27 April 2016
This was a war of attrition, and I knew it early on. By mid-race, I had already fallen into a mantra, seconds for miles, seconds for miles, seconds for miles. If that makes no sense, realize that’s not exactly what I was grunting to myself, just the template. I was in math survival mode early on: how many seconds I had in the bank to be spread over how many miles remaining, all with the aim of slipping down Boylston Street with another coveted two-colon-anything Boston finishing time.
At my stride cadence of about one-eighty, a breath per three strides (yes, after enough miles and with a high enough OCD rating, you figure this out), dropping each numeric value into two breaths, grunting out the status like, “Sixty…Nine…For-Two…Point-Two”, I’d remind myself about fifteen times a minute where I stood. Would I ever be able to mail it in? Or, more likely, how much margin of error did I have to just squeak it out?
At twenty four, it looked good. My example above was real: Sixty-nine for two-point-two. That sixty-nine seconds I had in the bank was down from somewhere north of one-eighty, but even after the hills had taken their inevitable toll, well, sixty-nine was pretty healthy. Give the nine to the last point two of a mile, the precise math on that part being more than my overheated brain cared to deal with, and with sixty left over that’d be a generous buffer of thirty seconds per mile, or the hint that holding seven-twenties would bring me home with a few seconds to spare.
But just a few minutes later, at twenty-five-point-two, when the cowbells clang gloriously and incessantly and someone perpetually announces, “One mile to go!” my watch inexplicably decreed that I had nothing in the bank. Zilch. Zip. Zero. Say what? If nothing else, I’m usually pretty accurate on mental timekeeping. This was a mark on me. How’d I screw that one up?
I didn’t make it in time. Eighteen seconds separated me from another notch in the two column. My math had failed me. Friends would later console me on the near miss, but it wasn’t even my closest near-miss – that one came five years back when the gap was only seven seconds. But really, I didn’t care. Given the day it was – a day described by one of my fellow race-day journalers as “sneaky hot”, a day not nearly so bad as the 2012 Bake-Fest but, similar to that year, a day when most of my compatriots saw ten, twenty, or even more minutes added to their expectations, three-colon-very-little was just fine with me.
You know you’re in for a tough one when you’re sweating while standing still in the starting corral. The forecasted low sixties start clearly felt closer to seventy before the party started, and with nary a cloud in the sky, and the New England early spring providing no foliage and no shade, ol’ sol had a field day. Seven layers of sunscreen (hey, I just kept slathering it every time it was offered!) kept the red out, but of course did nothing against the baking action. Within a few miles, I was cranking through bodily hydration at an alarming rate.
The forecast promised relief by the time we arrived in Boston, but as is often the case in life, be careful what you wish for. Cooling winds, which typically pick up as you top the hills in Newton, came early and made their presence known by downtown Wellesley. The heat abated, only to be replaced by a stiff headwind that seemed immune to the usual shielding thickness of Boston’s crowded field, somehow always catching me with an unlikely gap between myself and the next nearest tall person. But insidiously worse, like a desert zephyr, that wind carried a drying power far in excess of expectations, sucking moisture from all with dangerous efficiency. Having already enacted my heat strategy of head dousing at each water table, I’d find my hair already dry within a half-mile of each soaking. Only the geeky headband kept some cooling moisture in place.
As expected, all of this added up to a typical slow fade, though playing the experience card helped keep things under control, limiting that fade to an extra minute tacked onto each subsequent ten kilometers. While the desiccating power of the wind was unexpected, I return to my opening statement: This was a war of attrition, and I knew it early on. So besides pulling out the heat management stops, it was a day for math early and math often to stay in the game.
What puzzles me still is where I went wrong. At the halfway point, my bank account seemed to match my split time; showing a healthy balance that held a decent chance of tiding me through the positive second-half split that’s almost inevitable even on a good day on Boston’s course. But from there? Like a forensic accountant, I’ve scrutinized the data. One error was obvious and amateur: I had three hour pace pegged incorrectly in my head by a second. That might not seem like much, but times twenty-six miles, well, you do the math. That accounts for twenty-four of those sixty-nine seconds I thought I had left with two-point-two to go. And mile twenty-five was no gem, making another withdrawal of another twenty-two seconds over three-hour pace. But even that should have left me with twenty-something to spare. Instead, I had nothing.
I’ll never know what went awry, and frankly, it doesn’t matter. Overall, it was a grand day with plenty of good moments that easily overrode the loss of a few minutes thanks to conditions that at least, unlike last year, didn’t threaten us all with hypothermia. And results need to be put into perspective. The local paper runs the results of all runners from the thirty or so towns in its coverage area (though this year they oddly omitted my own burg, burying it the next day in the cheap seats of the back section). The long listing – perhaps four hundred runners (I haven’t counted) – is heavily tilted toward the area’s high concentration of charity runners, so times are typically on the slower side, yet still the smattering of qualified, more competitive runners is easy to spot with a scan through the page. This year’s scan screamed, “Hot!” It’s telling that a mere eight sub-threes graced the page. It’s telling that my overall age-group placing rose from sixty-fourth last year to thirty-fourth this year, despite running over a minute slower, and my overall placing rose likewise. And it’s satisfying that somehow, like that year of the Bake-Fest, I fared fairly well under the sun, bad math and all. Rack it up, Boston number ten, we live to fight another day.
Number Ten! This was my tenth consecutive Boston Marathon, all run as a qualified entrant. Sadly, the days when ten years would grandfather you for life are long gone. Instead, as I understand it, I’m now granted early registration and exemption from the cut-off if my qualifying race barely squeaks in under the qualifying time. So far, I’m ahead of the qualifying standards by enough that neither of these offers a significant benefit, but there may come a time when I’ll be happy to have the bennies.
Welcoming The World: One of the things I love about Boston is the opportunity to welcome the world to my backyard. I love asking people where they’ve travelled from, and responding to their reciprocal request by saying, “Ten miles north of here.” I love being able to offer up course advice to those who’ve never seen the route. And I love hearing runners’ reactions to the course and their experience. This year’s top moment in that category came around the half-mile mark, a favorite spot of mine where you first get a glimpse ahead and can see the endless mass of humanity ahead of you, even when you start near the front of the field. The guy behind me let out a loud, southern, and genuine, “DANG!” I knew instantly what he meant.
New Team: Goodbye Greater Boston red, hello Central Mass Striders blue. The irony is that had I raced in red, I’d have finished second on their masters team and would have again enjoyed seeing my name in the team section of the results book for their fifteenth place finish. Racing in blue, I ranked only fourth for CMS, about a minute outside of the scoring top three, and lost out on that tiny (and I mean tiny) bit of ink. But the non-scoring members of a team are there if someone flags, an important mission, and that support was provided to a far better sixth place finish. Top ten. Cool.
And Finally, Abuse of the Cloth: Admittedly, this story is a bit longer than a tidbit… Avoiding for the moment the issues of security and the lack of baggage checks, it’s a given that you’ll dispose of some clothing before the race. Since our local Salvation Army store closed up, Savers is now the purveyor of choice for “rental clothing” that gets used, tossed, reclaimed, and re-donated, probably to be back on the rack for your next race.
As it turned out, my gang settled on a patch of grass at the Athlete’s Village next to a gentleman who happened to be from Gainesville, Florida, or to translate to people who live in places with hills, a Gators fan. Yes, to him the ‘Noles, as apparently they’re known, were also the enemy. Gleefully he joined me as we rent the offending garment asunder before tacking on a few good stomps as a final insult, then slam dunked it into the nearest waste receptacle, all of this documented by club-mate Dan for the satisfaction of said Floridian niece. Yes, it was a bit wasteful, but hey, it was fun.
14 April 2016
A couple of days after my last race, I was hit by a rather powerful metaphor. No injuries, I’m pleased to report, but it did make for a good lead-in to the tale of that outing.
Dearest Spouse has rightly given up trying to stuff freshly laundered (thanks of course to her) running wear into my overstuffed bureau drawers (which border on explosive failure due to years of race shirt accumulations and expo bargains). The Monday after said latest race, we were treated to half a foot of sticky April snow, which, glued to the roads as slush ice in the twenty-five degree air, made my trip home excruciatingly slow, and thus made the stack of short-sleeve running shirts and shorts she’d left me to stow all the more ironic. There were no cold-weather items in the mix; no long sleeves and no tights, because just three days earlier I was actually getting mosquito bites while chatting with a fellow runner after a warm afternoon rail trail run. The bugs were out, then back to winter. Go figure.
I’d say that’s just New England weather, but this year I’d be echoed with similar chants from just about everywhere. I’ll avoid going political this time and simply call it an observation. That day, having been out since morning and faced with dangerous dimly lit late day road slop, I did at least find the sanity to take a zero and chalk up a rest day of healing. I wasn’t quite so smart that previous weekend, though.
Mankind has spent millennia seeking better shelter and higher levels of comfort. Why is it that we find it so noble, so boast-worthy indeed, to forego these advances which not only make our lives more pleasant but clearly have worked to our advantage on the survival scale? Ah, simple question, simple answer: because we’re runners. Or morons. Or both.
Working backwards from our late season snow day (yes, Dearest Daughter the Younger had a snow day off from school in April), the previous day had been simply manic, starting with another white blanket, warming to melt the coating rapidly, and sucking me into the trap of a seemingly pleasant mid-afternoon run which instead turned into bone chilling squalls and brutal winds. And the day before that was merely hypothermic: rain, wind, and forty; my definition of miserably ugly (you are recalling at this point the short-sleeved laundry and mosquito bites?); or in other words, a perfect day for a race, provided it was reasonably short, and with ample shelter available thereafter. Fortunately, the Frank Nealon Boston Tune-Up met both of those criteria: at fifteen kilometers, not short by many folks’ standards, but not long enough to bring on serious exposure, and blessed by a toasty warm high school cafeteria base camp ringed by the elixir of the gods, hot soup.
To give you an idea of how attractive a day it was, two of my club-mates came to the race, looked at the weather, decided that since their target summer race in Quebec includes huge staircases, they elected to just stay indoors and run the school stairwells. Smart people, they, but the rest of us wandered out to prove to the world how much disdain we held for shelter, warmth, and comfort.
Having already decided I’d humor my local club critics and wear local club green for this one (no, they’re not serious critics, but I have taken on some good-natured ribbing for running a nearly local race in my racing club colors, rather than my local club colors, over the years), I’d forgotten that my local club shirt came from a generation back when tech shirts checked in with the thickness of light steel plate. Looking at the race photos, I’d guess to have been carrying an extra five pounds just in the shirt, stretching into an elasticized sail of numbing proportions. It’s a special feeling when your shorts are so glued to you that, well, need I really describe that part?
Upton is a reasonably challenging course, studded with rolling hills that always exceed my recollection of the previous year’s pain. Even splits aren’t a reasonable expectation. And to be fair, the race’s title, “Tune Up”, reflects the reality that this effort is only two weeks prior to the Big Show in Boston, so this race is, to my mind, the official start of the taper (not that I’ve ever been good at that maneuver). In short, blowing out everything isn’t a goal. But while an adrenalin-fueled quick first mile isn’t something to get uptight about, this time that quick first mile wasn’t really all that quick and it was followed by a progressive fade to moderately so-so at best, if not so-so by the actual splits, then so-so by feeling far less than All Powerful. Holding ninth at the mile, I’d lose six places, one of those with only a quarter mile to go, usually my time of strength, and regain only one for a fourteenth place overall finish. Not bad, but uninspiring.
But this was, after all, a tune-up, and if nothing else, it was a hard outing in a training cycle that‘s been fine on quantity but short on quality. I have to remind myself that age grading matters; the count of sun cycles does keep increasing. More so, I can’t expect to feel rocket-powered every day, so let’s get that day of struggle out of the way now before Patriot’s Day arrives.
Besides, how does that phrase go? A so-so day at the races beats…? And even a bunch of foolish drenched rats who have shunned modern comforts can be made happy with soup.
Photos courtesy of Ted Tyler via JimRhodes.com
31 March 2016
Thirty years ago, barely a year out of college, watching New England real estate prices spiral out of control, I somewhat wrongly concluded that if I didn’t get into the market soon, I might never be able to do so, and might be forced to abandon my Bay State beachhead for the more affordable environs of my Upstate New York homeland. Accordingly, I stretched my shaky finances to purchase my first home in a town north of Worcester. Now, in those pre-Internet days, you looked things up the old-fashioned way. It happened that my trusty paper atlas listed the population of said town at five thousand nine hundred and ninety nine. I had no idea how that number was arrived at, but since the place I bought was vacant, I always considered myself to be Resident Number Six Thousand, nicely completing the set in a way.
How, you ask, does this have anything to do with running, especially running as an old fart?
About four and a half years ago I received an email that changed the course of this human’s events. Shock and awe was a good description of my reaction when I was invited to run with the Greater Boston Track Club. Years of great adventures followed. Prior to that invitation, I had no idea that the National Club Cross Country Championships even existed, let along any concept that I’d be allowed in the door to toe the line in anything labelled National. GBTC put me in the ring with great opportunities, great people, and great times. But GBTC, while welcoming to us old folks, now has its heart focused on youthful talent. I hold no ill will over that; it is what it is. But I opted to seek out a team with focus on those with eyes that don’t necessarily focus so well anymore.
After a little shopping, I signed on this month with the Central Mass Striders racing team. Whereas GBTC is entirely a competitive club, CMS has a split personality, half (the large half) being a general purpose genial bunch of runners (who share many bonds with my hometown Highland City Striders), the other half comprising the competitive racing team. Like most area teams, its players come from a wide swath of New England, so I wasn’t deluding myself that I’d have a full team of fast guys to work out with on a regular basis. But CMS’ heart is indeed in based in Worcester, and a lot of the fun is indeed centered there. At heart, despite living between the much-more-recognizable metropolis of Boston and the second-city world of Worcester, I’ve always identified more with the latter. So frankly, signing on with CMS felt like coming home.
Now about that number six thousand thing: My introduction to CMS came in the form of an email from our team leader which, while incidentally introducing me to the group, was sent to list our teams for the upcoming Grand Prix series race, the New Bedford Half Marathon, which would be my first wearing the new colors. To score as a team, you need five runners. So imagine my delight when the list of our seniors was comprised of…five: four existing CMS guys, and me. Now as it turns out, there were in fact more CMS seniors than appeared in that email. But I wouldn’t know that till after the race. So far as I was concerned, I’d just put them over the top in having a full scoring senior team. I completed the set in a way. Kind of like moving into that new townhouse so many years ago, only better. Welcome home, you’re needed. Motivating, I’d say.
New Bedford arrived on one of those borderline days. A bit colder than comfortable without wearing the warm stuff, but not so cold that wearing warm stuff would be socially acceptable among the racing set. And windy, complicating the environmentals a bit more. On a day like that, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it, you still can’t remember – or decide – the optimal combination of gear. I dithered. Layers? Shorts? Tights? Even shoes (I’ve amassed an odd assortment of racing shoes, yet none have truly lit my fire). I found myself traipsing back and forth between the parking garage and the YMCA (Race Central) numerous times before settling on a kit, when it occurred to me that in all this kerfuffle, I’d forgotten to leave my warm-up pants (certainly not a starting-line disposable item) at the car, resulting in yet another trot to the garage.
While all of this probably enhanced my warm-up, it left me trying to slip into the starting corral mere minutes before the gun, a risky move in a race this large. They’d shut down the option to enter the corral from the front, and we late-comers were directed around the block, bringing us to the chute – lined with an unbroken fence – far behind the starting line. We managed to squeeze through the fence, but I still needed to fight my way forward. New Bedford is a good-sized race – there would be about twenty-five hundred finishers that day – and team scoring is based on the gun, not net time, so every step behind the line can cost. By dumb luck I found myself in the shadow of one of my new teammates who made an excellent blocker, steering me to a reasonable balance between not being buried by the crowd and not being buried by the intensely competitive Grand Prix field. When the gun sounded, it was a mere twelve seconds to hit the course.
Did I mention this was New England Grand Prix? Of course I did, and though I’ve expounded on the seemingly unreal level of competition in Grand Prix events before, I need to expound on it again…because it’s unreal. At my advanced age, I don’t expect to be heading up the field in anything outside of a local romp, so it’s no surprise to see a solid stream of competitors ahead of me from the start. But let’s put this in perspective. By the time this thing ended, I’d be within about a minute of my all-time best, which, while it won’t win medals in Rio, isn’t too shabby (and of course there will be no half marathon in Rio, but I digress…). The day before, there had been another half marathon in Ashland, town number two on the Boston route. In that race of about five hundred, about a fifth the size of New Bedford, my time would have placed me ninth, in the top two percent (yes, different course, more hills, but less wind, a fair comparison). But at New Bedford, I rolled in at number two hundred and twelve. Yes, two hundred and eleven people ahead of me running what most would consider a smoking half, leaving me only in the top nine percent. So being about twelve seconds off the starting line was, frankly, entirely appropriate; any further forward and I might have become Flat Stanley.
I hit the mile in a split that could make me nervous, especially considering the traffic I’d fought and thus the extra effort it took to nail that time. And yet there was a sea of humanity in front of me. I picked off a few of them in the hills of miles two and three, traded with a few through the middle miles, and lost a few slots later, notably to a pod of a half-dozen or so and to The Brit, my training and travelling partner, who eclipsed me around seven just as the legendary late-course wind picked up. But from there, I’d only move up, picking off a few, one-by-one, through the late miles.
My brain wasn’t working well on pacing. For some reason my head kept measuring the remaining miles against a target of eleven, not thirteen, and I really had no bearing on what splits related to what finishing times. All I could mentally muster was to count seconds in the bank below an hour-thirty pace, since that’s half of three-hour marathon pace. Knowing I’d hoped to subdue that mark fairly significantly, it was comforting to know that my bank account was growing even in the tough windy miles; still, a little more brainpower could have gone a long way.
Instead, after mile eight’s momentary downwind letup, that brainpower was engaged in scanning for a moving wind block as we turned east and then north for the upwind ride along the white-capped sea. The block I found was moving slower than I’d have wished, but a little back-of-the-envelope cogitation told me I’d be better off slacking the next mile and getting half of it paid for than trying to fight it out solo. My unwitting target caught on quickly to the plan and turned witting, and we traded off air resistance abuse duty till things calmed down by coming ashore through the seawall gates. It was a bit of a Faustian bargain, but well worth it.
Rounding a bend, there it was. And? I laughed in its general direction. I offered it no respect. I began shouting – yes, shouting – to tell it, to tell those runners around me, to tell the world that you are not a hill. You are a mere bunny slope. And I proceeded to slay it, dropping my pace down to early race levels, mentally finding the power to drive right though it such that when the last turns arrived just before the finish, my form – at least to me – seemed utterly shot, all energy spent just at the right time (though the professional race photo that I actually paid for just to get a good shot in the new CMS Blue still looked pretty good). No point in leaving it on the course, right?
As a team, we didn’t win. We didn’t come close. Fifth place, in fact, and that twelve seconds delay to the start that I’d worried about had no consequence whatsoever. But our fifth would have been at least seventh without my grunting, wheezing roll across the line in a time that, on an age-graded basis, ranked as my best half, and slotted me a solid number two for the Boys in Blue. More importantly for me was the simple fact that we actually had a seniors team, a real-live full scoring team, a team that someone organized and made an effort to fill out. That was, in a word, cool. And motivating.
Follow-Up Department: Yes, the clamshells arrived! Shell Number Six now stands in honor with its compatriots in the cluttered realm that is my office, my lair, and my lonely writer’s garret. Someday I must meet the artist, these things really are nicely done!
14 March 2016
Wait for it…
Wait for it…
The clamshells have yet to arrive, though unlike the Eugene Half Marathon’s never fulfilled promise of award-by-mail delivery (you think I’ve forgotten?…think again!), I have faith that those prized hand-painted quahog trophies will arrive any day now. Victory Number Six is in the books, even if it took hours to discover that it wasn’t nearly as hard to notch as we’d anticipated and even if we – as yet – have nothing to show for it.
Winter in New England means it’s time to plod to Hyannis for the only thing that happens on the Cape between the Cape Cod Marathon and spring. Blown away by last year’s absurd concentration of blizzards, the Hyannis Festival of Oh So Many Events returned this year and broke out on a day oh-so-typical of this year’s Quasi-Winter, that is, it was barely winter at all. Brilliant sunshine and mild air made for a far more inviting than usual day to bask with over two dozen of my local club mates, though the weather’s racing-worthiness was another matter, sporting the fiercest winds I can recall in my six trips to the party. But wind or not, traditions must go on. And the real challenge, frankly, is how to tell the story of number six in a way that makes you, dear reader, want to relive this dream yet one more time.
But this year Captain Dan answered a higher calling, abandoning his squad for the allure of finishing his sixth world majors marathon in Tokyo. Seriously? Tokyo over Hyannis in the winter? Admittedly he scored the bigger adventure, and I scored the temporary management of a team of…nobody. Not one returnee. Other than myself, starting from scratch. [Ed Note: Man Number Two doth protest said recollection and reminds me that Captain Dan did pursue him, so no, technically I wasn’t starting entirely from scratch. While Number Two did indeed have Hyannis experience, this was his initiation to the Men’s Masters team. PolitiFact would rate it “Mostly True” but certainly not “Pants on Fire”!] But how hard should it be to find three old guys in our ever-growing club? How about three reasonably fast old guys who would alleviate Captain Dan’s fear that we *gasp* might not retain our crown? How about three reasonably fast old guys whom I could convince really were reasonably fast?
The first part wasn’t hard. The second, only moderately (though alleviating Captain Dan’s fears was somewhat tougher). The third took some work. I’ll swear on your favorite book of faith that I plugged in only the estimated paces that my new teammates offered up themselves, but by race day you’d have thought I put them up to facing off against Galen Rupp. Clearly the weight of Captain Dan’s potential wrath bore down on them; the fear of his everlasting scorn should he return from the Land of the Rising Sun to learn that our streak was broken. As for me, I took the stance I take every year: if someone showed up who really wanted it, we’d have a rough go; if not, it’s clamshell time. Some years it’s been a contest. Others, not so much. This one, it would turn out, was one of those others, but it would take a while to figure that out.
Hanging at the exchange zone for my traditional third leg there didn’t seem to be many old dudes in sight, but appearances can be deceiving; I’d be pouring it onto the course and taking no chances. To my delight, our Number Two Man flew into the zone ahead of forecast in what I thought was – and kicked myself later for not being certain – a surprising fifth place. Not bad for our first two old guys, not bad at all. And nobody in front of them looked remotely old.
I’d conservatively plugged in my own forecast pace at twenty seconds slower per mile than my ten mile leg at Mill Cities back in December. Politics aside, conservatism can be a good thing. The wind, always present at Hyannis and almost always to the disadvantage of legs one and three, outdid itself. Save for about a mile and a half early on, this one was an epic battle against that one key element. And while it was nice to take the stick near the leaders, the lonely sparseness of the front offered no drafting opportunities. I picked off three relay teams and a bunch of full marathoners, handed off to Anchor Man Peter, and then realized I’d merely made my conservative pace – ironically within one second total over seven miles – yet feeling demolished as if I’d run a world record.
Remarkably, other than our Number Two, who, enjoying the downwind segment, clipped about a minute off his forecast, the rest of us had astoundingly accurate days like mine: Number One coming within eight seconds of plan, and Anchor Man, who’d been the most nervous about his prediction and his contribution to the team, arriving two seconds ahead of schedule. Consider: three of the four legs within eight seconds of forecast – not per mile but for the entire legs. Now if that ain’t planning, well…
We rolled in a few minutes shy of three hours, good enough to win it most years, but no guarantee. Anchor Man knew he’d lost one relay place (which would have put us third overall if my counting was right) but was fairly certain it wasn’t to an ancient. We thought we had title number six, but with the mayhem of multiple events, you just can’t be certain, and the team results always tend to be the last to arrive…so…
Wait for it…
Wait for it…
The first sign of trouble came when the race director called us up to verify we were, in fact, a masters team. That was odd, because he knows us. He’s awarded us clamshells many times before, and even noted our repetitive dominance when he’s called out our victories. For him, it turned out, this was just a sanity check, verifying that what he was seeing, what knew was wrong, was indeed wrong.
The second sign of trouble came when our phones buzzed with the automatic emailed results that put our team in fifth place overall and listed our age as zero – yep, zero. While I kicked myself for not counting more carefully at the exchange zone, I was pretty sure that fifth was highly unlikely.
Confirmation of trouble came minutes later, when said race director officially threw up his hands. Somehow every relay team was misclassified, every placing was mistaken, every division was just plain missed up (yes, that was intentional – to paraphrase Jeb!, please groan). Rather than trying to unsort the debris on the fly, he apologetically promised to ship our awards and offered up a generous “I’m sorry” bonus for next year. Though disappointing to ourselves and many other teams, I applauded his decision to get it right rather than get it fast.
Wait for it…
Wait for it…
…for only a brief few hours, till the wreckage was cleaned up and the truth was posted online by the evening. Yes, our counting was right, third overall – even amongst the young’uns – highly pleasing to a bunch of old farts. And yes, another masters division win for the home team, number six. The only surprise was our lack of competition. All that concern, all that angst, and the other team? (Yes, it turned out there were only two in our division – go figure.) Over an hour behind us.
Needless to say, we needn’t have worried, but you never know. And having to wait that much longer to find out made the result that much more pleasing. After all, instant gratification is for sprinters.
20 February 2016
Elvis has been in my head the last few days. Not that Elvis, but the other one, the important one, the Costello one, mostly as a result of the cool box set given by Dearest Spouse this Christmas. Specifically in the last few days it’s been The Angels Wanna’ Wear My Red Shoes, and as of Thursday, they’ve got ‘em. The bright red Puma Ignites, which served so well in the recent holiday season (nothing says Christmas better than cruising the city in that red winter running top, white gloves, Santa cap, and…yes, those bright red shoes) have been retired, relegated to that great shoe bin in the sky, where if the angels want ‘em, they can have ‘em, and yes, they can wear ‘em.
Angels can do that; they don’t get injured, but I do. So along with all the other things OCD that occupy my days, my mileage tracking spreadsheet, accounting for every workout for the last eleven years, automatically tracks the mileage on each pair of shoes. Five hundred miles and they’re out. It’s all about avoiding injury, staying healthy, staying alive, and it gets tougher every year. Worn shoes are just one of the risks in the twisted path we weave between the hazards of daily training when the body is of the age where many have given up on it.
It’s been a solid month since Yours Truly last checked in. I don’t burn your time when there isn’t excitement on the marquee. Certainly there have been plenty of odd topics, like this quasi-winter’s absurd weather (brought to you courtesy of the Climate Deniers of America), fun running events locally (often involving donuts, pizza, beer, guacamole, or a combination thereof) and in the running world in general (nothing beats a gang of running nerds gathered to watch the Olympic Trials marathon on a big screen – I love my people!), but primarily it’s been a Month of Sundays, a time to back off and work to get a bit healthier for the coming racing season. My version of backing off is, of course, a bit different from that of the general public.
A few days ago I received an invitation to from a writer seeking to pen a profile of a fifty-plus area athlete who’d met with reasonable competitive success. Admitting to resembling the profile, I sat down with Jan and her husband Peter. Jan, an athlete herself who has profiled athletes of far greater caliber than I (and with a book on childhood obesity to her name to boot cited by none other than Michelle Obama), combined with Peter, an exercise physiologist who’s seen the gamut of human activity levels from athlete to slug, to bring an interesting slant to our discussion. We chatted at length about the realities of staying active and fit while aging, and of the public’s perception of normal compared to that of an athlete.
All of this begs the question: What is normal? What is healthy? What should one’s goals realistically be when barreling headlong toward the mid-fifties (not there yet, but as Meg Ryan said of forty in When Harry Met Sally, “It’s out there!”)? You can listen to the conventional view, but I highly recommend against it. Then again, are my own expectations realistic?
The conventional view is a pathetic commercial pitching overpriced low-dose aspirin (you can buy the cheap generic ones and split them for about a tenth of the cost) where a fiftyish man jogs by and is then seen writhing on the ground having a heart attack. Pleasant. And what a message! Exercise will kill you, take a pill.
The conventional view is that during the recent snowstorm in Washington DC, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County Maryland Fire/EMS Department urged people over fifty and those with heart conditions to get someone else to do their snow shoveling. You’ve got a heart condition? That’s good advice. But you’re merely over fifty? Are you kidding? Pick up a shovel! But Peter (remember Peter, the exercise physiologist?) quickly inserted into the conversation the reality that ninety percent of the public does nothing to better their state of health. He sees the public, he would know. And if you haven’t picked up that shovel before, well, perhaps it might just kill you to do so when a blizzard has landed on your front lawn. But you’ve got to start somewhere, right?
The conventional view is this year’s edition of the Corporate Wellness Program, brought to you by Mighty Employer and Big Health Insurance Company, in a well-meaning but vain attempt to goad people into starting somewhere. I’ve opined on the absurdity of these programs before. Sure, I recognize the need, but the methods are ineffective and just plain silly. How silly? Well, I’m glad you asked, because this year’s redesigned program is worthy of a few pot shots, and in anticipation of taking those shots, I took a few screen shots. So let’s have some fun at the expense of naïve web copywriters, then get back to the topic at hand. Let’s get started!
Oh, I can’t wait. The excitement is killing me. Or perhaps it’s just lack of exercise? Or perhaps it’s the pages upon pages upon pages of blather that I must click through (the stress will kill me soon enough, or at least the carpal tunnel), and periodically I’m challenged with toughies like this one:
I’ve left out the fine print, but each of these is described in detail, and trust me, they’re not terribly challenging. My favorite is the last one, “Inconvenient path”, which suggests finding the longest possible route from your car, to the bathroom, and so on. Longest possible route? Gee, I hope my employer will support this, because I’d suggest getting to my office via the Appalachian Trail. Oh, but wait…the fine print…the challenge is for a mere five days. *sigh*
On we go on our journey. I started this column talking about injury prevention, so it was great to see the program try to educate me on the topic. And you know what? I go this one wrong!
Silly me. In my book, none of these are injuries. An injury means you broke something, tore something, well, you injured it. And not only are these not injuries, three out of four aren’t even common. I sure hope, other than in that pathetic aspirin commercial, heart attacks aren’t that common Just imagine, “In last weekend’s marathon, five thousand ran, six hundred went down with heart attacks!” So I picked dehydration, and guess what? Wrong! It’s all of the above! This makes the fact that this next panel popped up immediately afterward even more special:
Yes, that’s right folks, right after warning you that heart attacks are a dime a dozen, they want to start you off doing high-intensity intervals. Now, that sounds like a great idea.
The insanity continued at length, including gems like this one:
…to which I was oh-so-tempted to just say no, and it’s worth noting that on many of these questions, they’d immediately ask you on the next page, “So, did you improve your diet?” as if those six months had magically passed in the tragically long time it took their web server to deliver the next pearl of wisdom. And finally, I’ll leave you with this one:
…which is sort of like saying, “Do you think you’ll get healthier if you keep smoking meth?” If you didn’t choose option two, let’s face it, you should return your Adult Card and just give up now.
All fun aside, these kinds of programs think they are dead serious and shine a frightful bright light into the conventional view of health, exercise, and general fitness. And it’s not pretty. So who am I to complain that my knees get sore, I feel achy and stiff, I’m not as strong on things like squats as I was years ago, and so on. Sure, I complain, and then I go out and run to the next town and back.
Who I am is someone who doesn’t accept the conventional view. And while I don’t think that others need go to the extremes that I and some of my convoluted friends do, I’d suggest that most of them shouldn’t be accepting the conventional view either.
Inspired after the interview, thinking about aging and staying fit, I extended my planned fourteen miler to twenty-one, and while I faded a bit late in the run (not unexpected having eaten a grand total of two bagels all day, I brought no supplies intending to train the body to compensate), I still managed a better pace than any of my long runs leading up to last fall’s Mohawk Hudson romp. Apparently I’m not dead yet, no matter what the conventional view would like me to believe.
So while I can’t really expect aged joints to stop feeling aged, and I can’t expect to burn tar off the roads like a thirty-something, there’s really no reason not to hold on to expectations of continued competitiveness, at least for the time being. I’ll keep rotating my shoes, keep reminding myself to pop in a few squats and stretches between gym outings, and keep doing whatever I can to keep moving, like spending the last day in a fit of renewed vigor planning racing for the coming season.
That’s not the conventional approach by any means. C’mon along for the ride. We’ve got donuts.
18 January 2016
Not only did last year vanish in a rapidly moving puff of smoke, but we’ve already burned off thirty percent of this year’s Sixty-Day Challenge, leaving spring, by my definition, a mere forty-two days away. I’ve spent the last couple weeks backing off mileage and intensity to let my disturbingly achy aged knees heal up a bit. But before getting to that break, there was abuse to be done.
I’ve made reference throughout the past year to a rather foolish annual mileage goal, and if I’ve stuck to my guns as closely as I intended, I’ve never identified just what it was. That was an outgrowth of my ‘no trash talk’ policy, or in short, if you don’t make a big deal about something you’re chasing, it doesn’t become a big deal when it doesn’t come about. But the time has come to reveal that way back in January of last year, I set a goal of logging three thousand miles in the calendar year.
To put that in perspective, my buds at Level Renner recently polled their readership on last year’s annual mileage, and my number towered over some but shrunk to irrelevance next to others. In short, the absolute number – and I try to avoid absolute numbers in this column – holds relevance to me and me alone. Comparing it to anyone else is meaningless, not to mention just plain wrong. Comparing it to what I’d previously been able to pack into twelve months – which was about a hundred and fifty lower – was all that mattered to me. And, let’s face it, it was a nice round number.
Last January I was coming off two months of near total rest, working hard not to work hard in hopes of healing up another pesky Achilles flair-up. Deciding to come off that and average two-fifty a month was rather audacious, stupid, or both, but decide I did. I just didn’t tell anyone. There were plenty of things that could stop that effort in its tracks. Like the blizzards that commenced in late January, which limited both that month and the next to two hundred each, which sounds like plenty until you consider that I was immediately a hundred miles behind.
Catching up a hundred miles, when you need to average about eight and a third a day, turned out rather more difficult than I’d expected. It wasn’t till the end of August that I’d truly caught up, at which point I needed to take a week off in to heal up again, thereby putting me right back in the hole. By late in the year, it was, to be completely transparent, getting a bit tedious, but I was too close to making it to even consider letting it go.
As fall marathon season turned to winter and my spreadsheets inexorably counted down to the magic number, a couple interesting opportunities arose that offered a fitting way to close out the quest and open up the following year with a statement, that statement being that while I had no intention of replicating three thousand, I wasn’t dead either. My Squannacook friends lit me up on their “Groton Marathon”, the third rendition of their casual event held the Sunday after Christmas, and about the same time I was reminded of Gary Allen’s tradition of running the Boston Marathon on New Year’s Day – at six AM! – this one in its twelfth year. So… two marathons in six days, the first coinciding with the three-thousand mile mark if I timed things right, the second smacking open the new year in grand style if in fact on very little sleep. Crazy, yes, but sounded grand.
So was it a marathon? The gang sided on yes, and it was hard to argue otherwise. But days later it seemed silly to put it in the permanent race log. After all, I haven’t logged shorter races, even “conventional” events, where I’ve intentionally turned in a casual slog, often to accompany a friend or family member. But on the third hand, Boston 2009 was an intentional casual slog following foot surgery, and it counted. So? There’s really no right answer, but I’m calling it a run, not a race.
Six AM is cold, dark, and eerily quiet on the morning after the world celebrates. Running into the sunrise through deserted streets adds a dimension to Boston few have seen. Again casual, though casual this time dropped us on Boylston Street over a half an hour quicker than the last one despite several lengthy pit stops. And yes, this time, in subsequent days I could tell I’d run a marathon. But if we’d decreed that it didn’t count, I couldn’t bring myself to say that Groton did.
I’m OK with that. It doesn’t have to fall into any category to appreciate that despite my complaints, aches, pains, and so on, it’s nice to know you can just go out and run a couple for whatever reason. On with the year.
26 December 2015
One might say I get around. Life is short, there’s no need to always hang with the same crowd, though doing otherwise does result in a crowded dance card. But life’s also a balance, so I try to keep space on that card for events from the various clubs with which I’m affiliated. That means sometimes racing in Highland City Strider green, sometimes racing in Greater Boston red, and occasionally donning the Squannacook River Runners’ blue fish when I can offer a boost, such as is the case for the Mill Cities Relay.
Mill Cities, twenty-eight miles over five legs from Nashua to Lawrence, is at its core a contest for bragging rights. It’s a closed competition for a geographically select group of clubs with a complicated (though entirely logical and perfectly suited) scoring system engineered to identify the Top Dog Alpha Male of the running clubs of the Merrimack Valley. And believe me, there are some pretty heavy hitters in the fray.
Getting back to that Mill Cities scoring system, the key is that while quality is key, quantity matters too. Going up against clubs that run in elite circles, Squannacook isn’t likely to be in the running for the top prize, a truly artful (and heavy) steam-punk style trophy built of antique mill gears. But each team entered in each of the many divisions racks up points, so the more the merrier, and the Squannies make a big deal about turning out as many club members and teams as possible. So while this is a fun event with great people, I also figure that jumping in is a boost to this great club who so generously host their terrific post-Boston Marathon party every year and welcome me as family, despite my relatively infrequent appearances in their midst.
At Mill Cities, the top three teams in each division win a coveted brick, yes, a real brick, supposedly recovered from a New England mill (though I can’t vouch for that level of authenticity) and adorned with a fine engraved plaque. The last time I ran this event I joined with a Squannie co-ed team and yes, we managed to brick (in this event, bricking is a verb). This time however, despite being paired with the best the Squannies had to offer, our “Fire Eatin’ Fish” were competing in the men’s masters division, always one of the toughest groups. Our chances of landing a brick were slim to none, and we didn’t disappoint. No brick was to be in our future, though our solid finish as the fastest Squannie Fish was a mark of pride.
The last time I ran this race three years back, I’d run the opening leg, a five-point-four mile segment that started with what we called the “Scooby-Doo start” on black ice that seemed to make our legs spin without much actual motion. That day, too, expecting no great outcome (though we did, as previously noted, end up bricking), I’d run an unofficial personal best at the five mile split, if a split is to be trusted – a best that still unofficially stands. This time, conditions were notably better – ideal, in fact, sunny, fortyish, and windless – and just about the same thing happened.
This year I’d volunteered for the fourth and longest leg, a nine-and-a-half mile stretch from Lowell to Methuen. I’d given the club an attainable though aggressive predicted pace. But with recent aches and pains, that prediction was looking rather daunting. And with my leg following a short and quick two-and-a-half mile leg leading into Lowell, the team would have little time after dropping our man to get me to the next exchange zone, so just getting warmed up and loose – all the more critical considering my rather arthritic state – was also looking rather daunting. The only answer was to simply run that short leg as well, just as a warm-up. Hopping out of the van a stop early, I managed to confuse a few racers, but hit my exchange zone primed to go.
Racing a later relay leg is a different game than racing off the starting line. By the fourth leg, thirteen miles in, teams are spread and scattered. Runners taking the baton alongside you might be fast runners on slow teams, slow runners on fast teams, or even runners on the “sunset” teams in divisions that run only the last three of the five legs. You don’t have anyone to key off. You’re not certain if there will be split markings. You’ve got no reference point to set your pace. But you’ve told your team that you’ll run a pace that really needs those things.
With the spread-out field, even the choice of whether to reel in the next guy is dangerous. You have no idea who he is, and this is, after all, nearly a ten-mile run. Going out whole-hog in the first mile based on the guy in front of you might not be the best idea. One could argue that this would be a good time to have a GPS watch, but that point is rather moot, since I don’t. That point is also rather moot because on creeping up alongside a competitor about three-quarters of a mile in, the pace she reported from her supposedly trusty GPS struck fear in my heart that I was far behind my forecast pace, yet later data would prove her report far-fetched at best if not outright wrong. One could then argue that my choice to remain a relative Luddite without GPS on my wrist has not been a bad decision.
By the time I found a split marking at mile two, my fear of being well behind my forecast vanished, replaced by a new fear of having indeed gone out too whole-hog when instead it became apparent how far ahead I was of forecast. That fear was amplified as the course grew excessively lonely, dropping to a lovely riverside trail, a truly terrific running space, but insulated from traffic, landmarks, and to a large extent, other runners. This quickly became a mental battle of me versus me and me only, nobody but my own head to drive the pace and damn the torpedoes. I’d later describe my race strategy as running the first mile really hard and holding on for the next nine.
But like my last Mill Cities, something about this race made things click. Yes, conditions were optimal. Yes, leg four is technically downhill, though in dropping only thirty-five feet over ten miles, I call that flat and really not a factor. Yes, it was a mental fight, but one that I was winning, as the splits kept clicking in ahead of forecast, with more time going into the bank to cover any late fade. By the nine mile mark I was quite toasted, but could have mailed it in to make my pace, being far ahead of the prediction that I’d earlier thought would have construed a good day.
Then a funny thing happened: it got even better. That last half mile – and I’d previously measured (and later re-measured) the leg as a legitimate nine-point-five – flew by at what the watch said was four-twenty pace. Laws of physics aside, that not being possible, it became apparent that those mile splits I’d been watching had been a bit long, which explained their gradual stretch compared to the highway mile markers. Had I known that mid-race, I might have dialed it back. Sometimes it’s better not to know what you’re doing so you don’t have the chance to remind yourself that you really can’t – or at least shouldn’t – do that. Ignorance can indeed be bliss.
When I mashed the numbers later, out popped a few surprises. Shaving that nine-five down to fifteen kilometers (nine-three) at the same pace put this one a mere quarter minute off my best. And stretching it up to ten, again at the same pace, would have minted a best-ever gem (recognizing that estimating upward is risky; one could tank in that extra half-mile). In either case, there was a personal trophy just for growing older, as on an age-graded basis, this one topped both charts. Seriously, who saw that one coming? Atop Mohawk Hudson and a surprising turkey trot, it’s turned into a rather surprising fall, especially considering how sore and achy I’ve been.