17 March 2018

Stu’s is a Rite of Spring?

Mother Nature is cackling uncontrollably. That is, of course, when she is not weeping.

A current theory – just a theory at this point to my understanding, though one that makes good sense to my fairly scientific mind – is that the rapid melting of the north polar ice cap and the significant warming of the Arctic (which is much more significant than changes at the mid-latitudes) is contributing to increasing instabilities in the temperature differential that maintains the location and flow of the jet stream. This weakening of the control mechanism results in wild fluctuations of the stream, leading to extreme weather patterns including the now-famed Polar Vortex and its cousin, our ten-day deep freeze around the turn of the year (remember the one-degree Groton Marathon?), and yes, these late season whopper storms.

So yes, as you read in our last episode, I declared Spring! a couple weeks ago. And yes, I (more accurately we, Dearest Spouse is an awesome teammate) shoveled two feet of white-tinged Spring! this week. And yes, this was the third whopper in twelve Spring! days, the first landing my neighbor’s spruce in my side yard, the second so heavy and wet that had I not gone out at midnight with a twelve-foot aluminum pole (in a lightning storm, mind you) to knock down snow, half our trees would now be nude (and in that one, an hour later, the lights went out on Broadway, allowing us to finally test that generator we bought years ago), and the third storm? Yeah, two feet, at least. And we had it easy. Oh, those poor blokes on the sea-level-rising coast…oh my. Spring!

Somehow, the seas parted in the middle of all of this, and a gaggle of brave souls embarked on the famed lap of the Wachusett Reservoir known as Stu’s 30K. Eighteen-point-six miles of pure joy, interrupted by what one might euphemistically describe as a smattering of hills. That is, if one were as utterly blind to reality as…well, I won’t go political here.

Stu’s is basically an Old Home Day, tough enough to only draw out the die-hards, not fashionable enough to generate the hordes of a marathon, and strategically placed to serve as an ideal training race for Boston and, as a bonus, usually catch the crappiest of weather – a distinction it shares with Hyannis and New Bedford (which is forecast to kick off tomorrow after a thirteen-degree overnight low). Three hundred and nineteen people finished, plus the (fairly small) relay, plus those unfortunates who didn’t reach the end, so let’s call it four hundred, and it seemed like a solid two hundred of them were Best Buds. Look at it as a grand reunion and the outcome almost doesn’t matter. But the outcome was positive.

I’m in a somewhat weird zone where, despite having been doing this for thirteen years (as of next week), I have no idea what I’m capable of at the moment. It’s a pretty fair bet that my fastest days are past, but who knows? It’s a pretty fair bet that I can do a bit more than I think, but who knows? And it’s a pretty fair bet that there are a limited number of abuse sessions left in the left knee, but – you guessed it – who knows? So, bringing this down from the abstract to the rubber-meets-the-road plan, a road that I hadn’t run in six years, was, well, a pretty fair bet to be a total crap shoot. And in a thirty kilometer race, you’d better have a plan. In that light, I planted an arbitrary number representing a possibly achievable pace firmly in my mind, or at least firmly enough that it meant nothing more than thinking I’d try it out and see what happened.

Karma strikes conveniently. Trundling toward the start, a fair amble from the warm confines of the host school, Old Home Day produced a chance encounter with youngster who recalled that we’d passed more than a few miles together two springs ago at the Sugarloaf marathon. And wouldn’t you know, he had that same arbitrary number planted in his mind. Uncertainty loves company. Moral support. Or a shared journey into hell, if our arbitrary number turned out to be absurd. We quickly sealed a mutual support pact and I unleashed my usual stream of gallows humor while we huddled from the wind on the line awaiting the signal.

Stu’s first mile is flat as a board – probably the only mile in the race anywhere close to level (save a brief stretch along the lake at mile eight) – so early Irrational exuberance was almost a given. Our starting pace made a mockery of our plan; the God of Adrenalin can easily put a half minute in the bank early on, but sanity set in a mile later, and that arbitrary pace seemed achievable even as we worked the first big climb. My partner in crime drifted ahead; I let him go. I’d reel him back in around eleven when I was feeling surprisingly strong and his fortunes were flagging somewhat.

And that really is the tale of this tape. Cutting to the car crash, since locals and long-time sufferers of these diatribes all know about this one – plenty of hills going up, downhills that are steeper and shorter than you’d like and therefore don’t give you nearly the payback you’d like for the work you put in up front, and of course, the Dam Hills at the end, screaming down alongside the Wachusett Dam, climbing back into Clinton, then at eighteen miles in, climbing back to lake level to close the circuit – well, yes, we know this course borders on sadistic, the tale here was that I poked the graph at that target pace, and it worked. I beat that target pace, and while it wasn’t easy, and those late hills hurt like they always do, I wondered if there might have even been a bit more in the tank. Photos from the race lack that usual Death Warmed Over look; indeed, I look like I’m having fun – not just early on while still in a chatty pack, but even alone mid-race. To be honest, except for those last hills, I was. Even the finish shot lacks that certain post-race devastation. So as a Boston preview, it was a good omen, knowing of course that an extra seven and a half miles to reach Boylston Street will be no trivial difference.

One of the bright notes that led to this bright assessment was the relative oddity of the rather robust north wind. For the second time in as many weeks, the previous being Hyannis with its odd reversal, this day brought the leftover from Nor’Easter Numero Dos, who’s precipitation had departed days earlier but who’s winds persisted. Common sense tells you that you start this race on the east end of the Wachusett Reservoir and make a counter-clockwise lap to the west, but common sense is a bit misguided. The first half is really southwesterly, shifting to nearly due south. I had this in the back of my mind as we cruised those early miles, knowing we could be living the false dream of the invisible hand of the tailwind, only to be crushed at the hairpin turn to the north at the top of the big climb just past mile nine. The rest, save the last mile, would be into the wind.

And it was. Not terrible, certainly not New Bedford style, and even moderated a bit as we traversed tree-sheltered neighborhoods, but certainly a factor, especially late along the lake, presenting a stiff in-your-face obstruction. That screaming downhill along the dam, which should have put another half minute in the bank, just plain didn’t.

But by and large, the body held up, the pace held down, and even at Old Home Days where all of my fast buds showed up, I still managed third in the Semi-Fossilized division; third which, in my view, provided a sweeter prize than those over-achieving first- and second-placers won. Their wine and gift cards will be gone in a month, but my sweet Stu’s hat, killer cozy, seriously built for running, and sporting the crazy Stu’s course profile around it’s lip, well, that’s swag worth the pain.

Two down, two to go, halfway up the mountain. Mother Nature is clearly playing with her food, but Spring! will show up sometime, and hopefully stick around long enough to give us a non-eighty-degree Boston.

[ Ed. Note: Today marks five years since we lost John Tanner. Take a few minutes to re-read my post on this giant of a man, and keep him in your thoughts. ]

02 March 2018

A Quarter Way Up the Mountain

A week ago, the climb ahead seemed daunting. Eight weeks to Boston, knees hurting (hurting? heck, knees crunching!), the gains of last fall seeming fleeting – here one day, gone in a slow arduous slog the next, and four, yes, four planned races to surmount before – oh yeah, there’s a marathon to be run, and a marathon where once again I’m stepping in without a qualifier for next year. Just to add gravy to that rosy outlook, I fully expect when the Boston seedings come out that this will be my first year not starting in the first wave, which will make notching that qualifier just a little bit more difficult. And just to add even more flavor to that mountain, other than the first of the four slated lung-busters, they’re not short races, either.

This is a new normal. The speed I could conjure up just a few years ago really isn’t quite there most of the time, but then again, with the benefit of Boston’s age graded qualification requirements, I more or less don’t need it. I need steady, I need smart, and frankly, starting back a bit will probably only serve to knock my stubborn brain into behaving for the first five miles.

Meanwhile, there are those four races between me and Hopkinton, or at least there were. Now there’s only three, one knocked off this weekend and knocked off in decent, if not spectacular, fashion, one that simply has to be done out of tradition. My offspring had better never choose to get married or reproduce nor shall any family member be permitted to pass through the Pearly Gates on the last weekend in February so long as the Hyannis Marathon Relay continues to be held. But we’ll get back to that.

Time flies when you’re having fun, right? I must have been having a lot of fun as suddenly two months have passed with nary a peep on this story stream. I’d like to tell you of grand adventures of running prowess, but I’ll have to settle for a lot of enjoyable runs with my peeps and an unconfirmed record for my coldest run. It was hard to tell just how cold it was that day at sis’ place in the old home turf of Upstate New York, since my phone hadn’t updated in a half-hour and there was no local thermometer handy, but said phone told me that the town to the left of me was five below and the town to the right (to which I ran) was even colder at minus nine, and I was stuck in the middle with few. Degrees, that is. Anything in the neighborhood would have broken my Second Lap, (read ‘adult’) record of zero, and I’d say my teenaged maximum chill of four below was in play, but we’ll never really know, will we?

Having survived that one, it’s all ice jams under the bridge now since March first signaled the end of the Sixty Day Challenge and therefor it is, by my rules, my edict, spring. I celebrated the day in shorts on a perfect fifty-degree morning in New York City on an early morning dozen-mile grand tour of New York’s finest bridge crossings with the Brooklyn Barrister. Then a mere day later, ah, spring in New England, the wind is howling, my neighbor’s pine tree is in my side yard (on the ground, mind you, it's not supposed to be there), and bombogenesis is wreaking havoc with every utility pole and coastline in the state. If you guessed that I snuck out for a few miles in the midst of the mayhem you would of course be playing an easy bet; the sneaky little streak that I’ve said little about (since I hover somewhere between, “This is a great motivator,” and, “This is killing me,”) is now over five months old and couldn’t be stopped by a little ‘ol epic storm of record proportion. But that streak has gotten me through the winter, and the end of winter of course brings us back to Hyannis.

Winter fulfilled its contract at Hyannis, a race that more often than not runs cold and generally nasty, and this one was cold in the worst way. I often say I’d prefer to run in a twenty-degree snowstorm (or for that matter, even colder on a sunny day) than forty and rain. And as Dearest Spouse likes to quote her grandmother, “Oh, did it rain.”

Forty and rain, worse, forty and solid, sometimes heavy rain, even more worse mixed with wind, penetrates like nothing else. There is no clothing that really defeats this, especially when you’re racing and you can’t seal yourself in a plastic cocoon (which I did at least for my warm-up, in a procured hand-me-down trash bag because I was too clueless to remember to bring my own). Once the cold water penetrates to your skin, it sucks the warmth, sucks the life, sucks the very soul from your being. Death soon ensues. (OK, that was a bit melodramatic.)

Wineglass Half 2011. Martha’s Vineyard 2013. Boston 2015. Hypothermia makes for days you remember. Hyannis breached that threshold once before, a week after that chilling Vineyard expedition, when windy cold rain left me blue – no, not sad, but blue – on return to the headquarters hotel. To be fair, it was my own fault, since I insist on the tradition of running the back half of the course as a warm-down (or chill-down) of sorts, turning my seven-mile leg into a half marathon’s worth of miles.

This one ranked on the blue scale as well, but with some special twists. On the positive side, for the first time in eight outings, Hyannis’ notorious wind reversed itself. That probably gave my largely westbound third leg a little tailwind boost (and I did turn in a decent enough pace to call this a decent enough race), but it made the largely eastbound back half – when the rain seemed to redouble its rate – rather gnarly. So when life gives you frozen lemons…? Sing. I conjured up every rain- or sun-related tune I could muster and belted out (and I mean belted) key lines whenever I passed course marshals, soggy fans, and the slower-paced half-marathoners. A favorite? La La Land’s “It’s Another Day of Sun!” Bystanders either loved it or menacingly reached for their phones.

By that point it just didn’t matter; I was soaked clean through. Somewhere around mile three in the race proper there are a couple of spots on the course that are notorious for road flooding, though even in a typical wet year you can skooch past the inky depths on the muddy sidelines. Road flood number one offered such an escape, but road flood number two, overwhelmed by the immensity of the precipitation, offered no safe alternative. Skooching looked quite certain to bring on a face-plant disaster, so damn the torpedoes, batten the hatches, we’re going in. In, as in at least seven or eight strides across, and easily more than five inches deep. As I said, just didn’t matter.

Prior to that dunk-tank experience, I’d taken the baton in a state of shock, my second leg arriving – what? – in the lead of the relay. Let’s be fair, our first leg, the Mad Moroccan, is a ringer of the first order, and our second leg, a last-minute fill-in for our injured second man, outdid himself as well. Lining up in the zone next to a couple of tall lanky twenty-somethings, I had nowhere to go but down, and indeed lost two spots over my seven miles. Truly, I felt no shame in running close, but not quite as fast, as a couple of kids half my age.

That left Anchor Danny to bring it home which of course he did, though amusingly I rolled in only a couple of minutes behind him, having foregone my usual post-leg rest-and-catch-my-breath reprieve in favor of getting moving on the back half before my blood stopped flowing and even more cold crept in. I’ve always threatened him – tongue-in-cheek of course – that if I ever caught him in his race to the finish that I’d beat him up, take his baton, and bolt for the line. This year’s cold made it almost plausible.

All the pre-race drama of finding a sub for our wounded warrior and wondering if anyone would show up to challenge our now eight-time divisional win streak was of course, in the end, inconsequential. We actually did have a competing team in our division this year who turned in a quite respectable result, but our collection of misfits somehow managed to turn in our best combined time ever and take third overall of the roughly forty teams out there. Plus, we had the longest team name of any of ‘em. If that ain’t a win, I don’t know what is. So there.

So rack up another clamshell. It hasn’t moved downstairs yet to join the collection of the seven who came before it. Give it time to absorb its new surroundings.

One down, three to go. A quarter of the way up that mountain of preparation for the annual big spring party on Boylston Street. Battered, bruised, and beaten, but still in the game. Besides, it’s spring. And I like climbing mountains.

07 January 2018

Who Was That Masked Man?

On a good day, I can run into someone I’ve met many times and be utterly clueless as to their identity. That’s why, as Dearest Spouse likes to remind me, I went into a sales-related job (engineering, mind you, but still sales engineering). My local clubmates will confirm this failing; it takes at least four or five meetings of a new arrival for me to recall them, and God knows I try. My more distant clubmates who I see only infrequently will laugh even more heartily. Every time I show up for a Squannacook event, it’s like meeting a whole new crowd. They tolerate me anyway.

That’s on a good day. But it’s been absurdly cold of late. So add multiple layers of clothing including face-obscuring and ear-muffling headgear, blinding sun mixed with eye-slitting wind, and perhaps a good dose of fogged-up shades, not to mention enough fabric to disguise the most basic body shape clues, and all bets are off. I could run – and chat – with you for a couple of miles and still not have a clue who you are. Don’t believe me? Ask my CMS clubmate Scott, with whom I did just that while warming up for yet another go at the Freezer Five on New Year’s Day. I swear it didn’t even sound like him, let alone was it possible to see who was hiding under all that breathable fabric (note, that’s me, mid-race, under the blue fabric and the red hat, but you’d never know). Only two miles later did I figure it out, much to my chagrin. Let’s just say I’ve grown accustomed to the embarrassment of my typical delayed revelations.

In that vein, it’s no surprise that I had no idea whom I was facing off against at the end of that race, and had no concept that it mattered for anything more than using that unidentifiable heavily-clothed object as motivation to shave a few more seconds off my clocking for the day. But I can elevate garden-variety cold weather masking to an art by piling on my special brand of cluelessness.

As it turned out, it mattered quite a bit, and even more after a surprise sweetener was piled on a bit later. But at the time, all I knew was that I was dragging a pair of legs that had just run a marathon the day before through a five miler that started at five degrees into a biting and sapping headwind. By the end, at least I had that wind to my back, but on the final small hill – usually my strong point – the masked man I was chasing put ten yards on me and I momentarily figured I was frozen toast. But we’ll get back to that.

Yes, I’d run a marathon the day before, and yes, I counsel all my running friends not to race for a while after a marathon. But let’s be clear; that marathon, the rapidly-increasing-in-fame Groton Marathon, was by no means a race, so none of the requisite micro-tears lacerating various muscles, none of the quad burn, none of the typical damage that the body-consuming effort of a raced marathon brings on. Still, it was twenty-six miles on the legs.

And I should note that running the Freezer – my seventh outing on that icy venue – was a fallback of sorts. For the last month or two I’d entertained the somewhat whacked idea of following up Sunday’s marathon with another on Monday – another casual event to be sure, but still fifty-two miles on the legs. Groton is held on the Sunday after Christmas, and the New Year’s Boston Marathon run is held, as you might guess, on New Year’s morning. This year’s calendar put them back-to-back, offering up a special challenge for the feeble of mind. But when Monday morning’s forecast was for four below zero and significantly devoid of the warming power of sunlight at six in the morning, I opted to defer this year’s Boston run and await the tropical five-degree sun-drenched (and windswept) relative warmth of the Freezer’s eleven o’clock start.

Groton hadn’t exactly been an overheated sweat-fest. A largely unidentifiable group of a dozen and a half heavily wrapped bodies set off at nine at one – nine in the morning, that is, with one whole degree on the thermometer. But the air was mostly calm and the sun was bright and frankly, we were pretty comfortable – at least till we hit the three-mile westbound stretch through Ayer, when the air decided to be most decidedly not calm and we were most decidedly not comfortable – but that too passed.
As is typical for the Groton gala, few of those who started intended to run the full distance; all were welcome to pick their poison, whether full, half, quarter, eighth, or a few miles down the road with the dog. But also as is also typical for Groton, the Squannacook crowd took good care of us enroute, with replenishment thankfully kept in warm cars after the first pre-cached goodie stop served up GatorSlushies and SnickerBricks. (Snickers, I must say, once warmed above Brick form, make for terrific fuel. What are the forms of matter? Plasma, gas, liquid, solid, and SnickerBricks.) A whopping four of us wheeled in from the full course at ten degrees to be greeted with a warm car and hot chocolate reportedly sporting some Irish enhancement. Ahh…

While this was entirely a casual slog, it did provide a notch of confidence restoration. Boston now looms about a hundred days out. I hadn’t touched anything over twenty since Gate City, and on that day, the part over twenty was best forgotten. So though we stopped and tanked up every five miles or so, it was still a decent indication of whether my body would revolt in the high miles. I remembered to click the watch for our stops this time, and was pleased to see that each segment actually got a little quicker, culminating in the last five where I had to be a little antisocial and break ahead of the group to stretch out that chronically complaining left knee. This was no speed fest but let’s just say, net of the breaks, I feel good about heading into Boston ’18 without yet having a qualifier for Boston ’19. And of course, we all got Chris’s signature medals…

It really wasn’t the thought of launching on another one only seventeen hours later that stopped me. Nor was it the thought of having to rise at five in the morning to do so (full disclosure, Dearest Spouse and I did not make it till midnight on New Year’s Eve, so I would have had plenty of sleep). It was the thought of doing that at four below zero in the dark that pushed me over the edge. Five extra hours and nine extra degrees was a Faustian bargain – because by running the Freezer, I’d actually have to try to run fast – but I bought in.

When the gun went off in Sterling, despite that nearly two-mile warm-up, my legs just didn’t work. The lunacy of racing less than twenty-four hours after twenty-six miles wouldn’t leave my mind, but it was also entirely possible that the rock-like consistency of shoe rubber in an already minimally-padded lightweight racing shoe was playing havoc with the physics of stride mechanics.

Whatever, I bought in; it was too late to change my mind.

Outbound was uneventful. After The Sorting (the inevitable settling after the mayhem of the start), I crept past one Gore-Tex puffball and then just held my turf into the headwind, picking around patches of black ice stubbornly hanging on since our last storm. After the lollipop turnaround, the wind became a bit of an ally, but not a cooperative one. At one point, trying to emulate those mysterious one-car crashes that make you scratch your head and say, “How did they do that?” I nearly fell off the road thanks to a combination of steep crown, black ice, and a surprise gust. Nobody around me. Nothing in my way. Would’ve been good and embarrassing.

But all in all, this was just a race for the day after a marathon. The split markers were uncertain, but even if marginally accurate, my split times weren’t spectacular, which was fine, because, as I said, this was just a race for the day after a marathon. Start the new year, get one in the books, go home empty-handed but feel satisfied and smugly superior to all those hung-over blokes.

Still, coming up on mile four, there were three guys (guys? people, gender undeterminable) in a line not too far in front of me. That racing gene kicked in. Oh damn, I just can’t not do this, can I?

First one, seemed to be fading a bit, clicked him off fairly easily (yes, they’d all turn out to be hims).

Second one, took a little more work, had some time to chat. I think telling him that I’d run Groton the day before made him just say, oh, hell, this dude is off the scale, just let him go.

Third one, this guy wasn’t going down easy. Three quarters of a mile to go. Slight downgrade, into a vale of sorts, I crept up on his shoulder. Third of a mile to go, last bit on the course that resembles a hill, and I’m a hill guy, this was my time to move. And he put ten yards on me. That’s what twenty-six the day before does to you, even if you didn’t race it.

Topping the rise, staring at his back, this is where you have that, “Do I really want this?” moment. Do I care? Or, as I’d been thinking only a few minutes earlier, do I just go home knowing I’ve kicked off the new year in the right direction and be happy?

And then you have that, “Whatever…” moment and the racing gene kicks back in.

A quarter mile of straight flat to go, culminating in this course’s famous, icy, don’t-fall-on-your-*** very sharp turn into the school and the finish chute. Legs with twenty-six and a warm-up and four-and-three-quarters of a race on them suddenly and inexplicably felt loose and almost loopy. Whoever this heavily-packaged person was, he slipped behind me. Knowing I’d need to slow for that treacherous turn, I left the engines on full till the last moment, stayed vertical around the bend, and wrapped it up.

In other words, we had ourselves a real-live race. He’d put up a helluva’ fight. And then I went back into clueless zone, more or less the theme of this story.

The usual post-finish mutual pats-on-the back commenced, each of us congratulating each other, the vanquished uttering kudus, the vanquisher exclaiming how we couldn’t have finished that hard without each other’s push (entirely true), thankful that the situation turned this from just a nice way to check off New Year’s Day into a real racing story.

And I have no idea who I just raced to the death and who I’m talking to.

In fact I have no idea who that wrapped up athlete was until I’m back inside, raiding the goodie table, he walks in, and I realize not only that it’s my CMS teammate Phil, the very guy who’d greeted me when I first arrived at the race (and I hadn’t really connected who he was at that point either), but I’m also chatting with his wife who’s tending the post-race comestibles.

And I still haven’t figured out why any of this is significant.

Nor do I until a race official walks in with the first page of results, I catch a glance, and realize that Phil, who’d I’d thought was in his forties, was in fact a year older than me, and that our battle to the death was the battle for the age group. Since there’s only one award per age group, that little face-off (in the cosmic sense, though it was an Epic Battle in my warped mind) was worth the coveted Freezer sweatshirt award (my sixth, but to be fair, there were years early on when the top three in each age group got them). And to my surprise, since the men’s senior age division was the largest registered group, the race crew tossed on a gift card, a sweetener for the winner of that largest division. (And just for an exclamation point, we both knocked off the first fortyish youngster.)

I train to improve my abilities, yet none of this cures my basic inability to hold onto names. Places? Got those. Can remember almost every road I’ve been on. Meet you tomorrow? You’d better reintroduce yourself the next day. It’s just how it is.

So I can’t tell you that if Phil had been in shorts and a singlet with fully visible features that I’d have known I had to take him down for that cotton garment. Thus I’ll stick to that racing gene. If it’s in front of you, I’d advise that you go for it. You never know.

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 Warmed Over scale. It's kind of a meter that says, yes, you gave it all you've got. And that even minute boundary? Not just nailed, but 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


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.