still getting to ring Gate City’s Boston qualifier bell (even if I was already qualified, why not?) with plenty of time to spare? Plus, there was the fun of watching my clubmate roll in, smile on her face, first marathon medal on her neck. Well done!

And lastly, how about finally finding my way around a town that I’ve missed for thirty years? It may not be the Great Wall of China (same weekend, different clubmate covered that one), but it’s still a nice place to get to know.

23 April 2017

Maraplex


Back in grade school math, we were taught that a google (lower case) was one followed by a hundred zeroes, and a googleplex (again lower case) was one followed by a google of zeros. For decades that stuck with me in the category of entirely useless knowledge, until Google became the Brain of the Universe, and the Googleplex its home. Who knew? And what other useless knowledge will come back to haunt us in decades to come?

You’ll fault my math, but on that theme I’m calling this year’s Boston, marathon number twenty-six, the Maraplex, a marathon of marathons. I know that not only is it not a one followed by twenty-six zeroes of marathons, which is, I believe, one hundred septillion, but really, even if the unit of measure were an angstrom rather than a marathon, that would make for a race of about ten light years (if I’ve calculated correctly, feel free to check my calculations at the end of this column). Further, I know it shouldn’t just be twenty six, but in fact twenty six point two marathons, so technically I’d have to run the first five and a quarter miles of my next one to reach the Plex Point. Be gone, you people more OCD than I, this was my Maraplex, and don’t you know I’m riding on the Maraplex express, it’s taking me to Maraplex. All aboard, and enough of that silliness.

The main point here is that I managed to improve my record to twenty-five for twenty-six on the statistic of finishing these things standing up (which wasn’t a foregone conclusion this time), and despite the unusual circumstance of not yet having a qualifier for next year’s race going in, I did get my ticket punched for next year’s ball.

To recap for those who are new to this train, it’s been a tough year. Injuries begat bad training and somehow the Mojo level fell off a cliff. Having cancelled last fall’s race (New York), this year’s Boston found me planted in an early corral (thanks to my previous fall’s qualifier) among a crowd I no longer resembled, and facing not quite a do-or-die, but the uncomfortable reality that if I didn’t do, I’d have to re-do, and from here on out it only gets hotter and harder. Hotter and harder were not pleasant thoughts when this one – in April – was already hot. And hard.

Of course, as noted, I did. And afterward, my local buds all scoffed at my pre-race doubts since the results were, when graphed against the Bell Curve of Running Humanity, not shabby. But omitting the year I ran Boston on forty-two days of training while recovering from that famed foot surgery (and also omitting the fun, unofficial ‘marathons’), this was a Personal Worst for Boston, and ahead of only my very first marathon for All Time Personal Worst.

Fortunately, the Gods of Age Grouping award me an extra ten minutes for next year’s qualifier, a minor concession for the fact that the Ultimate End will then be one year nearer (but that is, after all, our job: to spit in the face of that Ultimate End and do what we can with what we’ve got for so long as we’ve got it). And with that extra ten minutes, there was no doubt in my mind. This was not a race, it was a long run, I was going to run it how my body wanted to run it, and I was going to enjoy it, and just get the qualifier. If someone offered me a beer, I told myself, this time I might just take it.

No worries. Run comfortably. Enjoy it.

Yeah, that lasted for about an hour. Remember, it was hot? Remember, I came in pretty lousy shape, relative to where I should have been?

I don’t pay a coach, and that Monday was one of the reasons why. Had I paid a coach, I’d have a lot of explaining to do, and I just don’t have time for that; it’s supposed to be fun. My Ghost Coach would have crushed me for what was probably the worst-executed marathon of my career. Without exception, every five kilometers clicked in at a pace slower than the five previous. Even coming down off the hills, progress grew slower. And slower. And slower.

To be fair, late in the race, some of that was due to the judicious use of walk breaks. It was a stated goal to improve that vertical finishing percentage. And by those late miles, it was pretty clear that a finishing time variation of a few minutes just didn’t matter. Nobody’s going to ooh and ah because you landed at something-colon-twenty-one rather than twenty-two. All this called for was a time to slap on my entry in September. There’ll be chances to notch a better seeding later.

This wasn’t the Bake Fest of 2012, when the thermostat hit the eighties, but it felt like it was on its way. It was noted that we hit seventy-four, and it was also noted that the brutal day of the US Olympic Trials in Los Angeles a year back also hit seventy four. With the sun dial turned up to eleven for the first two hours of the race, once again, like 2012, they were dropping like flies. Once again, racers were walking by the time we hit Framingham. Once again, runners were laid out flat on the sides of the course, usually being attended to, but in a few cases, seemingly frighteningly alone. It was with great relief that I heard of no medical tragedies.

Like 2012, every table, every bottle, every ice bag, every sprayer (including one open hydrant we all agreed was a bit shockingly cold and far more soaking than we expected). By the time Dearest Spouse captured my withered visage at Newton Lower Falls, you could have squeezed me to water a small third world village. And like 2012, that soaking did manage to keep the core temperature under control while the rest of the body unwound, slower, slower, slower.

In the end, it just doesn’t matter. Someday I will fail to re-qualify, or I will fail to finish, and my string of consecutive Boston Marathons will end. Face it. I’ll never make fifty like one man achieved this year unless I run it till I’m ninety-three. Even twenty-five is highly unlikely. The last one is going to happen, and when it does, I’ll have had a good run, and there will be no shame. So soak it up.

Around mile twelve it occurred to me that this was Boston Number Eleven and I’d never gone in for the fun of the Wellesley scream tunnel. Soak it up. Plant a few pecks on a few cheeks!

Around mile fifteen it occurred to me that I run past Dearest Spouse each year with a shout and a wave, but nothing more. Plant a big one, just don’t twist the knee in the process!

Around mile twenty four it occurred to me that, dead tired or not, I’d never really played the crowd. Pump those arms! Get ‘em yelling even louder! It really works!

Soak it up. With three miles to go and forty-six minutes left to qualify, take a couple of walks so as to be coherent when Boylston rolls around. Really, if I couldn’t cover those last three in that amount of time, I didn’t deserve to be invited back

Amazingly, around that point, my local club Highland City Strider buds caught sight of my valiant struggle and snapped a picture that made my stride appear deceptively competent. It lies. I was far past burnt toast. It was agonizing, really from about seventeen onward.

After one last stroll coming out of the Mass Ave underpass, I slogged nine-plus pace up Hereford and onto the holiest stretch of running on the planet. I believe it took three or four hours after that to cover those last four blocks.

No brew ever tastes so good. (With annual thanks to the Amazing Squannacook River Runners for their Amazing Annual Boston Bash!).

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up Department

Thirty thousand runners, and it’s uncanny. For the third year in a row, as I hopped on the bus to the Athlete’s Village, a random friend coming from a completely different direction hopped on right behind me. Even more amazing, it was the same guy as it was two years ago, my bud Joe from my Greater Boston Days. It’s like we planned it. Company at the Village makes it a lot more fun.

While there, we tracked down first-timer Syracuse Daniel whom I’d met at Mohawk Hudson and have kept up with on his run-up to Boston. Unfortunately, the heat beat him up at nineteen. Chalk it up to experience, no shame considering what we were up against. There will be plenty more.

And on the topic of Mohawk Hudson, continuing the spree of ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ moments, Jan, whom I’d met at M-H and realized then that I’d previously met him on the trails of the Adirondacks, and subsequently ran into again at the starting corrals of last year’s Boston, ran up alongside at mile nine and somehow managed to pick me out of the crowd by name. How?

As did CMS-teammate Eric, who I wasn’t even sure was running, but who sidled past at twenty-five and called out through my late-race stupor. Through through the oddities of chip timing, he ended up a few seconds behind me in the final tally, but photographic evidence would show that what he lost in seconds, he made up in on-course brews. Well done.

I insist on getting out the day after for a few miles, wicked pissah slow, to keep from turning into a rubber band. That I did Tuesday morn, which, mind you, was a perfect chilly day for a marathon, but Nooo… we had to hold it on Monday… Before I went out, I foolishly posted to my club-mates asking if they were planning to get together that evening. By the time I came back in, someone chimed in to host, and next thing you know, more than a dozen were coming. So, yeah, I um, did a double the day after, new record, nearly eight miles total.

But the best fun bit to come out of the day had to be from my Highland City Striders. The reason they caught me at twenty-three was because they were volunteering and had been assigned street crossing duty, but they were told to shut down the crossing during the most crowded period of the race. When they were in action, some enterprising soul captured their efforts in time-lapse, and the unique method used this year to get fans across the course literally went viral. At last count, the video has been picked up my multiple running magazines and has racked up over one-point-eight MILLION views. Check it out here, it’s worth watching. Mesmerizing, in fact. I have to say, I’ve never known anyone who’s gone viral before! And the funny thing is that I noticed the boxes painted (with tape) on the street, but since the crossings were shut down when I came through, I had no idea what they were for.

Which brings me to my final point: For anyone who has ever volunteered for this race, thank you. You’re incredible. Period.

Post Script: For you overachievers:

1 and 26 zeroes: 10^26, 100 Septillion
1 Angstrom = 10^-10 m
100 Septillion Angstroms = 10^16 m = 10^13 km
1 Light Year = ~ 10^12 km
Thus a Maraplex (in Angstroms) would be ~ 10 Light Years
(not counting the 0.2, rounding error)