18 January 2016

Bookends


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.

That post-Christmas Sunday dawned wet and raw on the tails of a not-quite departed storm as a pleasingly larger-than-I’d-expected crowd gathered. Though most announced intentions to cover only a portion of the route, a few hardy souls planned to go the distance. From the start this was unlike any other marathon I’d ever run: casual was the word, so casual that had others not started their watches, I wouldn’t have known and wouldn’t have cared how long we were out there. We’d wrap it up a hair under four hours later, by any measure a ‘personal worst’, but that statistic was entirely irrelevant. As our gang slogged out a wide circuit of Groton then south to Ayer and Shirley (yes, I know, stop calling me Shirley!), we took leisurely breaks every four or five miles to snag goodies pre-cached by the Squannies, or to meet club-mates generously stationed for support stops, or just because we felt like it, because it just didn’t matter.

I’d done my homework and identified where I expected we’d be at mile twenty-three-point-five. A GPS within our diminishing gaggle agreed, and somewhere on the east side of Shirley the magic moment arrived as my personal odometer rolled over to three thousand. We made a quick stop to honor the moment, at which point my compatriots demanded a speech. Shocking as it may seem, I delivered the shortest speech of my life, a single line: “Thanks, I couldn’t have done this without a lot of running friends.” Now let’s finish this thing.

Four hours in the damp left various parts thoroughly chilled (which made organizer Chris’ December pond swim ice bath that much more remarkable), but spreading the distance over that time span resulted in zero hit points, no aftereffects whatsoever, and shed a new perspective on the concept of a marathon. We’d spent a lot of time mid-event (note the choice of word here) discussing the basic question, “Does this count?” With twenty-three marathons under my belt that clearly do count, and several more cases of training the distance which clearly don’t, what was this? Number twenty-four? Or another training run? It’s an interesting question.

What constitutes a marathon? Surely (that’s the other surely) this wasn’t competitive; nobody sought any level of performance. But thousands of people run marathons every year with no intention of being competitive or seeking any level of performance beyond finishing. No official timing was provided and results weren’t posted, but there are plenty of small races, yes, even marathons, that operate on self-timing and don’t worry about publicizing outcomes. It was small, but I’ve seen 5Ks with fewer runners than we started with. And heck, it was publicly announced, open to all, and we even were given artisan handcrafted finisher medals.

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.

A big factor in that decision was because six days later, I did it again. And the next one wasn’t just any twenty-six-point-two, but the twenty-six-point-two, the Boston Marathon. And if that doesn’t count, well, what does? But this time, the organizer of that event decreed that it most certainly did not.

One could quibble that rising at four-thirty on New Year’s Day morning, just a few hours after hitting the sheets post-ball drop and champagne, should count for something in and of itself, but I’ll abide with the judge’s ruling. So numbers twenty-four and twenty-five will have to wait, and I’m happy with the satisfaction of bookending the calendar division with back-to-back marathon runs, knowing that a mere nine hours into the new year, I had one in the books, no matter what we called it.

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

Mill Cities Surprises


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.

But in this tank filled with sharks, the Squannacook River Runners are decidedly fish. They wouldn’t argue with this assessment; after all, a fish adorns the club jerseys. More to the point, however, they’re a group who love the sport for the enjoyment of both the run and the camaraderie. They are not a group of hard-core elite racers. In other words, the Squannies are very much like my home club Striders, and though I don’t see them often enough to remember all their names when we meet (yet somehow they remember mine), I drop right into the comfort zone in this crowd.

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.

And if tossing in my bones to boost the cause is good, tossing in Dearest Spouse’s bones can only be better, right? So yes, DS, having dipped her toes into the running world, agreed to jump in as well this year, despite the social uncertainty of being placed on a different team and subsequently being trapped in a car for hours with people she’d never met. Frankly, I was probably more worried about this than she, as I wanted it to be a good experience. I needn’t have worried, to cut to the spoiler, she had a grand time.

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.

Knowing that we’d almost certainly not brick, and that Squannacook was almost guaranteed not to win overall in a way meant that this race carried little meaning other than fun. But the funny thing is that sometimes the races that mean nothing turn out to mean the most. No pressure, no worries, just run, run hard, and see what happens. And on occasion, out pops a gem.

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.

And as for Dearest Spouse? Her team, “Please Don’t Snow This Year!” managed eighth in their ten-team division, bettering the ninth place team by a mere eighteen seconds. Eighteen seconds that earned the Squannies an extra point, an extra point that moved the club up a notch to eighth overall among the nineteen scoring clubs. OK, so it wasn’t an earth-shattering impact, but seeing as how six minutes separated my team from the next in our division, my good day didn’t really change anything in the team scoring, so one can make a good argument that her run had a more direct impact on our club’s finishing place than did mine. One can also make a good argument that she’d never have predicted that. But after all, it’s only fair that she had her share of surprises, too.

14 December 2015

Expectations


It’s barely after six in the morning. This isn’t early for some, but it is for me, a certified night owl. And only a small number of hours after battling ugly weather on the freeway for hours, it seems even earlier, sinisterly early. But I’m dragging myself to consciousness, stumbling across the hotel room, momentarily having to think to remember where I’ve woken up.

I’m hundreds of miles from home, somewhat unexpectedly, which isn’t unusual. My job does that now and then; though I’ve usually got a good deal of control, or at least advance knowledge, over where I’m going and who I’m seeing, on occasion a surprise pops up, like yesterday, when it became known that my presence at today’s event would be of assistance to further the mission. Stuff a bag, hit the road, battle the wind, the rain, the invisibility only a dark and wet highway can create, not the bright sunny ride that sometimes makes this job feel like a great adventure, but the hard road fight that sometimes makes this job feel like an adventure of a different, less pleasant sort.

It’s bleak and barren out there. From my hotel window I can see the dim gray overcast of pre-dawn, the still-wet pavement from last night’s tempest, the trees still shuffling from remnants of the wind that made a new set of tires on the Thruway feel like bald rubber on an oiled runway. My phone tells me it’s still drizzling and barely forty, certainly not cold, but when mixed with rain and wind, nowhere near inviting, either. And though I’m in my native Upstate New York, a place I still revere for its unequalled beauty, the particular spot I’m in holds no great scenic charm, just mostly straight paths through mostly flat farm country, and at this time of the year, it’s barren, heading for winter’s hibernation, utterly devoid of the green and life that makes this place what it is. In short, it’s really attractive to sleep another hour.

But I’m here for two nights, and tomorrow’s forecast is no better – perhaps worse. A day off is fine, and one might say that after last night’s exhaustive battle, needed, but if the forecasters are right, that might stretch into two, and on the other hand, after last night’s exhaustive battle, stretching the legs might be just the ticket. Not to mention that the day’s plan has the word ‘meeting’ written in every slot until the evening, when ‘consumption’ is certain to take precedence. By day’s end, I might regret it if I don’t do this. Then again, I might regret not snagging that extra hour of sleep. This yin and yang could hold me in a state of indecision all day, if I let it.

The balance is broken by the word expectations. Expectations drive me out of bed, through the morning ‘shock-the-system-into-reality’ routine, and out the door of the hotel to the puzzlement of resort-goers who don’t come to this place for physical exertion. Expectations that are both mine and those that spring from others I know I’ll encounter today, which of course are still mine to either hold or ignore, but real nonetheless.

After nearly eleven years of the running lifestyle, this is what I do, and hope to continue to do for as long as I can do it. I place this on myself, but do so willingly knowing that the reward for the effort, the planning and logistics, the bearing of unpleasantries like weather and worse, is a worthy deal. I accept that there will be days when taking that first step will be seriously unattractive, but that backing down from that starting hump represents a small mental defeat, likely inconsequential, but the tip of what could snowball into decline. Is that fear? Or is it just a self-motivation mechanism? I accept it as the expectation I place on myself.

I also accept that after these many years, those around me have expectations as well. It’s not for me to run in order to please them, but it is for me to run in order to inspire them. Over many years, I’ve had the joy of knowing that my actions have helped to light that fire in many of my colleagues. And later in this day, my colleagues, who in part define me by this lifestyle, will inevitably bring up the topic. They’ll ask if I’ve been out for my run, shaking their heads in amazement or pity or both when I respond affirmatively and, in answer to their guaranteed follow-up, add the detail of, yeah, eight or nine miles. They too know the ugliness of the weather and the fatigue of travel and the open-road nothingness of the surrounding area which must be traversed to ring up those distances. They’ll turn to others, our customers, or new colleagues I’ve yet to meet, and expound on my human-driven escapades. Conversations will erupt about others’ attempts to break out of corporate-induce physical inactivity, and invariably, in a gathering of this size, some will express intent to get out there and start doing something good for themselves.

I don’t like to let them down. I don’t like to let myself down. So I head into the gray, wet, chilling, forlorn pre-dawn and start pounding the miles toward the next hamlet over, where I might get some scenery other than a road shoulder and a farm field, before pounding my way back. I’m out there, driven by expectations, and an hour later, pulling in just in time to clean up and make the end of the pre-meeting breakfast, I’m very satisfied that those expectations have done their job.

27 November 2015

Odd and Unexpected


Yikes! A month has slipped by. You can, of course, thank me for the time you’ve gotten back while not reading what I haven’t published. It’s not that there haven’t been random ideas swimming around in my head (though I am in no way a competent swimmer, which saves me a lot of money by keeping me away from triathlons), it’s just that those ideas haven’t seen time to jump from neuron to (electronic) paper. So let’s start catching up on those random thoughts by starting in an odd place and making our winding way to an unexpected place.

I experienced an odd moment a couple of weeks back. Really, we all did, but I’ll wager most of you didn’t notice it. Just before two in the afternoon a couple Fridays back, it occurred to me that we hit 1-3-5-7-9-11-13-15, or, in military time, 13:57:09 on the 13th of November 2015. Yes, it’s nerdy, but that is what I live for, and I am proud that one of my running friends figured it out when I merely mentioned ‘odd moment’. Our type sticks together.

That odd moment was appropriately timed, hitting during an episode of wild New England weather where I’d left the house in shorts (and thankfully at least long sleeves) for an unseasonably warm and sunny fifty-seven-degree November afternoon jaunt, only to find myself periodically pelted with wind-driven and seemingly frozen rain bullets as waves of doom sped over skyward. But just as that odd moment was about to arrive, the sun returned to deliver one of the richest double rainbows of recent memory. And to make the moment odder, unbeknownst to me, at that moment Dearest Daughter the Younger was enroute to reconnoiter the course for the next day’s cross country championships, and DDY’s peeps, following behind, caught the Japanese Rainbow, where instead of a pot-o-gold, there’s a Honda at the end. Odd moment indeed.

And so we segue from odd bits peppered by weather to the family theme peppered by weather. DDY’s cross country meet, wrapping up her high school career, was notable mostly for its bone-chilling wind. But otherwise the weather gods have smiled upon our clan of late. Dearest Spouse wrapped up her Couch-to-5K program on the finest of gorgeous fall days. Her ‘graduation’ race, a small gathering of current and recent C25K grads, was a bit anticlimactic, she having read ahead and already run not one but two 5Ks during the term of the program.

Having already run earlier that morning (and of course eaten a donut, this was, after all, a Saturday) and not seeking any more miles for the day, I arrived with every intention of hanging in the shadows; after all, this was Dearest Spouse’s day, not mine. But the program organizers pointed me out to a sixtyish gentleman, one of the returnees, who was seeking a pacer to drop his time. Several lame attempts at hiding later, I found myself coaching him down the rail trail, doing my best to distract him from the coming task of coming back up. Shortly after we spun around for the uphill return, Dearest Spouse surprisingly appeared, not nearly as far back as I’d expected, or, for that matter, as would be good for her pace. Puzzled, but with no intention of getting in the way of her day, I focused my concerns on my charge, chatting up a blue streak to continue my strategy of distraction, and brought him home well ahead of his ambitious target. One charge down, a happy guy, and one spouse, who’d seemed to have gone out too fast, to go.

As it happened, my assessment wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t so much DS as it was her young running friend who’d gone aggressively rogue on the outbound leg – dragging DS along for the ride – and was now paying the price on the back nine. This event not being in any way competitive, DS stuck with her, and once again, the coaching team of Cattarin & Cattarin (this time the other half) found itself coaxing a charge back up the hill and across the line. Two charges down, the second one not so happy, but DS perfectly happy and fully graduated.

And then, what’s a C25K grad to do, but…sign up for another race! Quick, before rational thought talks you out of it! …which gives us a segue from family peppered by weather to family racing in general, which brings us to that most populist of events in running, the Great American Turkey Trot, or, the non-Catholic way of confessing and atoning for your dietary sins before they are committed.

The road to any starting line is pocked with potholes (especially in New England), and DS managed to find one, taking on the true nature of a runner by somehow popping a calf muscle a week after C25K and experiencing that injury-versus-race-date angst that only a runner knows. She healed in time. I, on the other hand, went the other direction. On top of the nagging left knee injury courtesy of that ridiculous (but fun!) White Mountains trail run, which was piled on top of the chronic left knee as yet unidentified annoyance, everything went achy again down south on both sides. Why? Who knows? Bad glucosamine? New shoes? Age? For whatever reason, I’ve been a hurting pup. Strike One! Thus I was looking at the Stow Gobbler 5K as a family outing, not a serious race.

Not a serious race means not tapering or resting, so on top of the aches and pains, Thursday arrived on the heels of four ten-mile days, two of which were at least partially hard workouts. Tired legs. Strike Two!

And let’s add an insult to this fracas. Ever organized, DS not only planned our day-before early number pickup, but went so far as to set out said tags for quick access in the morning. Terrific planning on her part, as usual. But the execution on my part was a bit lacking. The good news? I figured out before we got to the race that I’d left mine behind. The bad news? We were almost at the race by that moment. So while we had enough time to get back home for the pickup, my pre-race routine was considerably less than desired. Crappy warm-up. Strike Three!

This is, of course, a setup to segue from the general family racing theme to the unexpected place. But by now, based on the structure of this column, you knew that.

It’s not unexpected that when the race starts, I take all of the reasons why this should be a lousy day and toss them aside. Somewhere inside, that racing mentality commands this to happen. What is unexpected is that the results didn’t look like the aftermath of a three-strike lead-in.

There wasn’t a moment of cruising in this one. Being a Turkey Trot, where everyone and his brother shows up for their one race a year (and good for them), the crowd was large – almost a thousand – and the stampede off the line almost seemed Grand-Prix-like. At least forty or fifty leapt out ahead by the quarter mile. Though many faded in the next quarter, just holding pace with those who didn’t seemed unusually hard. I repeatedly forced myself to stick with this clump or that just to hold the intensity, because my body had no interest in doing so otherwise. But the clumps kept disintegrating as more and more fell off the pace, making holding that intensity difficult.

Mile one clocked in quite reasonable for a decent race, but knowing how hard the start had been, my head told me I’d already started the long fade. Mile two’s number, also quite reasonable, somehow didn’t pierce the fog that said this was just another ho-hum outing. Had it, I might have seen an opportunity to really slam the hammer rather than simply hold on. My bad on that one.

With three-quarters of a mile to go, both the women’s leader and a gentleman whom I knew to be masters class (this race had no fifty-plus division) crept up, crept past. Letting the woman go was easy. Letting the master go, being fairly sure there were no others ahead of us, was a bit tougher, but cognizant of all the slightly busted parts, and leaning on those tired legs, it seemed the rational thing to do. And hey, he’d recognized me on the starting line and said he’d actually read the blog, so call it a bit of charity in my heart. And we both got the same cheesy medals. And I made a new friend. So really, I’ll take second. What’s not to love?

I caught the woman, who told me flat out that she had no intentions of sprinting in, and that it was all mine. Really, I said, what’s to have? I was just figuring I’d photobomb her finish-line victory shot. I slugged it in with her a second behind.

The unexpected part? In my mind, I think of times I’ve run in years past, and don’t tend to think that years past were in fact years past. New ages should bring new expectations, but it wasn’t till later in post-analysis that this became clear. On crossing that line, the time on the clock was decent, but not exciting. Only later did it become clear that I’d just turned my best road 5K since hitting age fifty (two and a half years back) and not only my best age-graded 5K since fifty, but my third-best age-graded 5K, period. On three strikes. And to sweeten the day, DS, who’d previously run every one of her 5Ks at roughly the same pace, sliced off a minute and a half. Sweet.

So there you have it, a month, boiled down to a few pages, from the odd to the unexpected. It’s always an adventure. Time for turkey.t

01 November 2015

Arbitrary Events


There’s something inexplicably attractive about borders and edges, both physical and logical. Admit it. How many of you have visited Key West and not gone to that street corner with the odd nautical marker that claims to be the southernmost point of the continental United States (never mind that it’s on an island, not a continent, and there are clearly some rocks below the monument that stretch further southward to the water). Yep, done it, and also did South Point in Hawaii, and even the end of the odd spit of land that sticks out from Canada into Lake Ontario, which isn’t the southernmost bit of anything other than the odd spit of land it sits on. But this isn’t about points of land or southernmost things, it’s about arbitrary designations in general, and the pleasure we derive (at least us OCD types) from reaching and crossing them. And I’ve had a couple of them of late, all of them arbitrary, all of them enjoyable.

Probably the easiest of recent oddities to make sound somewhat sane was crossing the milestone of twenty thousand miles. It’s a cool round number, very big to some people, embarrassingly small to others, but interesting enough. It came about on a trail run and of course warranted a selfie at the moment of momentous mileage, after which it was rapidly forgotten and the slow slog began to what I hope will become thirty thousand (admittedly, I’ll probably first take note when the total equals the circumference of the Earth, which again only a nerd can find cool and interesting).

But really, who cares? It’s not true that I ran my twenty-thousandth mile that day. There were thousands in my youthful days, never accurately totaled, being the days before God invented spreadsheets. Further, pages vanished from those early years’ paper logs to discreetly disguise days when running log turned more toward diary. Let’s face it, youthful musings, even when mixed with youthful miles, sometimes didn’t need to be preserved. In short, there’s no accounting for, well, days when there was no accounting. And besides, even I can’t truly accurately log every stride. So this claim of the ground I’ve covered since the start of the second lap, is entirely arbitrary, and that’s before we even get to the arbitrariness of English units of measure themselves. But hey, twenty thousand miles is worth noting. And that arbitrary event came a mere forty-eight hours after another one of a different sort.

A few years ago I set out on a quest to run every mile of every street in my city. Partly it was a way to overcome the winter blues and partly it was just plain nerdy – in short, right up my alley. But it raises an interesting question: what’s the value in running in different places? The alternative, taken to extreme, would be to circle the track – the same track – for every mile of every run ever (actually the true extreme would be life on a treadmill, the same treadmill, and plenty of people do this…I pity them). Clearly that’s not a very interesting way to go through life, so we mix it up, one route one day, another then next. It’s a short leap then to start looking to seeing the world on foot. Indeed just today I had the pleasure of adding three more to my list of Massachusetts towns in which I’ve run, having spent a few hours on the truly lovely Mass Central Rail Trail with one of my local running buds. His idea to head west to this gem (for which I thank him) delivered a delightful route and a change of scenery. I think we can all see the value in that.

While I doubt I’ll ever become a fifty-stater marathon tourist, I respect what they’re doing. I just do it on the cheap, using opportunistic runs rather than dedicated trips. That’s not to say I haven’t hauled off to some distant races, but it’s not a habit directed at the states themselves. But if I find myself somewhere I haven’t run, I’ll try to change that status. So while I’ve set foot in forty-nine states, I had, until a few days back, run in only twenty-four of them, when I found myself in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’d already run in North Carolina. Ah, but not South Carolina.

But I had no rental car, and it was a good eight miles from hotel to the border. And I had no time, this being a twenty-four-hour business trip, for a sixteen-miler – really more, since stepping over the border and stepping back wouldn’t really constitute a good faith effort of running in the state. Time to get creative, and times like these are when you appreciate having fitness-oriented co-workers. When you propose something a little odd, but targeted at a good workout, they tend to get it. They understand that things like that can be big motivators for fitness commitments.

As it worked out, one of my teammates – importantly, the one with the car – was big into Cross-Fit. Cross-Fitters, it seems, are as rabidly dedicated to their workouts as are nerdy OCD runners. So just wait for the right moment…and…sure enough, said teammate mentioned wanting to find a ‘box’, as they call their gyms, for a workout in the morning. I love a person who agrees that a hotel fitness room and its pathetic treadmill is simply not an acceptable form of exercise, barring dire circumstances. Cool. So, um, what’s the chance you can find a box that happens to be south of here? Play it cool, play it gently, then lay it on…because I’d like to run into the next state. Done properly, this sounds entirely rational to a fitness-oriented type. Cross-Fit Boy was on-board.

Meeting schedules, time zones, seasons, and route logistics found me the next morning being dropped a half-hour before sunrise on a pitch-black side street off a major arterial road in a part of the world I’d never set foot in, carrying only a scrap of paper with some route scrawlings – should my memory fail me – and Cross-Fit Boy’s cell phone number. Not that I had a phone to call him on. And he hadn’t even dropped me at his gym, as that would have added more distance than time allowed, so I’d have to find my way to that gym sight unseen, or he’d have no way to find me.

One might easily find this to be entirely absurd, and it was, but it worked.

The Carolinas are not particularly runner-friendly states. Once off the heavily beaten paths, which are equipped only with leg-crushing concrete sidewalks, few roads have shoulders. And like a fool, I hadn’t considered darkness when packing my bags (out of practice from winter lack-of-daylight mode I guess) and had no lights, let alone bright clothing. Moron. So each approaching car drove me off-road onto the hopefully non-ankle-turning dewy grass, hampering progress.

But my timing was stellar, or perhaps just lucky. As the pre-dawn light made turned navigation considerably simpler, I crossed the unmarked border and kicked the clicker to twenty-five. Sticking to my good-faith rule that this had to be more than an in-and-out, I ticked off a couple miles inside the border – certainly not in a very scenic area unless you find corporate distribution centers to be particularly pleasing vistas – before turning back to the north and executing the plan to find that gym – without even needing to reference that scrap of parchment.

Does it matter that I ran a couple miles in state number twenty-five? Well, what kind of story would there be to tell if I’d just hit the treadmill in the hotel? However you choose to motivate yourself, go and make yourself some stories to tell – even if it takes entirely arbitrary events to do so.

24 October 2015

Marathon to Mountain


I’ve had plenty of years in which to do plenty of foolish things, but last week’s escapade ranks high on the list of what I like to call DDTs – or Don’t Do Thats (which are closely related to DTTDs, or Dumb Things To Do, but that one doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily, and I admit I stole both of these terms from a co-worker in the eighties, but whatever…). Less than seventy-two hours after crossing the finish line at Mohawk-Hudson, I found myself summiting Owl’s Head in New Hampshire’s White Mountains with Dearest Daughter the Younger on an eighteen mile odyssey that included fifteen miles of trail running. If that isn’t a DDT, I’m not sure what is.

Most of my compatriots already think me a bit daft for not only running a warm-up before a marathon (no, I don’t do a warm-down afterward), but insisting on running the next day. In my defense, I claim age, both from the sanity perspective (it’s long gone) as well as the tied-in-knots effect. Without a warm-up, I won’t hit stride till mile two or three, an unaffordable delay in any race, even a marathon if you’re racing it. And nixing the next day’s outing generally means subsequent days will find me twisted like the rubber band on those wind-up airplanes we played with as kids. Well, at least we old farts played with them; now they’re powered by some derivative of fossil fuel and lithium ion batteries, but ours had rubber bands. And we liked them.

Though most who’ve run a marathon really don’t want to hear this, my post-race days usually aren’t too bad. One result of high-mileage training is that the distance of the marathon doesn’t cause too much distress, though the intensity certainly can. Day-after damage varies based on the pace of the event, the nature of the course, and so on, but other than a little forty-eight-hour burn (that tendency for muscle soreness to peak on the second day after), I’m not usually in the “Oh My God It’s A Staircase” set. Yup, it was a big race, I ran hard, I hurt a bit, I run it off slowly and gently over the next few days and try not to do anything truly stupid like racing within a week or two.

So it was this time. Following Mohawk Hudson, I felt pretty good – in fact, remarkably good. No real damage and only light muscle aches. A gentle trail run with Dearest Spouse the next morning, followed by a couple of mile walk in the woods later that day, meant that Tuesday’s forty-eight-hour mark was as close to a non-event as one could wish for. Which left me with a problem. DDY, diligently working her way through New Hampshire’s Four-Thousand Footers, had had her eye on a certain obscure spot known as Owl’s Head for some time.

Owl’s Head is obscure for a number of reasons. It’s the only summit of the forty-eight without a maintained trail – the last mile is an unofficial herd path leading straight up a rock slide, then arduously up the remaining elevation to the summit ridge. It’s not only wooded, and therefore somewhat unrewarding (though the views from the climb up the slide are sublime), but it’s so tangled up top that the true summit was only found ten years ago. My previous ascent twenty-three years back reached what was thought to be the top but is now known to be a bit shy (though the Four-Thousand-Footers Committee graciously accepts either summit). But mostly, it’s just a long way from anything. It’s an eighteen-mile round-trip from the nearest road, much of which is not terribly exciting hiking. Back in ninety-two, when running wasn’t in my activity bag, I’d done it in traditional boot-and-big-backpack style, and it had taken close to forever. This adds up to Owl’s Head rarely being a sought-after summit, but it’s on the list and you have to do it.

DDY had been posturing to hit the Head for several years, though the timing just hasn’t worked out. Last year we abandoned plans the night before thanks to an injury of mine that wouldn’t succumb to the healing power of wishful thinking. But this year – you tend to target this for the fall, typically a drier time, because there are plenty of tough stream crossings enroute – DDY happened to have a day off both school and her job, and that day happened to be…three days after Mohawk Hudson. I’d said it was a maybe at best, but when Tuesday found me basking in my non-injurious state, I had no leg to stand on (pun intended) to say no and certainly didn’t want to be the buzz kill a second year running (another pun intended). And let’s face it: the foolish side of me really didn’t want to say no, anyway.

I don’t want to think about what time we dragged our butts out of bed to hit the road. I’ll only recall that we hit the trail a few minutes past seven as the sun struggled to light the landscape through heavy overcast. Rather than hiking style, we went at this in trail-running minimalist fashion: hydration packs tanked to their absolute max (which proved unnecessary and weighty on the forty-to-fiftyish day), both packed beyond their capacity with the barest minimum of gear. Not owning true trail shoes (mine are lightweight with little support, not up to the rocks on a long day in the Whites), we set out in old trainers – mercifully aged versions, expecting levels of abuse which we wouldn’t wish
on any valued pair of shoes (and which did, of course, come to pass).

It’s about nine miles in with eight stream crossings. But this is the fall, when water levels are low, and it hadn’t rained much of late – at least where we live. After burning a tremendous amount of time searching for a crossable spot of the largest flowing obstacle (the GPS trace of those minutes was rather
amusing), we learned from a passing hiker that it had in fact rained cats and dogs the night before. At least we now knew it wasn’t our lack of rock-hopping skill that made the effort so difficult! By our return trip only a few hours later, that same crossing had eased considerably.

We had no unrealistic expectations of getting though this journey anywhere close to dry. We were simply relying on enough relative speed so as not to care about our saturation state (certainly one’s pace on White Mountain trails, especially inbound grading uphill, can’t be called speedy, but speedy relative to a traditional hiking assault.) While trying to avoid the mud, rivulets, rivers, and various joyously hydrated surprises, we cared less and less as the day wore on about missteps. Early day cries of, “I got it!” (meaning wet), faded to simple acceptance of a constant state of wet.

Though slow and frequently interrupted, we managed to keep running, more or less, for about seven and a half of the eight miles to the slide, finally giving up any pretense of moving faster than a hike as that turn drew near. The slide itself was a welcome adventure, not nearly as steep and arduous as I’d expected or remembered from my last trip, and never frightful like our climb up the Tripyramids a couple years back. Below spread a patchwork of brilliant fall gold interspersed with green, unexpectedly duo-tone, reds and oranges
remarkably absent. Above, the trace of the Franconia Ridge vanished into the low overcast, which we soon entered, greeted with a chilling summit wind challenging our minimalist gear, as the path cut relentlessly uphill. For a path that was said to end at the new summit (after bypassing the old non-summit), the final apex was surprisingly elusive, farther north than expected and nearly undiscernible in its supposed maximum altitude. It was easy to see why generations hadn’t noticed it before.



Peak bagged, for DDY one closer to a major life goal, for me one closer on my second circuit of the collection (in harmony with the title and theme of this blog), bodies thoroughly chilled after barely twenty minutes up top, and nine miles outbound awaiting. Just off the slide, we hit the running switch again and by comparison barreled our way downhill, hopping the rivers with ease, perhaps due to slightly lower water, perhaps due to the learning curve of the day, perhaps simply because on the way out, getting very wet bothered us less by the hour. (DDY captured this action in a shot so ironically timed with falling fall foliage that I seem to be showing off how Adam might have dressed had the Garden of Eden been located in New England.) The final flat slog out on the Wilderness Trail, timing strides to span the leftover railroad ties and dodging increasing numbers of short-walk leaf peepers venturing from the parking lot (getting a fabulous show, mind you) found our energy flagging but our spirits soaring over not just the accomplishment (for DDY, this was her longest run and hike), but the audacity; mountain to marathon in three days, serious DDT, notched.



18 October 2015

Almost Perfect


Magic happened around mile five of last week’s Mohawk Hudson Marathon. Just after screaming down the quad-crunching descent from Blatnick Park to the Mohawk River, a coffee klatch formed that turned what had started as a decent but tenuously nervous race into a day for the record books. No, I didn’t eclipse my all-time fastest marathon, but on an age-graded basis (and as a Certified Old Fart, I love age-grading) it was my best. Indeed, on nearly every measure, but one in particular, this one was Almost Perfect.

Many marathons, this one no exception, provide pace groups to assist runners to reach their goal times. But I’ve never seen a race with a pace group targeting sub-three hours; there generally isn’t enough depth in the field to make it worthwhile, and besides, folks in that zone usually have very specific goals. But by mile five, we’d built a cadre of at least a half-dozen, maybe as many as ten, all hammering so solidly and steadily, that we declared ourselves to be the two-fifty-five pace group.

At one point, holding the front line of this formidable posse, someone cracked a joke about our lack of a pace-group sign, and in a foolishly euphoric expenditure of energy I knew I’d want later, I swung my arm up to carry that imaginary standard for a while. It was a worthy investment. The energy I gained – indeed, we all gained – from our alliance far outweighed any we spent on chit-chat and silly gestures. And the mental boost I got when the rest of the youthful gang figured out how old I was felt like someone dumped a can of nitro down the carburetor.

It’s a beauty of the sport that while we’re competing with each other, we’ve got each other’s backs. At the simplest level, it’s trading off gels and beverages and the like, but at the deeper level it’s like hooking yourself to the outside of a moving freight train. You’re not sure it’s safe to continue to hold on, but you know that jumping off is going to really hurt, even if you aim for a soft landing spot. So you draw energy off each other, tell yourself to damn the torpedoes, and motor on.

From the start in Schenectady, I wasn’t certain what I had in me. The ghosts of the achy and ugly months of sub-optimal training leading up to this race pointed to a conservative run, though my heart had targeted this one since the spring for a blow-out performance on a flat and fast course. The perfect foggy forty-five at launch, which would rise only to the mid-to-high fifties when the sun broke through, hampered only by a surprisingly strong headwind at various points, was a siren call to let ‘er rip. But the head kept saying no, don’t be a fool, the body isn’t ready to let loose, just be reasonable, turn in something respectful, and go home sated if not truly satisfied. The only pre-race decision I could garner was a non-binding pact made during warm-up with a young gun named Dan. We agreed. Nothing stupid. Conservative start. Aim for seven-ish.

That much I pulled off. Not seven, but not too far below it as to make me nervous. But things heated up as things do, so by the time our gang coalesced, the gremlins were running amok in my brain clanging alarm bells. Did it really make sense to be burning this pace? Clearly, this was work, and having clicked off fewer than a fifth of the distance, a whole lot of me was saying that this developing race plan really wasn’t a good idea.

So why was this race Almost Perfect? Certainly the result speaks for itself. Clearly the weather, save for that pesky headwind, was ideal (and the post-race warmth made chillin’ by the waterfront with A-One Support Team Dearest Spouse toasty and comfortable). Socially, it was one of the most enjoyable race alliances ever. Then there was the surprise of learning I’d won my age group (and, as it were, topped all older competitors, avoiding that annoying asterisk) – a surprise as I’d learned only the day before that this was the USATF Adirondack Grand Prix marathon. And above those bits was the fact that this the most evenly paced marathon I’ve run, ever, with effectively even splits, a mile-split range spanning less than thirty seconds, and finally, after twenty-three tries, a marathon with every mile under seven minutes. All of that was great, but none of them alone made this one Almost Perfect.

What made this one so satisfying was the mental victory. As the pseudo pace group formed, the back of my head was nothing but doubts that I’d sustain that pace past the halfway mark. I went with it anyway, knowing that the bulk of my marathons have unfurled in survival mode. But this one took a far different path.

As that halfway mark nears, the course is forced to deviate from the flatness of the Mohawk-Hudson bike trail by the stark barricade of the Adirondack Northway. Dropping sharply to duck under the freeway, it quickly climbs back to the rail trail on the other side. Throwing caution to the wind, I found myself powering up the grade, still questioning my sanity, but by now listening to a new mantra that simply said, “Why stop? You don’t have to.” At this point the bulk of our squad began to scatter; we were only three or four when we hit the actual halfway point, so close to two-fifty-five pace that had we actually been the pace group, we’d have been doing a knock-up job. And then we were two, just Utica Joe and I, powering over the mild rise around mile fifteen, forcing each other not to waver not by any desire to beat each other but by that unspoken knowledge that each was each other’s mobile anchor. By the time he finally dropped back at eighteen, my cumulative pace had dropped to its fastest point of the day.

And from eighteen on, it was chutzpah and a little bit of pride that took me home. Chutzpah, audaciously ignoring physical signals, counting down, driving, feeling entirely in control thanks in large part to having run the course and imprinted it in memory. Pride, knowing that Dearest Spouse would be stationed at twenty, and gee, wouldn’t it be nice to look good? (Answer: Yes, and the result was one of the few race pictures ever snapped where I’m smiling and looking like something other than Death Warmed Over.). And once past that photo-op, still in control, the final miles along the Hudson, which I’d feared would be amorphous and unending, instead turned into hunting season, picking off the late faders, the class which would have been mine on most days.

To be fair, mile twenty-five was the slowest leg, though still a few seconds under seven. But that last point-two was, by a decent margin, the fastest. Dearest Spouse, perfectly positioned for a finish line shot, noted that I melted into the arms of the finish line staff, but the truth is that I didn’t really need to, it was mere convenience. Though the needle was on E, there were enough drops left in the tank to finish the job in control, on time, under budget.

Almost Perfect because it was a mental triumph on top of the physical win. Almost Perfect because after Boston, which was probably my best-executed edition of that race, this one, though on an undoubtedly easier course, came off, from an execution standpoint, even better. Almost Perfect because, let’s face it, none of these will ever be entirely perfect, so this is about as good as one can hope for.


Tidbits

Killer Award? Race officials made clear that awards would be presented at the scoring tent immediately, no ceremony, no shipping them home, so I swung by on the off chance I’d won some swag. Having learned at the expo that the race was USATF Grand Prix, I really didn’t expect anything. It was a moment of glee to learn that not only had I placed a lot better then I’d thought, but that I had in fact won my division. Step to the next table to get your award! And then, it was a moment of disappointment to learn that my award was…a hat. Well, um, OK, I suppose it’s a lot more useful than a plaque and doesn’t have to be dusted, so a hat and some honor, OK, I’m good with that. Though I wish they’d put the Hudson Mohawk Marathon logo on the front. It’s a small gripe in an otherwise fabulously run event. Kudos to the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club.


Location, Location, Location! Since I’ve started running with the Greater Boston Track Club, the Boston Marathon has taken on a new dimension. The amount of cheering you get wearing a Boston singlet in a Boston race is downright uplifting. But this is Albany, New York, and though I consider it part of my home turf (from my college years and now Dearest Offspring the Elder’s college years), it’s not home course advantage. When our pace gang had dropped to only Utica Joe and I, it was he, wearing a Buffalo Bills shirt, who constantly pulled the cheers. And he wasn’t even from Buffalo! And me? I remember one guy yelling, “Go Boston!”


It’s a Small World After All: One of the early members of our pace group, Jan, hailed from the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. A little chit-chat established a common link, a mere one degree of separation, in that he was friends with my neighbors who have a mountain lair in the area. That in itself was amusing enough, but a later exchange with said neighbor turned it up a notch. Turns out I’d actually met Jan and his wife on the trail in the ‘dacks a year earlier. Just goes to prove one of my maxims: be nice to people, you might run into them again! (Find Jan at http://www.adkrunner.com/)


Start Early on the List: I lost track of Dan, with whom I’d made the “Don’t be Stupid” pact during warm-ups, almost immediately after the start. I was happy to learn he’d hit his goal of breaking three hours for the first time. He said it was on his bucket list. I don’t know many twenty-five-year-olds who already have a bucket list. That’s marathon mentality: Start your preparations early!


Personal Touch: It’s always nice to have a local contact when travelling to an out-of-town race. A few months ago an Albany area runner looked me up for reasons unknown and we struck up an email friendship. What’d be the chances we’d actually be able to find each other and meet before the race? Easy! Hang out in the port-a-john lines and you’ll see everyone. I’m happy to report that Alex exceeded his goals by a considerable margin.


Recovery? Damage was amazingly light. Dearest Spouse and I went for a casual trail run Monday morning and a short walk in the forest later in the day. This recovery would have been easier than almost all previous marathons. Would have, but for the foolishness of three days later. But that’s for the next posting…