27 October 2019
It’s fitting, I suppose. My first attempt to run the New York City Marathon dramatically came to an end thanks to a major storm. So it was, again, this time. Sort of. That first time it was Hurricane Sandy, which, after a week of dithering (what to do?), finally put the nail in the coffin of the event. This latest time it was an entirely different and somewhat odd type of storm, which, after a month of dithering (what to do?), it too finally put the nail in the coffin of the event. Such was born the Cheese Storm Incident.
I suppose I deserve it. I’ve always had an aversion to trash-talking of any sort; you trash-talk and you usually get bit. That’s why I never do it before a race. I avoid it so much that my clubmates regularly ignore me when I anti-trash-talk (if that’s a thing) and point out how crappy I’m usually feeling and how poorly I expect to perform before toeing the line. Even when I really do have a Meh race, they often don’t see it that way, only reinforcing their disbelief of my pre-race grumblings.
This time, I blew it.
Granted, what I did would hardly be called trash-talking, but by my standards, perhaps I jinxed myself. I wrote “I Must Run This Marathon”, and I stated aloud far too many times that I’d be running New York come hell or high water (though considering Hurricane Sandy, high water would in fact be a good reason why I wouldn’t run, but you get the idea). I guess that for me that qualified as braggadocio. I opened my mouth. I got bit.
I’m out. Cancelled. Not only that but sidelined. I’m now oh-for-three on New York.
To cut to the car crash, as a former co-worker used to say, I’m the proud owner of a complete radial tear in posterior horn of the medial meniscus of my right knee, and, in the wake of the Cheese Storm, it might actually be worse. Dr. Triathlon (we’ll get to him later) prefers the self-healing option, which could take up to (gulp!) six months, though I’m hoping for four. Surgery, says he, only removes material and hastens the onset of bone-on-bone arthritis, not a good idea for the active, athletic type, especially when there’s already evidence of some bone degeneration around the tear. In short, me and the (literal) pain-in-the-ass stationary bike down at El-Cheapo gym are going to be good friends for quite a while.
Oh how did we get here? How have we sunk so low? How has the ever-increasing entropy of the universe caught up with us? (We? Us? I hear you saying… Yes, you’re just fine, I’m the hurtin’ puppy. It’s just linguistic artistic license. Go with it.)
But as I’ve previously documented, I really couldn’t entirely shrug it off. I don’t need to reiterate the bitching and moaning of my last post. Suffice to say that during the last Adirondack Death March weekend of the season the pain was manageable, but for days afterward I wasn’t moving too well. And New York loomed. What to do? This called for a Plan, yes, that’s Plan with a Capital P.
Serendipity dropped an interesting idea. A running bud posted that a half-marathon needed pacers. On Nantucket. Now, I’ve lived in the Commonwealth for over thirty-four years, and I’ve yet to go to Nantucket. I know, it’s just an island, but someday I need to set foot there. And a half marathon would force some decent miles, three weeks before New York. And acting as a pacer would force a slow, comfortable pace. It would be a proof point, a bit of confidence heading into which might be an Epic Struggle in New York. To be fair, it wasn’t the greatest deal around; though the race was free for pacers, the boat ticket and the pacing team shirt rang up to a decent price, but I really didn’t care. It was an Adventure. It was Nantucket. And it fit within The Plan.
Which did nothing. So much for that theory. And the horizon seemed to be sinking by the day. By the time the pacing team shirt showed up in the mail, I was no longer certain I could even run that half at the comfortable pace I’d committed. And as a pacer, I couldn’t chance letting down those whom I’d be pacing. Time to amend The Plan.
Turns out I had a free entry to another local half marathon (which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty; it was free because the previous race by this organization had, um, underperformed, let’s say, so they offered me this one). Two weeks before Nantucket.
Now you are starting to see the absurdity of the situation. From running a Boston Qualifier in May, I was reduced to running a half marathon just to see if I could run a half marathon slowly as a pacer, which in itself was just to see if I had a shot in heck of running New York. Sad, ain’t it?
The day of said local half dawned close to ideal. It’d turn mildly warm a few miles in, but nothing to provide any excuse for a total collapse; no, this would all be on me. A small gaggle of about seventy lined up at an obscure spot on an obscure road in an obscure town, and with zero expectations for racing performance – this was, after all, just a test of going the distance casually – I sauntered off about as casually as I’ve ever started a race. Frankly, it was downright pleasant.
And for a while, it stayed that way. I was easily exceeding the pace I’d need to pace without much effort. For a few miles I linked up with the young lady who’d win the women’s side; curiously she looked familiar, which turned out to be because I’d run an earlier event with her identical twin sister. All was sunshine, butterflies, and happiness (along with a couple of good hills, which I rather enjoyed, I really loved the course) till about halfway in. Then all went to hell in the space of a mile.
From cruising to barely moving. From, yeah, the knee hurts a little, but no different than usual, to a stride so uneven, so favoring the tragic knee that the opposite calf started twitching dangerously. From humming to a broken wreck. Stretching stops. Both calves flipping out. As much pain walking (no, limping) as running (no, jogging). Downright pathetic. But just as stupidly as ever, willing myself to finish. I shuffled home, tail between legs, and drowned my sorrows by crashing the party at the hometown 5K, a far more jovial, friend-filled, and food-and-beer equipped event.
Do you remember that this is supposed to be about the Cheese Storm Incident? I haven’t forgotten. It’s time.
It’s now Monday evening. I have an MRI in hand. I have an appointment with Dr. Tri and, I suppose, with fate, in the morning. And I have a substantial bowl of pasta in front of me for dinner, whipped up by Dearest Spouse. And DS picks up the jar of grated cheese, because this being a more-or-less desperation dinner, it doesn’t merit grating up the real parmesan in the fridge. And it’s one of those store-brand plastic jars with the lid that opens on one side to sprinkle and on the other to pour or spoon. And she holds onto the lid flap and shakes it vigorously to break up the clumps. But only one lid flap. The other is freer than a love child at Burning Man. And it’s the side that pours. And oh, did it rain. It poured.
Cheese Storm. Category Five.
An instant of silence, that tension of, she’s wondering, will he be pissed at this lapse (which, admittedly, I’ve been known to allow to happen, I’m not proud of that failing), and… we burst out laughing. A happy old married couple moment. Dearest Spouse starts to move to clean up and I say, oh, just sit down and eat, we’ll deal with it later. We eat our dinner surrounded by a fresh coat of cheese as delicate as the soon to arrive snow. See, even I can be poetic if I try hard.
Sated with pasta, I retrieve the vacuum from the basement, and we work more efficiently than FEMA after a tornado to remediate the mayhem. Satisfied, I walk gently down the stairs to return said vacuum, still fully aware that my knee is not in top form. And halfway down, on an otherwise ordinary step, something goes pop, or crunch, or snap, I really don’t know, but I know it makes some sort of discernable unpleasant nonstandard noise, and the pain shoots, and I cannot move. At that moment, I know it’s over. My hopes of pulling off the New York City Marathon at last – are toast. I spend the evening crawling around the house. It’s that bad.
Thus, the Cheese Storm Incident. So, how did you kill your knee? Cleaning up cheese. No, really.
I stumble into Dr. Triathlon’s office the next morning on crutches. He doesn’t seem alarmed. I guess he’s used to this, but since I’d left him in far better shape the last time I’d seen him, I guess I expected at least a little surprise. The MRI, which, having been taken Friday night before Tropical Storm Romano made landfall, is probably already obsolete (though again, Dr. Tri didn’t seem concerned by this either), shows the damage. Only a radiologist could string together prose like, “Complete radial tear of the posterior horn of the medial meniscus. Associated edema at the meniscocapsular junction at the level of the posterior horn may represent meniscocapsular sprain.” There was more, but I don’t want to unnecessarily raise the average word length of this saga.
I didn’t disagree with Dr. Tri’s assessment that it’s worth trying to let it heal rather than surgically snipping out parts that will never grow back. So it’s months of no running. Pray for my sanity. No Nantucket – not a big deal, though I felt bad for having committed and having to pull out. But moreso... No New York. And so that’s it. Three and out.
Unlike Boston, New York does allow for a deferral, so I can translate my entry to next year (paying again, but whatever…). But I’ll have to decide that around January, when it may not be entirely clear how well the healing is going. I had already concluded that it was probably time to scale back to shorter distances – I just planned to ease into that after New York, and Boston, and, well…I’d get there at some point, and not fret about it. There are always adventures to be had that don’t require twenty-six miles, and there are plenty more summits as well. Just take it as it comes…
But you’ve got to admit that if it had to happen, you couldn’t ask for a better title for the big moment.
21 August 2019
An email arrived a week back that sent a jolt through the system. Time to pick your transportation and baggage options for the New York City Marathon. It’s less than three months away.
Marathon? I’ve got a marathon slated out there? In less than three months? And not just any marathon, but New York, where I am Oh-for-Two, the first miss being Hurricane Sandy which wiped the event and much of Staten Island off the map, the second being a couple years back when my injured state just would not let it happen, so now, third time’s a charm (right?), and I Must Run This Marathon. But oh, how far from marathon shape I am in. Or not in.
Sure, I ran Sugarloaf just three short months ago, and sure, I pulled off a respectable showing. But oh, how fast things have been falling apart. I’m getting out there, but not necessarily to run or do anything remotely like getting ready for New York. Consider, I hiked as far in the Adirondacks in one three-day stretch last month as I ran for the entire month. Granted, while those classic Adirondack Death Marches didn’t hurt so far as endurance and fitness go (but certainly did leave scars both physical and emotional), …they were not runs. That’s different fitness.
Life has, I’m afraid, come down to an Either / Or proposition at this point. Too much running sometimes leaves me with tenderized joints that might – or might not – survive the next scheduled Death March (and those events need to be scheduled – travel, companions, etc.). But too much hiking leaves me without the running fitness that I need to be building, rather than losing, with New York looming. This year, injured or not, I am going (dammit), even if I need to jog or walk the thing. Thus, I need to be in some sort of shape other than marshmallow.
As such, there have been lots of non-running days before hiking expeditions, and there have been a lot of expeditions lately due to my obsession of chasing both Adirondack 46er status (and with it, completion of the Northeast 111 list, which, as I’ve noted here before, curiously includes 115 summits), and the New England Hundred Highest roster. None of the remaining summits on either list are common with the other, so I’ve got plenty of rocks to scale and short seasons (considering weather and daylight) to cram them in. And no, neither completion will happen this year, but you’ve got to make headway, right?
With little running comes little racing and with little racing comes little writing. The cable news industry may have to fill their airwaves, so for them, any news, even news that really isn’t, is news. The Weather Channel also ran into this problem, but their solution was to create so much weather-themed-but-not-actually-weather content that it seemed there was never any weather being reported when I tuned in, so I stopped tuning in. I’m not keen to emulate those models, so when I have little of great interest, I just go a bit dark.
And it’s been a bit dark of late, even somewhat depressing. A difficult time for someone who’s theme here is to find the bright spots, stay positive, highlight the good, shine with motivation. My body has decided to age quite a bit in recent months, and things hurt, things don’t heal, challenges mount. I used to carry on about the pesky left knee, but now it has a partner on the right which hurts in an entirely different manner, and, irony of irony, one hurts more running, the other walking, so you can’t win. Training has suffered. Racing has suffered. Fitness has suffered. But all bitching and moaning makes Jack a dull boy. So let’s stop bitching and tell stories anyway.
June brought about an entirely ordinary five-kilometer race, and July followed with an even more ordinary five-miler on the Fourth. Bitch, bitch, moan, moan, I hear you say, you still took a first and a second in your age group in those races, respectively. Yeah, but when you’re a full minute slower in than just a year back in a very short race, well, that’s disappointing. But there is good.
So, let’s see, we had civic pride, come-from-behind drama, and a statistical anomaly. Plenty good.
And so, with no other races slated till fall, that would, by this not-very-ripe date of mid-August, have wrapped up the story of the summer already. Except that the summer has been repurposed for knocking off summits. Remember that bit about finding the good? Well, here's more: I’m declaring this a big win season, just in a different category. Since the start of last month, eight of the New England Hundred Highest have fallen, plus three of the ‘Dacks. I won’t finish either list this year, so I’d better not expire just yet, but that takes out a quarter of my remaining peaks in barely six weeks.
I’m repeatedly taken aback by the Adirondacks. What they call trails out there boggle the mind compared to most New England trails (and consider that what we call trails in New England boggle the minds of folks from out west and other areas, so let’s give this insanity the ranking it is due). And then, as bad as those are, much of the ‘dacks are crisscrossed not with official trails but instead with herd paths, unmaintained trails that cover stunningly impassable terrain, serve up absurd steepness, and imbue general disbelief. It seems that around every corner is another, “You’ve gotta’ be kidding me!” moment.
Intrepid Adventurer Daniel, who I met years ago in the midst of the Mohawk Hudson Marathon and who has, since then, caught ‘dacks fever, met me for this multi-day scheduled abuse-a-thon. Day One served up a mere ten and a half miles on a relatively simple summit with only one “Holy Excrement” moment, a thirty-foot pitch described in the guide with the understatement, “very steep” that tested my upper-body climbing capabilities as well as a bit of mental gumption. (Of course, you never get pictures of these spots, since the camera is safely packed away at suck moments so that if they have to come and recover your limp and broken body, they’ll be able to recover the Trip So Far on your device.)
So yeah, we’re going back for more. I won’t lie. Some of the challenges I’ve read and heard about on the summits that remain downright scare me. I’m still not certain I’ll finish either of these challenges. And I’m not sure my knees will hold up – either for ascending (and worse, descending) the heights, as well as surviving the distance of the Big Apple’s mean streets this fall. But the marathon mentality draws me to give it a try. And that’s always good.
06 June 2019
My clubmates and I debated the idea endlessly. Just who’s idea was this, anyway? How did we manage to drag fifteen runners (plus a few family members) to the middle of nowhere to run a marathon? (To be precise, a dozen for the marathon and a few more for the shorter sister event, but nevertheless…) Clearly this was a fine example of groupthink, or perhaps just a stone rolling downhill and, against all odds, picking up moss, which may be an apt metaphor since the Sugarloaf Marathon serves up plenty of downhills.
The result was probably the finest race weekend I’ve ever enjoyed. Not the finest race, though that wasn’t so bad, either. (Spoiler: Yes, I’m back in for Boston 2020, my ticket is punched for number fourteen.) But as far as club camaraderie, mutual support, and just plain fun, yes, the finest. And I say that with fine thanks to my ‘mates.
Sugarloaf is a net downhill course. That doesn’t make it easy. Boston is a net downhill course, too, and nobody will tell you that makes it easy. But Sugarloaf does have a little more marathon-friendly hill profile going for it, in that you do the big climbs in the second five miles, when you’re still relatively fresh. Or at least you should be; the previous time I ran this race three years back, I suffered a mental death on the biggest climb around mile nine and pretty much wrote the day off, only to find a miraculous rebirth just past the midway mark, where you are treated to one of the finest gravity assists in the business. That day’s rebirth led to what was my last (and may well forever remain my last) sub-three day.
whether the experiment actually happened is disputed) that gravitational acceleration is independent of mass. Our gang, acting like a bunch of climate-denying anti-vaxers, ignored science and tried to prove quite the opposite.Salvage Barbeque!), continuing unabated (with interruptions for mirth and shenanigans) through Saturday night’s immense pre-race dinner that, as Arlo Guthrie might say, could not be beat, ensuring we hit the line Sunday morning fueled with a ton of bricks and ready to roll on down the hill to Kingfield, which is an attempt at a poetic way of saying that we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s mutual contributions to the feast, or more simply,
Conservatism, not something I’d ever aspire to politically, was my obvious strategy. Don’t blow up. Get that qualifier. Get back to Boston next April. But that was my plan this past April too, and it didn’t work out so well that time. Still, given what I had to work with – a rather abused body, undertrained for the task, but coupled with a brain trained and willing to override synapses screaming ‘Stop!’ – I had little choice but to replicate my Boston plan. Go out at a comfortable pace and start banking time ahead of my Boston qualifier pace and hope to hell I held it together.
Sugarloaf’s Gravity Assist then worked its magic. I could question the accuracy of the mile marking placements, but what’s the point? Mile fourteen flew. Mile fifteen defied reason. My bank account exploded like the price of Nortel stock during the dot-com bubble. But that didn’t last. Could I?
Sugarloaf runs a fifteen-kilometer sister event. They line everyone up around mile seventeen and point them to the same finish line. Unfortunately for those racers, they miss all the fun, since the last nine miles, or at least eight of them till you pull into Kingfield, are the drudgery of the course. There are nice spots to be sure, places where the river continues to serenade with its gurgling goodness, but by and large this stretch is a slog, plain and simple.
Were I properly trained, I’d be leveraging the power conserved by the earlier joys of the course into an epic drive down that slog and all the way home. After all, save a few small insulting late mini-hills, most of this stretch, while dull, is still a mild descent. But as it was, there was no epic drive, just an epic grind. This was my thirtieth (official) marathon, yet I still can’t pinpoint how anyone, let alone me, can focus a brain to force a body that wants with every fiber to take a seat to instead plow on – for another solid hour. Eight miles… seven miles…six miles… pace rising, but slowly, under control… five miles… four miles… scanning ahead and being continually confused and disappointed by someone well ahead of me who’s white jersey looked distinctly like a mile marker… three miles… two miles… holding it together, bank account still growing, never willing to acknowledge I could crawl it in for the Boston qualifier, because, well, maybe I couldn’t.
Not until twenty-five did I slow enough to spend a few seconds from the bank rather than contribute, the first time since mile nine. Picking it up through the final push of twenty-six, the math hinted I might even break a ten-minute barrier, but the last point-two ran mysteriously long, quashing that idea. Back in my earlier chase-the-personal-best era I might have cared about this course anomaly. This day I knew I’d just wiped nearly twenty minutes off my Boston time and punched my ticket for next year, and it was pouring, and that ten-minute time barrier just didn’t matter.
This time, I wasn’t thinking of winning anything, and then… I swear I saw him before the start of the race. Memories came back – a rematch? Only if he’d slowed down as much as I had in three years. But he never appeared again, and he’s not listed in the results. Instead, in an interesting repeat of events, I was overtaken by someone who again looked of my vintage; not short nor balding this time, nor can I really recall where he passed. Not expecting to be competitive in my current condition, I took note but paid little heed, and no, this time I didn’t catch him. But he landed only a minute ahead and he did take the division, leaving me with a surprising and unexpected second place, and an even more surprising chunk of cast-iron armor plating for an award. It’s cool, but I’m not at all certain what to do with what is clearly the heaviest thing I’ve ever won in a race.
Thirsty Pig!...what was I thinking ordering the Spicy McFirepants?). We’d considered climbing a mountain?
10 May 2019
I really wanted to hit the Bottoms this week. And no, that’s not a grammatical, usage, or punctuation error, it’s just a pun that stands in for a quest to overcome a small bit of nastiness in the world. So to continue with the pun, they say you have to hit Bottoms to see what’s important and to start the fight back. I somewhat non-concur. I had to fight just to hit Bottoms.
Recovery from Boston wasn’t pretty, though it really had little to do with Boston. Any soreness from that adventure peaked, as usual, a couple days hence, and quickly subsided, but a general malaise set in that went beyond the usual joint complaints and instead rose to a general alarm complaint. About a week back I turned in the closest thing to a tempo run since Beantown, circling Portland Maine’s Back Cove a couple of times, one of my favorite spots to hit after a northern customer meeting. My pace wasn’t horrid, but to think that it was all I could muster, and to think of the ugliness that accompanied the effort, well, it just wasn’t right. It seemed pretty clear that the meds that Lady Doc had directed – the ones that killed me back in February and I’d abandoned till after Boston, but then being a duly compliant patient had in fact restarted right afterwards – were at it again. Having failed to qualify at Boston and with my second chance race, Sugarloaf, a scant two weeks out, I pulled the plug on the pills once again.
Next up after Foley’s on Sunday was an early Monday foray to a Company Rah-Rah (which, to be fair, turned out to be a pretty good Rah-Rah) in Nashville, Tennessee. Aha, that light bulb just went on; you frequent readers probably have an inkling of where this is going. Yes, a traveling runner story, with a twist.
But on Sunday afternoon, I didn’t yet know about that neatly packaged three-inch brochure. What I did know was that no amount of Internet searches would turn up any decent places to run from the Gaylord Opryland (though to my amusement I did find this page which highlights the worst cities to run in, four of the five of which I’ve previously railed about in this column). I also knew that the resort occupied a slim strip of pavement hemmed in by the river and an eight-lane freeway. I further knew that there were some non-descript roads by which I could escape to north, though with no apparent destination or scenery. But mostly I knew that I wanted to take advantage of my friend’s recommendation and make my way to Shelby Bottoms to enjoy all that green, which meant escaping to the south and crossing the river. The problem was getting there.
The City of Nashville did its part to solve my problem. A bit over a decade ago they built a lovely pedestrian suspension bridge from the Bottoms to the Opryland side of the river. Google Maps then served up hope in the form of a small road that paralleled the freeway and connected the south end of the Opryland resort-cum-hotel-cum-mall-cum-behemoth to a tiny rotary where the trail from Shelby came off the pedestrian bridge and plunged into a tunnel to parking lot across said freeway. Other than the need to hop down from the roundabout onto the trail, which appeared pretty easy, it looked like a win. Two miles from my hotel room would put me across the river with miles and miles of both paved and unpaved trails – and lots and lots of green. An early morning start would give me time for a fine tour of the Bottoms and still get me back for the Rah-Rah.
Except for one little problem. Well, two, to be precise.
Ryman Hospitality Properties. (You’ll understand why I’m calling them out by name shortly.) And a quick peek at Google Street View turned up a big issue: that little road was guarded by spiked iron gates at both ends, hermetically sealing off Ryman from the rabble of the real world. While it looked likely I could get around the one on the south end, resplendent with open lawns, the one on the north end was embedded in deep, thick woods, thwarting any attempt to circumvent its distinct lack of hospitality; rather ironic for a company whose name is hospitality.
A study of the map showed that no reasonable alternative routes existed. To cross over the freeway from the hotel would involve, besides a lot of busy and highly unpleasant intersections, a crazy-long detour that would make the round-trip to the bridge a long run in its own right. No, there was no alternative but to breach the ramparts.
Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not being so pompous as to claim that as a runner I have any special rights to cross someone’s private property. Of course I don’t. But here’s an interesting little detail: Ryman, it turns out, owns Opryland. The hotel (Marriott only manages it). The music hall and famed show. A bunch more places. So Ryman, in the hospitality business, is sealing itself off from its own customers, a most inhospitable stance. We love you, or at least your money. Now don’t bother us.
In part, I get it. If you look at the map, you can understand why they wouldn’t want vehicular traffic coming down the road. It’s small. It’s not designed for volume. And when things happen at Opryland, they happen big. It really would be unpleasant to try to empty out a show, the mall, or a convention through their driveway, especially if the freeway backed up and people bailed for this alternative. So that part makes sense.
But nobody would pass this way on foot, save a few fitness crazies like me. Nobody would leave a performance at the Grand Ol’ Opry and try to walk back to downtown Nashville. It’s a long, long way (and it’d probably be very dark). Nobody would walk from the mall with their shopping treasures in hand. There’s nothing on the other end, save that bridge to the greenway, and once you’re there, there’s nothing there either, again, for a long, long way. And the southern end appeared (and I’d confirm later) to offer plenty of ways around the gate, so this blockade wasn’t adding any level of facility security. So why not allow pedestrians to pass, at least during daylight hours? Isn’t the point of the greenway to provide accessibility to outdoors? Isn’t the point of a hospitality business to provide a pleasant experience to their customers?
Before I slept Sunday night, I was already roiling at the irony. Here was a city that had made an effort not only to preserve open space, but to make it accessible by building a bridge (and a big and costly one at that, mind you), only to have that wonderful resource be put off-limits to their biggest point-source of visitors and tourist and convention revenue – by the very firm that was drawing those people in. It’s a wound inflicted by their own benefactor. It’s the antithesis of what enlightened civic leaders strive for. Readers of this column will recall just three months ago in A Tale of Two Cities my praise for what Austin, Texas has created, and how their work has transformed their city by slathering it with a sizable dose of healthy lifestyle, and it has paid back in spades. Nashville is trying, but they’ve been blocked at the ten-yard-line by a member of their own team.
But I’ve jumped ahead and made a lot of conclusions before spelling out the story, so, let’s back up.
Owing to what I’d learned in my pre-trip research, I arrived in Nashville with an agenda, no, make that a mission, seasoned with a relish of indignance. Fight the injustice! Free the Bottoms! On check-in, the Gaylord’s front desk was a bit flummoxed by my ask of a way to get to the greenway and sent me to the concierge. Once there, I thought I’d hit the jackpot when Concierge The First not only understood my plight and seemed to have a solution, but doused her answer in passion for my cause. Enlightenment! Yes, she said, you can get around that gate through the woods (foolish me, having seen the barrier only from a distance on Street View, I thought the method would be obvious and didn’t ask further details), and further, she said she’d been working with the city to open up the very access I sought. Hallelujah! There is hope for the world!
I contemplated making a dash. I could have made it. But if I did (and if nobody shot me) I would still have to get back. Scaling the spikey thing was not an option. If I couldn’t return, I certainly wouldn’t make it back in time for the Rah-Rah. And we’d been read the riot act that we would be at the Rah-Rah on time.
Back to the drawing boards. Concierge The First happened to be off that day, so my next effort landed me with Concierge The Second. Once again, the effort and caring offered up was second-to-none. Second got creative, explored several transit options, and went so far as to offer that she’d personally drive me down there (at 5:45 AM!) which I politely declined since it kind of subverted the point of the quest, and more importantly, since I could have permanently contaminated her seat cushions on the ride back. But key to this story is that she got on the phone and called our now mutual nemesis, Ryman (Non-)Hospitality, expecting that a reasonable request from a reasonable person would get a reasonable response. Expecting to hear that yes, we keep that locked to keep crowds of vehicles at bay, but sure, you can run through, since there will never be a full marathon crowd passing by, or maybe we can offer you a one-time code for the electronic gate lock, or…let’s just say, expecting hospitality.
Nope. No way. Absolutely not. We don’t want your stinkin’ stinky runners. Go away.
I think Concierge The Second was just about as devastated by this as was I. Oh, the humanity.
Well, kids, there’s only one option left: Yup, the freeway.
The next morning, I hit the parking lot at a quarter to six. Passing the gate which had stymied me the day prior there was again a Gaylord pickup truck making rounds. Or perhaps they’d had a change of heart and sent someone out to see if I’d show up and politely let me pass? Or, alternately, that staffer was there to unleash the angry hippos on me if I tried? I mentally gave the truck an impolite salute as I passed and hit the on-ramp (which I note did not have one of those ‘pedestrians prohibited’ signs) with acceleration akin to my aged Prius.
Reaching the rotary victorious, and more importantly still alive,
Shelby Bottoms wasn’t a stunning piece of scenery; indeed, it was rather unremarkable (though had I gotten further south I would have gained more river views to turn up the remarkability meter). Instead, it was glorious for what it wasn’t. It wasn’t urban. It wasn’t developed, save for the main path being paved as a bikeway with a few small bridges. It wasn’t crowded – indeed, I was surprised at how few people I saw, which told me that Nashville has a way to go to try to reach Austin’s widespread embrace of their green spaces. And oddly, it wasn’t even that quiet: traffic noise from the freeway across the river never ceased, but the cacophony of birds and insects closer by made a credible effort at allowing me to forget the former. In truth, it was quieter while running behind the mall to get there than it was at the Bottoms, but I’ll take the Bottoms any day.
But Nashville, and more specifically, Ryman Hospitality, needs to fix this. Not everyone will be so daring, and the chance of a tragedy does exist. Open up access. Free the Bottoms.
29 April 2019
Back in my college days, I came back to my dorm one day to find that one of my suite-mates had bought me a copy of The Soul of a New Machine, a book by Tracy Kidder that journals the creation of a new computer at a company called Data General. Bob thought it was a good book that I’d enjoy, and though none in the suite were in the habit of buying each other random gifts, he just did. It was a simple and thoughtful nicety, and I doubt he thought for a moment that I’d end up going to work for that company out of school, which brought me to New England and set my life on a path that resulted in the here and now. The world works in strange and wonderful ways. Thanks, Bob.
Most people don’t run. Most people that run don’t run marathons. Most people that run marathons don’t qualify for Boston. Many, if not most, people who do qualify still don’t run Boston, because they’re scattered throughout the world and most people’s resources are limited.
Relatively easy yes, but not this time. At this year’s Boston, I only closed on half the deal. Mission accom, but no plished – yet. Yes, I made it to the finish line – goal one, so to speak, but no, goal two didn’t happen, I did not chalk up a qualifying time. Oddly though, there was an element of joy even in that, because when the realization sunk in that it wasn’t going to happen, the last few miles took on an entirely different feel that was, in an agonizing sort of way, kinda’ fun.
That realization started just past mile sixteen, just after seeing Dearest Spouse at Newton Lower Falls, when she noticed I was smiling but was wise enough from many iterations of this exercise to know that wasn’t necessarily a reliable indicator. By that point, I had over eleven minutes in the bank, plus or minus, given the vagaries of mental math mutated by marathon miles, but I was already of the realization that it wouldn’t be enough. Climbing the ‘zero-ith hill’ over the freeway bridge, I said as much when Marcos, my acquaintance from the morning (we’ll get to that) pulled alongside. I hadn’t given up by any stretch of the imagination, but when you feel it, you feel it. I’d be taking walk breaks by eighteen, and that eleven minutes, built up mile by mile over the first half which had gone swimmingly, evaporated ridiculously rapidly.
A lot has been said about the warmth this year, especially in the second half. In truth, it was the humidity. Even back in 2012, when temperatures soared to the high eighties, the humidity stayed April-style reasonable. This time, even the low 60s overcast start came with nearly full humidity. I was sweating considerably by mile one. I was in heat mode from the start – every water station, a couple of sips, and over the head with the rest (though the ironic combination of low morning temperatures and no sun for the first half made those cooling pours shockingly cold, every single time). When the sun came out full bore around mile sixteen – right around the time I knew my cake was baked – the book had been written. Despite popping electrolytes, both calves went into tic-spasms, threatening to go full-on disaster mode lock-up cramp, forcing me to back off even when the rest of the body relented from its complaining and hinted I might be able to pick it up. So yeah, the warmth was a big factor (and I note, those out later caught the next weather front and instead had to deal with cold, go figure…) but the bottom line is that this came unraveled because of poor training and poor fitness. Mother Nature was an accessory to the crime, but this one was all mine.
Not that there was a lot I could have done about that. Injuries and other medical issues gave this winter a Superfund designation of toxic disaster. My total mileage for the first quarter barely exceeded some of the months I’ve turned in over the years. While ironically, the parts that worried me going in actually held up pretty well in the race, plenty of other parts rose (or fell, as the case may be) to take their place.
Having seen just about everything that Marathon Monday can dish out, this year we were treated to a new twist in the form of lines of thunderstorms, not the mild kind, but the sky ablaze with fireworks kind, that seared my ride to Hopkinton into the memory banks. Having been invited by clubmates to join them at the center for the charity they supported (the Michael Lisnow Respite Center, a fine organization worthy of your support), I traded in a couple extra hours of sleep for an earlier departure to get to the comfort of a roof and real bathrooms a quarter-mile from the center of town – and a front-row seat to the early-morning dousing and light show. As we wended toward Hopkinton through torrential downpours, visions of last year’s swim hung like dread, though the air was much warmer. Later I’d learn that runners were shunted from the eternal mud-pit of the Athlete’s Village into the high school – a first – due to the storm, and rather ironic since in the days leading up to the race, the Boston Athletic Association tried to sucker me into paying extra for such a privilege. But by race time, the rain had passed, the skies almost hinted at clearing, and spirits rose along with the humidity.
Coming to the start from a house in a different direction than the Village, a house that had been filled with mostly wave three and four charity runners, was an entirely odd experience. When one of the few wave-two runners I’d met there, Marcos, opted to stay back to run with his friend in wave three (he’d later change his mind and we’d meet up briefly, remember him at mile sixteen?) I just left the house and walked east alone, no announcements, no fanfare, no crowds. With wave one loaded and leaving as I approached and only a few stragglers hurrying down from the Village, there was no human wave, just eerie calm. If I hadn’t met up with a local woman while we weaseled through security and walked together up the hill to our corral, it would have been an entirely solo affair. We were, in fact, the first people to re-enter corral three after wave one left, so we intentionally stepped in together to give us both the bragging rights of being first – certainly the only first I’ll ever earn at Boston.
Interlude: The people you meet. Somehow I discovered that the woman marshalling corral three was a tennis friend of the best man from my wedding. The world works in strange and wonderful ways. Back to the tale.
All momentum was gone by the top of the first hill. Eight miles to go is far too soon for that tipping point. By the time a friend offered me pickle juice – yes, I know some people are into this, but not me (thanks anyway, Adam) – around nineteen, I was struggling, though still holding hope that the bank account might still let me eke out next year’s qualifier. But seemingly each time those thoughts came around, the calves would start to cramp again (despite the electrolytes I’d periodically popped) and the air would come out of the balloon again. Once over Heartbreak, I pretty much knew the BQ was gone, and I decided that if any Boston College student was offering a brew, I’d take it. Sadly, that did not occur.
By Beacon Street it was Game Over. For only the second time in my thirteen Bostons, the other being the year I’d just had my foot surgically repaired, I got to the space of It Just Doesn’t Matter. I walked when I felt like it. So what? I smiled and waved and joked with encouraging spectators. Why not? I looked left and right and saw scenery I’d never noticed. Why’d it take me so long to do that? And when I got to the (brilliantly orchestrated) pedestrian crossings that my local Highland City Striders club was operating at miles twenty-three and twenty-four,
After one last walk on Hereford Street, I made sure I was running around that last fabled corner (way too many overpriced race photographers there to do otherwise) and settled in to jog it out. But in a last burst of pride, I noticed that a ten-minute increment was creeping closer on my watch, and, despite being in the ‘purely for the joy of it’ zone, that racing brain kicked back in and told me I’d be less than happy with myself if I let the clock tick over. One final burst down Boylston brought it home with seven seconds to spare – against a meaningless number of course, but hey…
As for Boston 2020, at the moment I am out. I’ve got another marathon planned in a few weeks and another chance to snag a qualifying time, but if the couple of weeks since the race are any indication, my chances, quite frankly, don’t look so good. My body is just not happy these days. There’s always the charity route, and though I loathe the idea of hitting up my friends, if I thought that this was a temporary thing and that a big recovery loomed, I might consider if for a year. Frankly, I don’t, so I probably won’t. And as I’ve stated earlier, if the streak ends here, it has been a hell of a ride, and I’m good with that.
Here’s a little explanation on qualifying for Boston, and how it’s different when you’ve got a ten-year streak going.
It’s well known that you must run a certain time in a qualifying marathon to gain entry to Boston, and that your qualifying time, or “BQ”, varies by gender and age. But owing to the popularity of the race, there are many more BQs than can be accommodated. To avoid the typical rush like what happens every time a block of tickets opens up for Hamilton on Broadway, the Boston Athletic Administration devised a creative and fair solution. Simplifying the story a bit, once everyone who wants entry has registered, they rank entrants by how far each is ahead of their own BQ, then fill the available slots from the top down, biggest gap of actual versus BQ wins. An old guy like me can get in if I’m five minutes ahead of my BQ, whereas a young guy who ran considerably faster than me still might not if he was only one minute ahead of his BQ. In the years since this system was devised, the gap, or the cut-off, needed to gain entry grew so much – this year it was close to five minutes – that the BAA just shifted the qualifying times down by five minutes across the board for next year. That just brought reality into the process for the typical applicant, but for us ten-year people who weren’t subject to the cut-off, we just found our qualifying standards tightened by five minutes, because there’s another piece to the puzzle. Once you’ve completed ten consecutive Bostons, you’re given the opportunity to register early and skip the cut-off. We ten-year folks can get in just by making it on the nose. This was a big advantage when the cut-off grew large. Now that the qualifying times have dropped across the board, our reality has caught up with everyone else – for now. Chances are good that even with the new standards, the cut-off will grow again.