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)

14 April 2017

Fish Story


You’ve heard the fish story about the one that got away? Well, if I was trying to get away, I’d be captured pretty easily at the speed I’ve been moving. But this really is a fish story of sorts, and it’s true, really, I swear it, though all the literature and Google searches of the world would tell you otherwise. Put it this way: if I told you that aspirin would give you a headache, you’d think I was a bit off, but that’s pretty much what we’re talking about here.

If I had to boil down what ails me, there’s the busted stuff – the weak left leg and wobbly knee that defy explanation and the right foot that’s explained as manageable plantar fasciitis – and then there’s that other thing, that mystical force that’s holding back all efforts to perform, that anchor dragging me to speeds easily eclipsed by hordes, that anti-Mojo. That’s the one that alarms, because that’s the one that might force me to admit that time is passing.

I took up the discussion of said sadness with Dr. Lady Doctor during the Annual Physical Ritual, and we agreed that a good sports med doctor might do me well. On her recommendation, I trundled off to see Dr. Coach, so named here because he reminded me a bit more of a coach than a doctor and made known that he enjoyed that role. I found him pleasant and laden with wise advice, to be fair not much that I didn’t already know, but wise nonetheless and wrapped in a layer of motivation that had the potential to do some good. A trip to the pharmacy and an online order later, I possessed a pile of goodies awaiting use and consumption.

Admittedly, the lovely foam roller grew lonely quickly (yet looks colorful on our hearth), and the knee icings quickly gave way to the realities of a busy life. But some bits of advice stuck, like higher weights and fewer reps at the gym, and those turmeric capsules proved quick winners.

And then came the fishy part. Hit the fish oil, it’s a great anti-inflammatory, said Dr. Coach, four to six thousand milligrams a day. That’s a lot of fish oil, when one Lake Erie-sized pill packs a mere twelve hundred.

Let’s stop for a minute and focus on this inflammation thing. One of my favorite George Carlin bits was his discussion of flammable, inflammable, and non-flammable, and his wonder of why there were three terms. After all, said he, either the thing flams, or it doesn’t. But do I? On the question of flamming, every specialist I’ve seen suggests my woes are of the inflammatory sort, and thus anti-inflammatory actions are the answer. I don’t doubt them; I agree inflammation plays a big role, but it seems to me that stuff like the weak leg and the wobbly knee must have something mechanical or neurologic at their core. Still, flummoxing the flam can’t be bad, right?

Ever the scientist, I started with the turmeric for a week on its own so as to judge each addition to the mix separately, before hitting the Famed Fish Fry in a bottle. Turmeric, I’ll say again, was an instant winner, showing positive effects within days. Then it was time to add the Pacific Pufferfish Pills. Double down on the anti-flams, it should be all good, right? Save this one little detail to kick off our fish story. I’ve got a history.

Back in 2012, I gave the stuff a try, simply because everyone, every publication, every report, indeed everything in the known universe bellowed forth on the amazing graces of these oily gems. Being less scientific than I should have been on that first try, my logs didn’t record the details, save for this gem from a fateful day in September: “Decided to suspend fish oil. No reported side effects, but only fish oil correlates with the onset of the slump.”

Hmm. But one data point does not science make.

In December of 2013, with the blessing of Lady Doc, I set out to make science by replicating the study, this time logging the experiment. By early January, there’s the entry: “Quitting fish oil, think it’s doing the same overall stiffening again. Strange, opposite of what it’s supposed to do.”

And therein lies the rub. Stop reading for a moment (but do come back when you’re done!) and Google “fish oil side effects”. Don’t stop there. Try every combination you can think of, using words like ‘negative’, ‘stiff’, ‘ache’, you name it. You’ll find worries like bad breath, stomach issues, and so on, but you won’t find anything about it doing the opposite of what it’s supposed to do, that being, cause more inflammation. (If you do, tell me!) But that’s exactly what it did. Both times. How, you ask, would I know that inflammation was the problem? Rather simply because a serious dose of pharmaceutical-grade anti-inflammatories freed things up pretty quickly, both times.

So it was with some trepidation that I opted to give it one more shot, trust Dr. Coach, let myself believe that both prior tries were flukes, that the Internet must be right (it always is, right?), and that this time the stuff would work. Just to convince myself, I bought a really big bottle of the stuff.

First fishy week, one a day. With the size of these things, just lifting one is an effort, let alone swallowing it. And? Come the weekend, my twenty-one miler was a Personal Worst. In and of itself, that might just be a sign of the times. After all, I was trying to fix something here, so we can’t go blaming the fix for what might be a representation of the problem. Right? But I was already wondering. It felt familiar, and not in a good way.

Second fishy week, upped it to two. And? Come the weekend, the most appropriate race possible for this experiment rolled around, the New Bedford Half Marathon. New Bedford is the epitome of a fishing town, right up there with Gloucester, though with a strong tinge of whaling. New Bedford’s signature post-race hospitality is – you guessed it – fish. Fish sandwiches and chowder, a perfect accompaniment to this fish story. Perfect, except that the race was an utter disaster.

It’s pretty dismaying when, knowing this has been a tough year, you set a seriously low bar of merely being within ten minutes of last year’s finish time, and then, by slogging in ten and a half minutes over, you don’t even make that. To be fair, I will blame the most intense wind I’ve ever raced in for two or three of those minutes, but the rest were all on me. I held it together, sort of, for the first half, but the fade started before the full gale set in at mile nine. The next mile along the water, with white caps on the white caps, was downright intense. Consider that it was the kind of day where, even inland at the downtown start line, I spent part of my warm-up helping a cop prop up the DPW barrels and road closed signs that couldn’t withstand the onslaught. Down at the sea, the blasting brutality had us leaning so far into the wind that one racer later commented that had it momentarily stopped, he’d have done an instant face-plant. By the time I moved inland to escape the worst of the tempest, I was a demolished, a tourist at best. Personal Worst didn’t begin to describe this one. But I wasn’t ready to blame the fish just yet.

Third fishy week, three, and I found these puppies were ruining my dinner by filling my belly with the sheer amount of liquid I’d have to gulp to succeed in getting them down. And this only got me to thirty-six hundred. To meet Dr. Coach’s bar, I’d need to reach four or even five of these plugs, washed down by a quart or two. This was getting ridiculous. But it’s all in the interest of science.

And? The following weekend, my last long run pre-Boston, a twenty-three miler, was even worse than before. Not only was my pace and ability moving backwards, my legs felt like they were, too. Yet another Personal Worst, even Worster than before. The only way things could get Worster still would be to do this run again in Worcester. (Sorry. That just happened. I couldn’t stop it.)

Science is established by replicating studies and repeating results. By now, it was time to call the game. Science had been made. Fish oil, the great anti-inflammatory hailed the world over, except for me. For a moment I pondered whether perhaps I was swallowing the capsules ass-end first.

Now do you remember I mentioned that if I told you that aspirin would give you a headache, you’d think me a bit off? You’d perhaps think I was telling you a fish story?

In the middle of this, Dr. Coach’s office billed out a stratospheric number for our twenty-five minute consultation. When I came out of shock, I knew that adventure was over before it had gained any momentum, so consulting with the good doctor on this fishy episode was right out, leaving only one solution: the nuclear option. Time to pull out my favorite industrial strength anti-inflammatory, my ‘ibuprofen on steroids’, except that steroids aren’t legal and this stuff is. (I checked. You can’t be too careful.) This is ‘break glass in case of emergency’ stuff, and this was one of those moments. And yes, things are better somewhat, but I can’t get back all that lost training.

Now, only days before Boston Number Eleven, without a qualifier in my pocket for next year, and without a decent log run under my belt, I’m glad that Boston is all about hunting unicorns and not about catching fish.

Oh, and if you want a mostly unused really big bottle of fish oil, let me know.

08 March 2017

More Than a Clam Shell


A few weeks ago – no, wait, it’s already been seven weeks, time is flying – I happened to overnight in a small burg on the New York-Pennsylvania border. That morning I hit the roads for a January-chilled seven miles that crossed the border twice (good thing, or I’d never have gotten back to the hotel), and was pleased to see that my pace had finally taken a bump in the right direction, offering a glimmer of hope than an exit from this extended slump spiral of injuries and lousy training might be on the horizon. Owing to the seeming trend-altering nature of the morning, and the geographically notable nature of the course, I’d coined the title of my next posting, “State Change”, but I figured I’d best hold on publishing for a week or two before declaring any sort of victory against this ongoing malaise. It was a wise choice; there was no real change in state.

And so the beat goes on, and with nothing to report but continued ‘meh’, so I haven’t reported of late. It’s always my intent to make this column upbeat, to dig a pearl of positivism from the experience of fighting off aging though Our Beloved Sport, but the reality is that it’s been tough of late. I know that the calendar will catch up with all of us, and I too will slow down, but this latest round hasn’t been that gradual decline. Rather it’s been sudden and difficult to explain, so I haven’t accepted it as the inevitable erosion but instead am still fighting it as a temporary – if extended version of temporary – bump in the road. Or in short, I'm not giving in, and in the meantime, I’m not going to write just to whine.

But it’s Hyannis time, so it’s time to extend my neck from under my rock and tell a story. Better yet, this year it’s a double-decker story, one of my race, a struggle against this ongoing discontent, and a second of a tremendous personal achievement to be celebrated. Not mine, mind you, but I had the honor and joy of having a little nudge in its creation.

First, the struggle.

So many weeks ago, Boston was still months out, and my only interim test was our annual club expedition to Hyannis to vie for our annual masters’ relay clam shell trophies. Surely by Hyannis, the state would change, and surely I’d then be feeling better about Boston creeping nearer. Stop calling me Shirley. It hasn’t happened.

Heading to Hyannis, the best I could say was that that ugly bleeding calf muscle tear from Mill Cities was finally feeling patched up. Early in the healing process, I’d tried a fancy laser treatment offered up by Dr. Foot Doctor. (Remember him? He hasn’t graced these pages for a while.) Said good doctor invested a fair penny in this wonder, a multi-wavelength cold laser (technically a multiwave locked system, or MLS laser, see CE Lasers) which is designed to both reduce pain and stimulate healing. Whether it works through science or simply through fear by its rather imposing targeting device is left for the patient to ponder. While being confident in its capabilities, he’s been struggling to identify a paying patient base, so his offer was simple: try it out, and if it works, write it up. And so I tried. And the first time, it seemed to have a positive impact, reducing some of the pain and – I liked to think – possibly speeding some healing. Subsequent treatments seemed to have diminishing effects, so after a course of four or five sessions, I had a hard time offering a solid endorsement, but I wouldn’t call it a failure, either. I’d bet it may have initiated speedier healing, and it may be effective for some people, and I will happily provide you contact information if you’d like to give it a shot. Still, full healing, for me at least, still took a solid eight weeks.


So, Hyannis came about with a whole calf, but still a knockin’ knee, a hurtin’ heel, and overall frightful fitness. But it’s a low pressure event, so it’s a good opportunity to test the pipes.

Let’s cut right to the final scene, where unlike at the Oscars, the correct winner was announced, and again it was us. Tom Brady has only five championships in his seven tries. We’ve won all seven of ours. Granted, Tom Brady gets the crap kicked out of him by worthy opponents, and we, well, we’ve faced some opponents, a couple of times even worthy ones, but this year, we placed first in our division of precisely one team. A somewhat hollow victory, but tempered by finishing in the top ten percent of all teams in all divisions, and after all, a clam shell’s a clam shell. Just assembling the team and showing up on the starting line is, of course, part of the battle, and no other collection of old farts was willing and able to do that, so we’ll take it.

Not that the victory wasn’t without some drama, including the ‘just showing up on the starting line’ bit. Our leadoff man crossed his signals on the race starting time, hit traffic, couldn’t find parking, and arrived a mere twenty minutes before the gun, while I was swapping bibs in expectation of having to take his first leg. Restored to my usual third leg by his dramatic appearance, I couldn’t help but notice the grey-haired fast-looking dude – decked out in a USATF Grand Prix race shirt no less – waiting alongside me at the exchange zone. Anticipating a Personal Worst even before factoring in Hyannis’ legendary wind, the guy looked like a threat, and after delivering on my promise of that Personal Worst (though admittedly still faster than I’d expected), I put the Fear of God into our anchorman, warning him of the danger as I handed off. When the divisional team count was revealed, he’d later curse me, but another respectable team time capped by that clam shell forgives all sins. The dynasty lives on.

Next, the achievement.

I’ve made it a habit of running the back half of the Hyannis course as an easy warm-down after my leg, joining up with our lead-off man who’d typically be waiting at the exchange zone (the Hyannis course being two iterations of a half-marathon loop, legs one and three are the same). Sadly, our lead-off man, after his dramatic late arrival, had to make a dramatic early departure as well due to family obligations, missing both his Moment of Zen clam shell award (thus only three of us in the team photo), and worse, his traditional back-nine (really, back-six, but that doesn’t sound as good) casual jaunt with yours truly. That left me to either abandon my add-on miles or go it alone. After a few minutes of catching my breath, chatting up other racers, and finding no interested parties, I figured I’d just slog it out on my own.

Without any deeper thought than figuring I’d better go before the warm glow of blood flow began to fade, I jumped back onto the course, randomly happening alongside a blue-bibbed, a.k.a. full marathon, young lady fighting the mighty headwind of Craigsville Beach. Not wanting to get in her space, but figuring I could dish up a service, I offered up a windbreak: tuck in if you’d like till we get back inland, away from this forlorn spot, or tell me to get lost and I won’t bother you. Not getting the latter response, I tried to provide whatever shelter my miniscule form could carve from the gale, while clumsily doing my best to not be a nuisance.

What became clear was that this was her first marathon, and she was hammering the miles with admirable consistency as she delved deeper into the twenties, the runner’s equivalent of the Death Zone on Everest, where until you’ve raced it several times, you just don’t know what to expect nor how easily it can knock you out. It was also clear that she was in the “I don’t want to know” zone, not checking her watch (at least not when I was looking), not living by the numbers, just running it, and to my view, running it well. And it was crystal clear that if she didn’t fall apart, she’d destroy her Boston Qualifying time in Marathon Number One, a feat the significance of which her non-running friends would never understand, and one for which her running friends would good-naturedly hate her.

What wasn’t clear was by how much. I’d clicked off my watch at the end of my relay leg, but my recollection of when the gun had gone off – in real time – hinted that this lady was going sub-three-ten. And while I hadn’t paid close attention to who’d passed by in the ten minutes between the end of my relay leg and when I’d jumped back on the course, I had a sneaking suspicion that she was, in fact, on track to win this thing.

What was a little fuzzy was whether I was a help or a hindrance. My offers to get out of her hair were turned down, but hey, that could have just been her being polite even in her time of agony. So I tried to leave ten feet or so of space, but hold a steady pace for her to key off, and provide bits of encouragement and marathoner wisdom, notably responding to her discomfort in the high miles with the simple adage that yeah, it’s supposed to suck right about now, so you’re doing fine.

And she was doing fine. She held it together for about twenty-five and a half before the wall closed in. That last three-quarters of a mile were a real fight, and two women passed – who would turn out to finish one-two – but my accidental acquaintance still motored in to a third place finish, clipping that three-ten mark by a minute-plus, crushing her Boston Qualifier, and picking up a prize check that in one fell swoop exceeded my lifetime cash winnings from this sport. In her first marathon. Damned impressive. Congratulations, Arianna!

I tried to stay low key and out of the way post-race other than offering up my congratulations, knowing that despite her previous acceptance of my coaching, she might well have wished to be left alone. But to my utmost relief, she was graciously thankful, which made me a happy old fart, knowing that perhaps I’d contributed one tenth of one percent (and not an iota more) to her success.

And that’s one of the beauties of this sport. It’s not just about our own struggles, victories, and even defeats, but it’s about our community, the support we get, the support we give, and the joys of being on both ends. I came home from Hyannis with a clam shell, but I also came home with a happy memory of being able to provide some of the fabric that helps us all to our goals.

21 December 2016

Team Sports


In my less-frequent blogging cadence of late, I’ve had more time than usual to ponder episode titles. This is primarily because I’ve needed more time than usual to find something compelling enough to garner ten minutes of your attention. I was settling around the theme of “Damage Control” until it became clear that it’s a bit overused, considering my history. Instead, the question became, why so much damage this time?

Ten years ago I had the joy of having a hernia repaired. To this day I still wonder if I really needed the work. Yeah, there was a small lump, but it caused no discomfort. A decade later, the repair still aches from time to time (though oddly, it hurts less after more intense races and workouts, go figure), but I do tell people that I feel cooler in the summer, since I have a screen installed.

A week after that internal incursion, I asked the doctor when I could resume running. His answer, which I’ve repeated so many times that you’ve likely heard this story, was a classic. Well, said he, basketball and sex, I don’t advise those, because you’re playing as a team, and you won’t want to stop. But running, and, uh, the other kind of sex, heck, you’re on your own, so if it hurts, you’re going to stop, so go for it. He was right, but he was also wrong, because he forgot about the fact that running is often a team sport. Which gets us back to our latest saga…

The problem with injuries is that they beget injuries. Second only to coat hangers, which we all know breed in dark closets, an injury has the power to create more woe as we compensate and work to recover. I’m no stranger to these secondary wounds; I fully expect that while coming back from one issue, I’m likely to overstress something else weakened in my training lapse. The trick is to make these follow-ons of lighter and lighter intensity until finally you break out of the cycle into a state of relative health, meaning that only a few things hurt only a little bit on a typical day.

Thus I wasn’t the least bit surprised that after taking four weeks off through November to once again offer the knee more time to heal, something else would go bump in the night on my return. Jumping into a Thanksgiving Day turkey trot race, having logged a mere three miles the day before as a shakedown, was not exactly easing back into it. But knowing that I wasn’t capable of racing hard softened the risk profile considerably. Besides, this was a family outing with Dearest Spouse and Dearest Daughter the Younger, who’d run even less than I, not a real race. Right?

Still, after that ho-hum outing at the Stow Gobbler where yes, I exceeded my exceedingly lame goal of not falling more than a minute per mile off last year’s pace, I had indeed racked up some hit points. This time it was the right calf, strained and a bit sore. Yawn. So I pulled a muscle on a comeback? Whatever. Show me some real news.

Unfortunately, by Monday, said calf was still complaining on a six mile ramble, which itself wasn’t too concerning since that left six days till this year’s edition of the Mill Cities Relay. Ah, you say, I see where this is going. You said relay. Team sport. Like sex. Well, not really, but you get it.

More unfortunately, a once-in-more-than-a-decade event was set to roll in Monday evening. Three words that Dearest Spouse and I were both eagerly looking forward to and simultaneously dreading: Whole. House. Carpeting.

What’s the big deal? So you have to move a few things? Well, for any of you who have done this, you know that ambivalence here is bunk. Days of packing, thanks mostly to DS, softened the blow, but still the amount of stuff to be hauled out of the blast zone made for quite the stair workout on a still sore knee enhanced by a complaining calf. And then came the furniture…oh, the furniture. Half the house from Side One to Side Two. The next night, the whole house from Side Two to Side One. And the third night, half again from Side One to Side Two, then sort out the wreckage and rebuild our lives. All that pushing stresses – you guessed it – your calves.

I wasn’t foolish enough to stack running on top of those daily leg strength workouts, but the day after the dust settled I hit the roads for a test drive on the calf, and…? Oh. My. It started sort of bad, and it got very bad, and I even took a walk break. Oh. My. And only three days left to heal.

Now, Mill Cities, which I run with my ‘alternate’ club, the Squannacook River Runners, is not, at least for us, a terribly competitive event. The Squannies are fun but not terribly competitive group. But it does carry an element of pride, and coming out in force enhances not only that pride but also the team’s overall score, so it’s all hands on deck. I’d committed, and, having cancelled on them once before, was determined not to let them down again. Oh, and did I mention that while they’re not a terribly competitive group, despite having warned them of my reduced racing ability of late, I once again landed on the Fire Eatin’ Fish, their semi-competitive men’s masters team. So while they weren’t expecting amazing things, I wasn’t about to serve them up a rambling amble.

Sunday morning came, and despite three days, Mr. Calf wasn’t happy, but a bit of Vitamin I, a lighter warm-up than usual to reduce the day’s total distance, and a reasonable pace akin to the Gobbler, alias far slower than last year, seemed a recipe for survival with team-satisfying results.

I should have seen the omen when, after a brief warm-up, I got down on the pavement to do my odd crab-leg hip extensor and quad stretch, a pre-race favorite, and managed to cramp up badly, in of all places, my shoulder blade. A moment of levity ensued where what could only be described as a notably attractive lady, who was in fact a trained nurse, came to my rescue with just the right touch to relieve the agony. (A moment of greater levity ensued an hour later when I learned that my teammate had captured the moment in a true blackmail-qualifying image…) But really, pulling out your shoulder, of all things, before a race?

Oblivious to the warning lights a’flashin’ down in quality control, I set off on a nearly perfect sunny and cold morning, which would have been entirely perfect but for the unexpected headwind making the effort tougher. Keeping the pace under control, hopefully protecting that weak leg link, I’d scoped a landmark at mile one knowing the course was notoriously unmarked, and was pleased to find myself on precisely the reasonable pace I’d targeted. Pleased for about four more seconds.

One of my favorite movie moments is near the end of the Blues Brothers, when after their epic chase of a hundred and six miles to Chicago, with a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, and of course, wearing sunglasses, the Bluesmobile instantaneously disintegrates on the plaza in front of the Cook County Collector of Taxes. I’ve often envisioned something similar happening to me. What happened about four seconds past the mile mark wasn’t quite that, as it only involved one part, but it pretty much instantaneously disintegrated. There was a moment, not really a pop, but sudden, and obvious. The calf was butchered into veal. Badly. Ouch.

In a relay like Mill Cities, you start your leg at some random moment based on the performance of your teammates and the random mixture that makes up every other team. There’s really no logic to how fast the people you encounter will be going. You blow by slowbies and get eclipsed by eagles. You tend to keep score of your ‘net kills’, how many you pass compared to how many pass you. Having the fifth and final leg, said randomness was only magnified, and by then, the field was sparse, but there was one in my sights. I caught him three quarters of a mile in. Score that as Plus One. Then it was veal cutlet time.

Short of walk breaks during the Death March stages of some of my less enjoyable marathons, I don’t recall being reduced to a hobble in a race. Now, a mile into a mere four-and-three-quarter mile leg, I was indeed hobbled. How slow, I do not know. Plus One returned the favor; back to Net Zero. I figured now was about the time my team would come by in the van, just to enhance the joy.

Saving a bit of face, by the time my teammates came by at mile two, I’d effectively beaten the cutlet with a meat tenderizer enough to stretch it out and stabilize my stride. On what they call a hill at mile three, not really a hill by my standards, I managed to regain a bit more dignity and use the grade to re-take my first kill and add a few more. The calf was screaming but working and I did, after all, have a team waiting at the finish. The final long, lonely final stretch to the finish, an almost eerie strip along the longest deserted mill in the world, entirely devoid of people, no spectators, no competitors, made for an odd challenge; maintaining what little intensity I had just for the sake of the team and my wounded pride.

Basketball and sex. You’re with a team, you won’t want to stop. Running? You’re with a team, you won’t want to stop. But hey, race done, pace below expectations, but Squannies happy, beer flowing, tables overflowing with pasta, merriment all around. A good day. But crap, the leg hurt. And crap, this meant more time off.

If that were the end of it, it’d be bad enough. But by late in the week, with no improvement and in fact worsening pain, I’d discovered my foot had turned all shades of a nasty rainbow. This was no simple strain but must have been a real live muscle tear – and a bleeding one at that – meaning weeks to heal. Worse, my head went into overdrive, fearing a recurrence of those post-op blood clots from three years ago. Dearest Spouse was about to have me committed over my near frantic worrying. But how can you not worry about something that, should it happen, can kill you? The chances of that outcome seemed so slim as to be unworthy of the big medical bills for a fishing expedition, but if you’re wrong…?

Two weeks hence, the rainbow has faded, the pain lingers though lessened, and I so miss the roads. It’ll be another long haul to come back yet again, this time with that pesky knee every haunting, but Boston is only four months away, so let the healing accelerate.

Damn team sports.

16 November 2016

No York


It’s oh-so-difficult to fire up the motivation to write about running when you’re not running.


In the seemingly unending story of, “What I didn’t do on summer vacation”, despite the fact that it’s no longer summer, add to the list that I did not, as planned, go to New York City two weekends back, and I did not, as planned, run the New York City Marathon, and let the record be known that I am not, as is to be expected, happy about those facts. So stop spreading the news, I didn’t leave on that day, and I wasn’t a part of it nor did I even start it. No York, No York.

Call this Strike Two, but unlike the unlikely Cubbies, I may not have three strikes to work with here. Four years ago, my first attempt at checking the “You’ve Gotta’ Do It Once” experience box that is the New York City Marathon was cancelled by a highly unpleasant female named Sandy. This time the enemy lay within; the body betrayed, the cancellation replayed. And of course, as it would turn out, the weather on marathon morning was…utterly delightful. Figures.

Dearest Spouse was enduring a marathon of her own with my constant vacillations on whether to make the trip; vacillations which endured for months and reached a fever pitch in the weeks leading up to the big event. On one hand, the entry fee, and New York’s is considerable, was paid, and was gone no matter what I did, so why not use it? On the other hand, travel wasn’t cheap, and by the time I opted to go if I could find someone to split the hotel cost, everyone had their plans set. But on the third hand, while I knew I couldn’t race it, a Boston Qualifier for 2018, when I will have the benefit of a new age group offering up a forty-minute cushion over my last marathon, seemed fairly easily within reach, even if the day devolved to race-course tourism, so why not spend a few bucks and go for a tour? But on the forth hand (I think I’m into feet at this point), even that relaxed (for me) time goal wasn’t at all a certainty.

Oh bother.

About ten days before, it was time to excrete or get off the cooking utensil. I headed out the door with the intent of loping an easy twenty (yes, ten days before marathon day, because at the pace I was targeting for both that run and the race, tapering wasn’t a big worry). It was decision time, do or die, and… the answer clearly was die. Yeah, it might have just been that day, and the next day I might have been fine, but for the sanity of Dearest Spouse, that day had to be the deciding day, and that day’s run was utterly horrible. By five miles my body was in revolt. The next four, returning on a short-circuited course, wouldn’t have even made my relaxed qualifier pace. Yeah, it was that bad. Come home, don’t reconsider, save yourself for another day, click the button.

And it was over, as was my fall racing season, which consisted of exactly one outing (though to be fair, I will slog through a turkey run next week). That one outing, the John Tanner Memorial, was a decent but not terribly encouraging outing, though the point of it wasn’t so much the race as to honor our dearly missed John and do some good in his name.

So long has passed – it’s that writing motivation thing again – that the details of that race have faded, which isn’t terribly fair to the organizers of a fine event. Unlike last year, when in retrospect I felt a tad embarrassed, having showed up to be competitive against a field that was mostly out for a pleasant outing, I came at this year’s race a little more casually, partly because I had to. Coming in on utterly terrible training over the summer; poor mileage, no quality, big gaps, and body parts that were still not healed or healing, my expectations were pretty low. When one of the two kids who put up a bit of a fight last year showed up on the starting line, I was ready to hand it to him right then and there.

Lesson to self: Don’t be so harsh. No, this ramble wasn’t anything stellar, but it wasn’t a horror show, either. The first mile clocked in close to six, far quicker than I expected from achy, tired, out-of-shape legs. A downright duel was on by a mile-and-a-half, not with last year’s kid but with a different collection of unknowns. I snagged a half-stride lead for a brief while until a twenty-something opened up a gap that wouldn’t close.

By the turnaround, I’d settled into a solid third and spent the next ten minutes weighing the old racing instinct against the newly aggressive self-preservation instinct. My head was wrapped more around trying to remember how many jugs of maple syrup I’d seen on the awards table – a truly sweet award if there ever was one – and how they’d be allocated – top three? – age groups? – rather than contemplating dropping a hammer (if indeed one even existed, which it probably didn’t) to go after the two guys ahead of me. Opting for the amber bottled proverbial carrot on the stick, I did a little on-course math, reset expectations, and gave myself a modest goal of clicking in within a minute of last year’s time.

The nice thing about modest goals is that they’re easier to hit. Fifty-nine seconds over last year wasn’t a thrill in the record books, but it checked the box on the artificial goal, still meant being the top old fart in a race that didn’t distinguish between young’uns and old farts, and did, in fact, ring the bell at the syrup table. The ending score was quicker than expected, but not quick. This, it seems, may be a hint that I need to act a bit closer to my age.

But alas, that mildly brightish spot back in early October did not translate to readiness a month later. Hopes that shaking out the cobwebs would put me on a path for New York not only didn’t pan out; rather I’m now two weeks into another full stop – Dearest Spouse is putting in more miles than I! – and hoping for healing that to date continues to be elusive. The left knee alternates between fine and pain, but worse, it feels a bit like a dangling pendulum post-run. The right heel jumped into the fray just to be irksome, as if it knew that this was an optimal time to gain maximum annoyance. It’s disappointing to be sure, not just for me, but knowing that it’s tough to put out my usual upbeat positive message in these screes. And that’s the real reason for the motivation gap. I’ve no desire to be a doggie downer for you.

So, No York. But to pull out some badly needed positivism, I’m not dead yet. There are detours and curves in every road, some extreme, and some, like the one warned of in this, one of my favorite signs located just a town over, not so serious. Only time will tell which kind I’m dealing with. There have been comebacks before. The game’s not over. Let’s see what happens in the next inning. After all, even the Cubs can win it all.

24 September 2016

Summittime


Once you start, it’s an ear worm you can’t get out of your head. It’s summittime, summittime, sum- sum-summittime… except that it’s already over. Summertime passed rapidly, so long as that ‘rapidly’ adjective isn’t applied to my pace on the roads. Summittime too has passed, with a satisfying goal achieved.

For one accustomed to racking up over two hundred miles a month, logging four, yes four (well, technically four and a half) in July and barely ninety in August has been downright agonizing, and this month is likewise lacking in linear legwork. The pizza-to-miles ratio is out of kilter and the body knows it, but worse than the few extra accumulated pounds is the passage of the six week mark when my body typically responds to changes in training levels and the bottom falls out of any attempts at rapidity. It’s all uphill from here to get back, though hope springs eternal; and based on yesterday’s better-than-usual-of-late outing, there may be another life ahead. I’m not dead yet.

Ah, but that uphill, now there’s an idea! While the mileage was down on behalf of the crackling (both) and painful (left) knees, along came the opportunity to clock in an alternate form of workout. In the last post, we left a little cliffhanger (pun intended) on Dearest Daughter’s Determined Deathwish to finish off her New Hampshire (White Mountains) Four-Thousand-Footers before heading off to places collegiate. As the last minute inserted note in that last posting said, yes, we made it in time, with less than forty-eight hours to spare before her departure, completing an ambitious odyssey. Such is the way that summertime this year became redefined as summittime.

Now, stomping over mountains on rough trails isn’t necessarily the kindest thing one could do to injured knees. But the climbing was, I figured, good for strengthening that atrophied quad, and the descending was, let’s just say, done as gingerly as possible. My current Physical Terrorist didn’t entirely agree, but she settled for the lesser of two evils while doing her best to calm the inflammation that she’s convinced is the source of much of my woe.

Thus began the adventure that led DD and me over thirty-three summits in a dozen outings over a span of only forty-four days, culminating at one of the most spectacular spots in the Whites. For her, it was a major life goal realized. For me, it was a trip down (or, more accurately, up) memory lane, relived and relished. Though by cutting back on my running I felt as though I lost track of many big doin’s around town, I traded my knowledge of the latest local road construction for the delightful familiarity with the northern landscape that only comes with the exertion of many miles. It’s a comforting, satisfying mastery that grows exponentially as the trails and summits add up, culminating in the ability to stand atop a mountain, look around, and not need the map to get your bearings. There’s no substitute for accumulating the experience.

So while I typically avoid chronological journaling, I break my rule here and provide a brief tour of those forty-four days that took DD from twenty-six to forty-eight qualifying summits. Come along on an adventure…because next time, it’ll just be about the run once again.

Excursion One, Whiteface & Passaconaway: It’s July but it’s cold, damp, drizzly, and foggy, on these forested, viewless summits, nothing to see here, move along, just whiteness from the overlooks. The steep climbs up Whiteface make me wonder how I got a troop of boy scouts up this one in back in eighty-nine. (Answer: There were steps bolted into the rock then; they’re gone now – note the holes in the rock behind my pack.) Summits twenty-seven and twenty eight.




Excursion Two, Willey & Field: Mt. Tom is usually included when the Willey Range is taken down, but DD bagged that one years ago on a day when the family tired after just one of the three planned peaks. This time we assaulted from the south so as to traverse the stairs DD had built last summer on her month of trail work, then it was up ten impressive trail ladders and a long (long!) loop back through Zealand Notch, because, well, why not turn a few miles into sixteen? Summits twenty-nine and thirty.




Excursion Three, Moriah: Because we just didn’t want to come home… An impromptu overnight, complete with a Wal-Mart run for basics like toothbrushes, so we could knock off a simple one the next day. Met a number of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who we’d see again and again in coming days. Summit thirty-one.




Excursion Four, the Wildcats: To start a planned five-day stretch, it was up the steep and rocky ridge of Wildcat in a foggy drizzle. Five summits, two count as Four-Thousand-Footers, but unlike my last trip over them twenty-three years ago, they’re no longer labelled. With multitudes of ups and downs, we’re never quite sure if we’ve hit the high points till reaching the final A summit overlooking Carter Notch as the clouds gave way to glorious mountain sunshine. Summits thirty-two and thirty-three.




Excursion Five, Jefferson, Monroe, and, oh yeah, that one: DD is missing two Presidential summits, one north, the other south of Washington (which she’s already tagged), so the plan is to knock them both off, skirting the ‘Rockpile’ on the way. After a phenomenal cliff climb up Caps Ridge, the delightful morning turns Presidential Fierce, and a happenstance link-up with another hiker leads us to summit Washington anyway, since he’s never done it. Sixty-mile gusts reclassify the adventure into the Epic Zone and we’re feeling cold in our cores as we reach Lakes of the Clouds to recover. Toss in Clay and Franklin for a five-summit day and we’re glad to have snagged a lift back to our trailhead parking. Summits thirty-four and thirty-five.




Excursion Six, The Twins and Galehead: It’s been twenty-four years since I last stayed in an AMC hut and it happened to be Galehead. Since then the hut was entirely rebuilt so it’s sort of inaccurate to say I finally returned, but the logs are still there and I managed to find my entry from May of ninety-two. We return to visit neighbor Greg who’s working croo, and take an easy day of three summits on a brilliantly perfect summer day. Summits thirty-six, thirty-seven, and thirty-eight.




Excursion Seven, Garfield: My fourth time on this one and our intent is to continue up the ridge, top Lafayette, and sidle down past Greenleaf to our car parked at Canon. But threats of severe weather and a surprisingly and suddenly strong wind coupled with an evil looking sky turn us around at Garfield’s summit. We bail, hot-foot it down the Death-By-Boredom Garfield trail, and find a serious dearth of ride opportunities. The sketchy guy who kindly shuttles us back in his decades-old pickup truck has to move something off the seat that seemed to have been alive quite recently, but a ride’s a ride. Summit thirty-nine.



Excursion Eight, Cabot: One of Mother Nature’s bad jokes, Cabot, so far from anything that we ended up crossing a covered bridge into Vermont to get there, offers little excitement on a clear day, and even less on a cloudy one. A challenging climb to The Horn makes it interesting, though the out-and-back traversals of The Bulge add nothing but meaningless work. We’re only fifteen minutes from the car when the skies open with such ferocity that we’d have been drenched had we been only a minute away, but it makes for good chit-chat when we meet up later at a store in Berlin with hikers we’d chatted with who’d gone out the opposite direction and just beat the rain – and who turn out to be USATF Grand-Prix racing types. Summit forty.




Excursion Nine, Isolation: After five days at sea, we’re pretty tired, but after yesterday’s deluge, today’s forecast of perfection can’t be missed, so we book another night and hit the trail from Pinkham at the crack of dawn to tackle Isolation, as far from anything as its name suggests. Eschewing the usual Rocky Branch route that I’d slogged through back in eighty-eight (and which we’d learn was an intolerable mud pit after yesterday’s rain), we opt for Glen Boulder over Slide Peak, returning over Boott Spur. It adds thousands of feet of climb on both ends, but it’s spectacularly beautiful on a spectacularly amazing day and we’re spectacularly whipped by the end, but the sight of clouds pouring over the Presidential ridge was astounding. Summit forty-one.






Excursion Ten, Carrigain: It seems everyone leaves this for last, because although it’s five miles up Signal Ridge, it’s an easy five miles, so they can bring their friends, and besides, the last mile is magnificent. The four leading up to that spot, though, are rather interminable. We instead take the long way in, circling around the mountain through Carrigain Notch and ascend via the steep, challenging, and much more fun Desolation Trail. The summit is busy and beautiful, with views to what we’ve decided will be our finish line on the Bonds. Summit forty-two.




Excursion Eleven, The Kinsmans: Being easy to get to, right off the highway on the close side of the hills, we knock these off in a few hours, not hitting the trail till near mid-day. The South peak amuses with a unique summit cairn throne of stones. On our second trip over the North peak, returning from the out & back, I convince DD that a particular boulder looks like the true summit. She’s tired and reluctant but I goad her to scramble to the top. Back in the car, she sheepishly reads me the trail guide which we hadn’t carried which, sure enough, advises the peak bagger to be sure to climb that particular boulder to touch the true summit. Summits forty-three and forty-four.




Excursion Twelve, Zealand and The Bonds: Dearest Spouse, ever sporting, rises in the middle of the night so she can drop us at the Zealand trailhead before seven as this will be a one-way traverse. We’re enjoying the expansive views on the ridge above Zealand Notch before nine and the viewless summit is check-marked soon after. From there it’s off to one of the most amazing stretches of trail in the Whites, over the open alpine ridge of Guyot, West Bond, Bond, and onto the truly sublime flat-topped but vertical sided summit of Bondcliff. It’d been over twenty-nine years since I last stood here, a place with a cliff so iconic that it graced the cover of the AMC guide many years back. I looked about as terrified standing on that cliff this time as I did last time, but DD strode confidently onto the ledge for her victory shot, having completed her quest from the first to the last summit in a little under ten years. Summits forty-five, forty-six, forty-seven, and yes, forty-eight. Huzzah, I think they say. And then the long walk out the other end, to find that Dearest Spouse, not wanting to join us for our twenty-mile traverse, had herself covered fifteen miles that day on her own. Huzzah, I think they say, indeed.