28 February 2015

How Quickly We Forget

In barely an hour, Spring arrives, at least by my reckoning. March First! Day 60 of the challenge! And yet, once again it’s dropping to the single digits tonight, and once again the call is out for another four to six inches of snow tomorrow eve. But it doesn’t matter. The sun is high, the forecast is for warming, and daylight savings time will be here in a week. It’s over. Winter, that is.

But something else is just beginning again: racing. It’s beginning again not because winter is ending (though more significant races have been cancelled or postponed than I’ve ever seen, so this year we did need winter to end for racing to start!) but because it’s been over four months since I toed the line. The last time was at Baystate, a race that went swimmingly till suddenly it didn’t, leading to a significant injury time-out, protective custody to keep me out of favorites like New Year’s Day’s Freezer, and a slow return to reasonable, though certainly not optimal, fitness.

Four months, tough training conditions, no speed work, weight on, weight off, and it’s time to race, which leads to the inevitable question, well, how fast can I go now? How fast should I go now? It’s not so simple as just bolting away with abandon. A decent performance requires decent pacing, and decent pacing requires some knowledge of capabilities. The wrong strategy means leaving too much on the course…or being scraped off the course with a spatula. And while four months isn’t really that long, four months with complications makes that strategy a complete mystery.

It’s really amazing how quickly we forget.

Racing is a funny thing. You forget how to do it in no time. Not as in forgetting how to ride a bike, not as in not knowing what to do with each leg in succession (no, left-left, right-right really doesn’t work), but you forget what you’re capable of and therefore how hard to go after that threshold. The only cure is…racing. My times of peak racing always come not just with consistent training, but with plenty of racing.

The plan was to ease in with my local Highland City Strider club’s annual tradition of re-assembling our masters team for the Hyannis Marathon relay. But alas, like the Martha’s Vineyard Twenty-Miler the week before, which sanely belied its slogan of “No Weenies” by cancelling when they couldn’t find the paths that the race was to traverse, the folks in Hyannis threw in the towel, or should I say they tossed off the Cape, in the face of overwhelmingly bad road conditions.

As far as easing back into racing and starting the process of capability rediscovery, Hyannis had three things going for it. First, it’s a relatively short (seven mile) leg. Second, it’s an easy course; that leg having one small hill that barely registers in my book. Third, and most importantly, being a relay, everyone’s performance matters, but there’s no microscope on anyone’s, and at the end of the day, we do this as a fun club excursion. It’s not all that competitive. It just doesn’t matter. It’s a perfect return-to-racing laboratory.

So why was it that within hours of learning of its cancellation, there I was, answering that email from my Greater Boston buds to join the team at the Amherst 10-Miler? The Grand Prix Amherst 10-Miler. As in, the every ringer in New England will show, guaranteeing you will get your butt kicked Amherst 10-Miler. Why?

Part of the answer is that I didn’t do much for my Greater Boston buds over the last year of injuries and wanted to fly the flag. Part of the answer is that I miss Amherst every year for Hyannis, and, well, I was curious. But the real reason was because I’d forgotten how to race, really needed to start that recollection rehab process, and my vehicle to do so had just dried up. I was signed up before I’d even looked really closely at the course profile which was, courtesy of its creator some forty years ago, GBTC’s own Tom Derderian, brilliantly challenging, brilliantly evil.

So instead of low-pressure fun and easy seven, I was now committed to a highly visible uber-competitive, diabolically hilly ten. Seven to ten may not seem like a big jump, but the other factors made it feel like triple the challenge. And just to add flavor, it was only after I’d picked my target pace and locked my brain around it that I learned that over two miles of this beast was on a dirt road, which, in the Winter from Hell, though pleasantly on the nicest day we’d seen in a long time during the Winter from Hell, meant snow and mud to help your target time slip-slide away.

How quickly we forget. How about something so simple as lining up at the start? Certainly not up front, this is Grand Prix, I’d be killed up there. As it was, I chose too conservatively and lost a bit to traffic on the snow-narrowed roads. Not that it mattered much in the end, but it just reminded me how quickly we forget the details.

And certainly not that it mattered in placing. You don’t go to a Grand Prix race with any expectation of hardware. By the time the course straightened out enough to see ahead any considerable distance, those ahead were gone at far more than a considerable distance. These races will make you feel small. While you might be in the top few in a local race, here there are hordes ahead, and not because there are twenty-five thousand in the race a-la-Boston. On this day, in a six-hundred person race, I wouldn’t crack the top quarter, so you’re not battling for place, it’s just you against you. How tough can you stay, mentally, to stay on pace through ten? And not just any ten, but a brutal ten?

The course is a “lollypop”, the first two-and-a-half being out and back, with a five-mile loop in the middle. The bulk of the out part of the out and back is downhill, planting firmly in your mind that you’ll have a treat of a climb at the end. But it’s the loop where the real action is, starting with climb so tremendous that it added a solid minute and a half to my mile three split compared to miles one and two. So bad that those I was paired with when hitting the three-mile marker groaned and insisted I not tell them the embarrassing number I’d just read off my watch.

After being hit by that blunt force trauma, there was no recovery and thus no settling in till it was over, which was a long, long ways away. Even the long downhill through mile six required mental effort; I’m not a natural downhiller and have to force the stride open. Then, the climb on the back part of the out and back surprised me only in that the part I expected to be the worst wasn’t, though that was no consolation as the part I didn’t expect, was twice that. This was the kind of race where I was quite pleased that the professional photographer, who happened to be sitting on that climb, stopped snapping pictures of passing racers a dozen or so worn faces before mine appeared. Short of visual evidence of the crime, that sort of imagery really didn’t need to be seen.

I already mentioned that I was pummeled in the standings, though I did get minor consolation of rising about forty notches in the age-graded stats. But I’m calling it a win. Even with the unexpected snow & mud, I hit my target pace within a second. I’ve got a data point. I’m starting to remember what I’d forgotten. A few more of these and it’ll seem like old hat again.

And about the time I finish this column…it’s Spring. At last.

21 February 2015

Science Non-Denial

As I sit down to write, it’s snowing once again. If this is a surprise to you, please remove your head from the orifice in which it has been inserted. And as for that previous comment, yes, I know I’ve always said that I write a family-safe column. At this point in this winter, I just don’t care anymore.

Normally at this time of year, I’m elated that we’ve blown through the eighty-percent mark on the Sixty Day Challenge and that my definition of Spring is just days away. This year, I’m fighting off the feeling of being beaten. My soul says, “Never Surrender!” but my body has had quite enough. Never before have I succumbed to the terrors of the treadmill to the extent of these past few weeks.

Today I took a zero on a Saturday, an event exceedingly rare. With a forecast of four degrees at eight AM, not unprecedented for running but just not attractive, I passed on the club’s donut run. Then, after several hours on a ladder whacking ice off the roof (a rather futile enterprise but it made me feel I’d done something to stave off the coming melt disaster) and emerging thoroughly chilled, the thought of getting out for a few miles in the afternoon, after the snow started falling, seemed, well, cold. Really, really cold. And with a race tomorrow – not the planned Hyannis relay which was cancelled due to snow-clogged roads, but an alternate race that I cannot for the life of me figure out why I was stupid enough to sign up for – staying inside and laying low seemed attractive.

Perhaps worse than the weather has been listening to the science deniers who proclaim that all of this snow and bone-chilling arctic air disprove the theory of human-induced climate change. It’s a core tenet of climate science that overall warming does not mean warming everywhere. It means increased volatility and changes to established patterns. One aspect of current thinking is that with the warming of the Arctic and subsequent loss of polar sea ice, the temperature differential between the polar and mid latitudes has diminished, which has weakened the jet stream, which has allowed more meanders in the atmosphere (think a slow, meandering river compared to a fast-running stream), which allows air masses to dive northward or southward more than in typical years, which results in pretty much exactly what we’re seeing.

Unlike certain politicians who recently have been afraid to admit their stances on basic sciences like evolution (seriously? didn’t we settle that one long ago?), I have confidence in the scientific process and the resulting knowledge that enhances our lives daily. Science debate is healthy. Science denial is ignorance. Ignorance of the process by which scientific knowledge is created, ignorance of the science we live by every day, and ignorance of the consequences that such denial can bring, especially if that denier is in a position of political influence. Go ahead, just ask that denier how they got to the rally they’re speaking at, and when they hold up their cell phone with the GPS app, ask them how it works – and how mankind figured out how to make it work. Science.

Which brings us to the news of last week, the much ballyhooed (I’ve been waiting years to use that word!) story paraded through the media of how running too much or too fast will kill us. (Yes, this column is about running; we do have to return to that topic.) Said study, published in the American College of Cardiologists journal, reported on the findings of the Copenhagen (Denmark) City Heart Study, and concluded, not unexpectedly, that “People who are physically active have at least a 30% lower risk of death during follow-up compared with those who are inactive.” So far, so good.

But then it gets interesting, and we get to the part where the media, always ripe for an angle and an argument to drive twenty-four hour coverage, tried to pick a fight. And I’ll admit they succeeded. I joined the fight, posting some rather pointed comments on various social media sites. But it’s worth stepping back a bit and looking at the whole story.

The second sentence in the abstract of the study (full disclosure: all I’ve seen is the abstract, since I’m not interested in paying to gain access to the whole study, so correct me if you’ve got the whole thing and I misspeak) states clearly, “However, the ideal dose of exercise for improving longevity is uncertain.” That too, would seem a reasonable statement. Every perspective is relative. Couch potatoes think light joggers are extremists. Light joggers view typical runners who actually race as hard-core. Typical runners see die-hard fossils like yours truly as a bit daft. And die-hards look at anyone who’s considered the Western States 100-Miler as a bit off their boat. It’s a given that at some level, too much of anything will kill you, so the authors’ statement is not unreasonable, no matter how much any one of you thinks you exercise an optimal amount.

Next, we get into the core of how science works, and this is where everything falls down, because I’d hazard that most in the media, and indeed most in the general public, aren’t enlightened on the process. In the simplest terms, you run a study, you publish the results. But the subtle key bit is that it’s unethical not to publish your results, even if they don’t match what you want or expect to see. It’s up to the rest of the scientific community to examine your methods to determine merits or correctable flaws and to try to replicate or repudiate your results based on further studies. One study doesn’t make knowledge. Replicable results do.

In keeping with proper ethics, the Copenhagen Study published their results, and they happened to show that in their study group, the lightest of the light joggers had a greater tendency not to die. (I describe them as lightest of light because the pace described only marginally exceeded a fast walk.) More average joggers had a slightly higher tendency to die. And the “strenuous” joggers (I use those dreaded double quotes because what was described as strenuous encompassed most of the runners I know, be they slow, middling, or fast) did, in fact, die most often. (Perhaps that odd wording, as none in fact died more than once, but you get the picture.) Whether they were surprised by this or not is irrelevant; they fulfilled their responsibility to publish. Reacting to the results, a researcher involved in the study was quoted as saying, "No exercise recommendations across the globe mention an upper limit for safe exercise, but perhaps there is one.”

The media, of course, had a field day. One could probably guess that most of those in the media who ran this up the flagpole rarely run the length of a flagpole, but that’s beside the point.

It’s perfectly acceptable to state that there may be a healthy upper limit for exercise. There are probably also healthy upper limits for broccoli, fish oil, and meditation.

It’s perfectly acceptable for us runner types to look at the study and guffaw at their category definitions of light, moderate, and strenuous.

It’s perfectly required of the scientific community to look at the study and determine its merits and flaws. To me, two stand out immediately. First, the sample size of strenuous joggers and the number of deaths in that tranche don’t provide enough statistical certainty to determine anything. Second, the causes of the two deaths in that group aren’t revealed, at least in the abstract. They’re labelled only as “All Causes” and for all we know, they were hit by a falling hyena in a freak zoo accident (but even if they died mid-stride, see Flaw One). The authors seem to recognize these facts, thus while they ethically report the data they found, they clearly state in their abstract that the optimal amount of exercise is uncertain.

This is one study. It is not knowledge. It is a data point to be replicated or repudiated. The media doesn’t get that. They just want news. But it brings up a good point when we go back to the weather. The media wants news, eyeballs, advertisements, revenue. They portray opposing sides of the climate change debate as having equal standing, because it makes for news. Any chink in the armor of one side grabs more headlines, sells more ads. But in this case, it’s not just one study. It is an overwhelming, nearly unanimous agreement of many, many studies and most people in the scientific community. It is knowledge. We can debate the details of how, and what to do, but it is knowledge. And it’s all of our responsibility to understand the scientific process so we understand why that is so. If we do, we can certainly question specific studies, but we can’t deny the very scientific process that brought us the technological capabilities to receive that twenty-four-hour news on the amazing device we carry in our pocket in the first place

Can one blame the public? I think I got a great education both in secondary school as well as at both of the colleges from which I graduated, yet through all those years of learning, never did anyone explain the process of peer-reviewed research. Only self-directed reading later in life lit me up on it. It’s no wonder most don’t get it, but we all need to. We’ve got to put a filter on the media, look behind the headlines, and understand the scientific process. Self-immolation through ignorance is a terrible way to go.

So at some point science might eventually tell me that all this running is folly, and if so, I can’t deny it. But at least I can enjoy the other benefits. A few days ago on a lunch-hour nine-miler, I came upon an unlucky motorist who, in an attempt to avoid an oncoming Behemoth SUV hogging the bulk of the curved, snow-covered and narrowed lane-and-a-half-wide road, ended up hung up on a massive snowbank. I can’t say that I was able to do a lot; a bit of digging, a little pushing (New England cross-training), some advice and moral support, but twenty minutes later we succeeded in freeing and sending him on his way. I ran off with a story and the satisfaction of leaving a little gratitude in my wake. That’s worth it.

09 February 2015

Helluva Hump

Saturday morning arrived with the kind of surprise that tells you that you’ve dug in, you’re into the winter thing waist-deep (literally). Rolling out of bed with nary a minute to spare to meet my local club-mates for our weekly donut run, I depended on the forecast from the night before and slid on the one and only pair of fleece tights I own, the ones reserved for sub-twenty days, since the Weather Gods had called for eleven to fourteen. Creaking stiffly down the stairs, I made a quick diversion to check the thermometer mounted in the dining room and – say what? It read twenty-three. And I thought, wow, it’s warm outside!

When twenty-three seems warm – and indeed, that morning’s run did feel warm and comfortable – it’s time for spring to set your sanity back in order. And to my way to thinking, it’s near, having passed the halfway point in the Sixty-Day Challenge (my definition of winter as the sixty days from January First to March First, after which is it spring, no matter what the calendar reads). Hump Day was January Thirtieth. For a while there it looked like we’d make the Hump with a light sentence. Ah, how wrong we can be. Summer has dog days. Clearly we’re in the sled dog days.

You’ve lived in a cave in the tropics out of range of all media if you don’t know about the blizzard that started New England on the catch-up trail to Buffalo status. Round One: Thirty-six inches – measured personally and confirmed officially in Hudson, just a mile from my front step – awarding us the crowing apex of the Blizzard Snowfall Derby. Six hours of hard shoveling over two days – I prefer an aggressive, rhythmic style – helped ratchet up the logged count of upper body workouts. Round Two - another eighteen inches less than a week later. And ignoring some noise of a few extra inches here and there in-between, Round Three, still tapering off, has added close to another foot and a half. We’re talking about six feet in two weeks. It’s enough to even make this native Upstate New York boy both proud and amazed, and dreading the melt behind the already massive ice dams.

School has been off more than on, the venerable Martha’s Vineyard Twenty-Miler has been cancelled, Massachusetts’ groundhog muttered something unprintable, and probably the most unthinkable result, I’ve actually hit the Hamster Cage (a.k.a. the dreadmill) more than once. Suffice to say it’s been a helluva hump. Yet amidst all of this, good things are happening.

Various bits that have been hurting actually seem to be healing. The Achilles feels better than it has in a long time. A brief scare with an inflamed sessamoid, the bit under the ball of your foot (very scary to me since that was the genesis of the Torn Tendon of Oh-Eight) passed by in the night with the tried-and-true medication of running right through it. And despite the snow, I’ve turned up the mileage dial, hitting two-hundred on the nose for January and getting a good jump on this month, resulting in at least a mild semblance of returning to a decent level of fitness. Not in spades, not in racing shape, but certainly in small, bite-size chunks. Hard work would seem to be paying off.

Let’s face it, there’s nothing like adversity to inspire. Damn the torpedoes, we’re over the Hump, even if a Helluva Hump it has been. Three weeks till spring.

23 January 2015


[ Ed. Note: While this won’t be posted till I’m home, I won’t revise the text based on any resources available when I get there. What would be the fun of that? Also, apologies for the length…lots of time on my hands up here! ]

I’m certain I’m at least somewhat misquoting John. F. Kennedy when he stated, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” I’m not in a position to check my wording, being currently about seven hundred miles south of Reykjavik and thirty-seven thousand feet up (and may I digress an note that thinking of Reykjavik brings back thoughts of Rocket John because he ran their marathon, and now nearly two years lost, we miss you…) in a plane with no WiFi, not that I’d pay for it anyway. But I’ll go further than misquoting and intentionally twist JFK’s words and note that we do things not just because they are hard, but because we can. One of the joys of being a runner is the opportunities opened up because you can.

It’s been another week of adventure in my one-seven-billionth segment of the Stories of Humanity mini-series, and one of the less mundane weeks in that story. Completing my World Financial Centers Tour (or Centres, if you prefer) which started last week in Toronto (where admittedly, at minus six Fahrenheit with a wicked northern wind and no daylight outside of business hours, I most adamantly Did Not Run), this week’s agenda was New York and London. Yes, all of that in just a week, or more accurately, four days, home to home (or at least it will be in a few hours). If that sounds rather rock ‘n roll, it has been.

Tuesday morning in New York delivered what’s become a favorite in my more-frequent-of-late visits to Manhattan, a tour through Central Park. This edition delivered perfection, a crisp thirtyish, crystal clear, the sun igniting the facades of Eighth Avenue in blinding brilliance as I circled the reservoir (which ironically is named after Jackie Kennedy, and no, that hadn’t crossed my mind when I stole Jack’s words to launch this reflection). Eight and a half miles left me awake and alert for what turned out to be a surprisingly good day of corporate training, before doing some commuter training out to Newark to catch a Dreamliner (first ride on a 787, the electronic window shades are very cool) overnight to London.

[ Roar of the engines, we’ve risen to thirty-eight thousand feet…]

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve visited the United Kingdom over the years. It’s approaching, if it hasn’t already hit, double digits, but almost every time I’ve popped in, it’s been into Heathrow and head west, or northwest, or southwest. Save one night in ninety-three for a quick show (Phantom! …and it was notably dark, no touring), I hadn’t been in central London since…can you believe…nineteen eighty-seven? Pushing thirty years. Finally, on this trip we were booked in the heart of the city because that’s where our customer was. Finally, it’d be nice to check out the bits that make London what London is. But business being business, and this being an itinerary from Purgatory, stretching this into a mini-vacation wasn’t an option, so the window to enjoy the city was seriously slim. But we are runners. We run. We do these things because we can.

Red eye flights, well, there’s no other word. Suck. A couple hours of fitful sleep do nobody any favor. Over the years, I’ve tried all the usual methods of combating the results without materially changing the outcome. So why not try something different? We are runners. We run. We do these things because we can.

The locals will tell you not to drive in London. The locals are right. I’ll add to that, don’t even take a cab. We tried, over the course of our one-and-three-quarter-day visit, with results ranging from decent (late at night), to slow (noon), disastrous (morning rush), and calamity of epic proportions (previous morning rush – epic as in nearly three hours shoehorned in the back of a minivan with the world’s cruelest seats; I am still lacking feeling in certain body parts – and let’s remember I’m small to begin with). The locals will tell you to take the tube, alias the Underground, and there’s something to that (day passes are quite reasonably priced). But you don’t see much while you’re underground. And walking the central city is grand, if you’ve got the time. But with only a few hours between arrival and customer time, well, that’s not gonna’ happen. So? We are runners. We run. We do these things because we can.

Arriving just past noon Wednesday at our home away from home in the Old Street area of the City of London (the central city area), I grabbed a light lunch with my colleague and left her to retire to her hotel room to nap, or drink, or both. Around two local time, less than four hours off the plane, I hit the road. London in January, gray, overcast, but dry, mid-thirties again like New York, but a damp thirtyish that almost felt warm. Just right to keep the sweat down without freezing. (Well, technically it was three degrees, since they use Centigrade. But they mark the roads in miles and miles per hour, and their cars report miles per gallon. Yet they sell petrol by the litre. And tell you that you are five-foot-seven tall. Then sell you food in kilos. But measure your resulting weight, or mass, in stones. This is a confused country.)

That cheap mini-camera I bought for my post-surgery casual Boston back in oh-nine came in handy once again. I rarely made a quarter mile at a time without stopping to snap some pics or occasionally pester a local for a non-selfie – a collection follows the prose (easier than weaving them in when there are lots). London being London – twistier even than Boston – I got turned around a few times here and there, but not being an entirely typical male I took no shame in asking my way now and then, and thus managed to cover off the route I’d plotted and committed to memory, never unfolding the break-glass-in-emergency map in my pocket.

The afternoon quickly became a check-off list of the must-see spots of the city: St. Paul’s Cathedral. The “Shard” (a cool pointy skyscraper). The Millennium Bridge. Views to the Tower Bridge. South Thames promenade. The London Eye. Parliament Bridge, Parliament, and Big Ben (“Look kids, there’s Big Ben! …can’t look up the hyperlink to National Lampoon’s European Vacation while aloft…). Westminster Abbey. A London call box (for Dearest Offspring the Elder, the Dr. Who fan) (remarked the Londoner who shot the pic, “Pity it’s not blue!”). St. James Park. The Mall, memories of Meb’s heroic fight back to fourth place in the 2012 Olympic Marathon. Buckingham Palace. Another park who’s name I can’t remember. A famous arch who’s name I can’t remember. Even pelicans! The Serpentine, and out to the Italian Garden. All in about an hour-twenty.

Did I seriously tour any of these spots? Of course not. Was this a comprehensive expedition? No way. But how else can you take in that much of any city on very little time? We are runners. We run. We do these things because we can.

And most importantly, I didn’t die. The Brits have a heart; they paint warnings to look right or look left at almost all crosswalks. It’s not just Americans who show up and become taxi fender fodder. Still, despite these persistent warnings, at running speed – even casual running speed – getting the brain to process which way to look first takes some practice. I’m proud to say that I only slipped up once. It was close. I can tell you exactly what the front of that cab looked like at point-blank range and I can still hear the horn. But close doesn’t count against you.

Turning at the Italian Garden, I knew I had a long stretch back to the hotel and decided it was time to dial it up from the stop-start tourist eights and nines into some real mileage on the return leg. A tip from a local put me on a quieter parallel to my planned busy-but-direct (read, less likely to get lost) route. Shortly thereafter another runner burst around the corner and settled not twelve feet ahead of me. Oblivious to my presence but moving at an ideal mid-sevens clip, this guy clearly had the left-right-don’t-become-a-hood-ornament thing down. Perfect. I had a native blocker! The next mile and a half felt like I had an escort, a bodyguard, LeGarrett Blount of the Patriots weaving through the lines, and I wondered how long before he’d notice me back there (I wasn’t stalking, he was just focused…). At last we spoke; to my surprise he was merely another Yank, though clearly a London-experienced Yank at that.

A planned eight to nine morphed into twelve miles on a two-hour tour, the last forty minutes delivering a decent workout after playing blatant tourist. I’d refreshed the memories of my last city tour twenty-eight years past. There was simply no better way to get such a tour in the time available. We are runners. We run. But best of all? Jet lag? What jet lag?

[ Air’s gotten quite rough. Hitting the right keys is getting a bit trickier, and my fellow passenger to my left reveals he’s not keen on flying. The saga continues… ]

In our client meetings that night and the next days, my co-travelling colleague continually remarked to all we met how her crazy partner got off the plane and ran twelve miles. Suspicious, worried, and pitied glances were exchanged and the local mental health authorities were put on alert. It wasn’t really worth getting into the philosophy behind what they viewed as a rather extreme life choice. And if I’d told them how effective it was on the jet lag, they’d have likely locked me up as a looney. But I think I’ve finally stumbled on the best method yet for beating the suck out of the redeye.

After a long day of meetings yesterday (highly worth the trip, for the record) and another late night, the obvious choice would be to recover and slink home the next morning. But you know I couldn’t resist one last chance.

You can count on far less than one hand the days in an average year that I’m out the door and running before six AM. Start this year’s count at one; it happened. Darkness wasn’t an issue in the well-lit city. Indeed, darkness made my traverse of the Tower Bridge (the one everyone thinks is the London Bridge) and the actual London Bridge (which is quite boring, save for its view of the Tower Bridge) into a delight. Beautifully lit, it left me a few memorable (even if of only marginal quality from the cheap mini-cam) final shots of London.

We are runners. We run. We do these things because we can. We can reap joys like running tourism. We only regret that our friends and colleagues don’t also share the fun.

Enjoy the pictures!

18 January 2015


I’m tickled when serendipity tosses a little airtime my way and a few extra eyeballs might meander into the mire of my prose. My friends at Level Renner (a fine running eZine, well worth frequent visits) were kind enough to re-post my previous penning, as well as a link to these hallowed halls of harrumphing. And for those adventurous enough to come my way this week, I offer…toenails?

I will spare you and not provide any pictures this week. At my core, I am not cruel.

I hear your voices scream in the night, why? And I respond not with the answer you expect, but with something entirely different.

What you expect is a discourse about how runners are notorious for destroying toenails. Runners are even more notorious about bragging of the toenails they’ve destroyed. Such notoriety has reached the point that we aged jaded types don’t even laugh anymore at the signs along the marathon routes which read, “Toenails are overrated.” This is news?

This isn’t about trashing a talon doing twenty or more. I haven’t actually done that in a long time. That’s not to say I don’t usually have at least one claw in a regeneration state. It’s just that I’ve figured out how to avoid this on the roads, and instead I tend to do it on the mountains – not while running, but while hiking. I will indeed brag of my masterly abilities to stumble and stub just about any part of my body while slogging through the woods. Maybe a new set of boots would help, but hiking boots become old friends, and you don’t abandon your friends just because they occasionally cause you pain.

He’s opining on relationships with leather footwear. Yep, he’s truly lost it.

No, seriously, there is a point here, just stay with me. It’s about aging.

A couple of years back when I was invited to join the Greater Boston team, when I doth protested, “I’m not worthy” and the likes, one of the key messages my GBTC introducer said to me was that in order to maintain a masters team, plenty of bodies were needed because of two reasons. First, masters, being in a different stage of life than the post-collegiate whippersnappers who make the club’s name great, have a lot more going on in their lives and just can’t make it to races as often. And second, masters, being in a different stage of life, period, break more often and take longer to heal.

I didn’t buy into that all that much. In my late forties, I was still enjoying the on-ramp to what became – at least to date – my peak (and no, I’m not saying it’s not yet re-attainable, just stating the historical facts here). Things broke, but I got over them, even if it took a year, two years, or more.

On the surface, things aren’t really that different now, in my early fifties. Things break, and I work to get over them, and it clearly is taking a year, two years, or more. I don’t know, I’m not there yet. The Achilles is far better after my late-year respite, but it’s not a hundred percent, and meanwhile other stuff hurts, pace suffers, and wind sucks. Coming back from any downturn is a long process. This time is no different. Or is it?

Late in August, Dearest Daughter the Younger and I slogged up a couple of summits in the Adirondacks. On a fine day when DDY started her ADK 46ers list (I’m nearing the halfway mark), all was joy and happiness except for two nasty toe stubs (well, and there was that bit where I walked into the tree stump with my thigh, but it left no lasting damage). While it’s not uncommon for me to trash little toes, this day was quite rare in that I managed to trash both big toes. Yah, well, whatever. A few days of tenderness, manage the damage in graphic yet proven ways that I won’t describe here, and wait six months, good as new. What else is new?

Except it’s now over four and a half months, and the renewal process is way behind schedule. The damage isn’t even half grown out. It looks like I’m going to miss the usual six month repair window by a long stretch. Maybe my recollection of the expected timeframe is misguided (it’s been a while since I previously trashed the big ones), but this seems like a notable slowdown to me.

This has no impact on my running of course, nor will it stop me from surmounting the next summit that avails itself. It is, however, a curious view of what it means to be growing older. In short, my GBTC friend appears to have been onto something, something that didn’t resonate back then, but that this little biological window has now illuminated. It’s not a surprise (indeed, Dr. Foot Doctor has made similar comments many times), it’s just something you don’t internalize until you have to.

The implications are rather interesting, in that I’d always figured as we age, our racing would slow down because our bodies would simply slow down. I’m sure that’s still true, but it’s also becoming clear that our racing will slow down also because as we age, we can’t keep up the same level of training because we just don’t repair the damage we inflict at a fast enough rate to maintain the load. Maintaining a balance of optimal strength and fitness relative to what your body can handle is a challenge at any age, but it’s becoming clear that the test gets harder, which is all the more reason for us to respect those still at it, logging the miles into later and later decades of life.

Someone telling me this a few years back made sense, but didn’t really hit home. You’ve got to get there to see the landscape. The good news is the realization that more and more becomes clear as time goes on and we never stop learning; not just about facts and details, but about life and ourselves.

All this from looking at my bashed up toenails. Yep, he’s truly lost it.

04 January 2015

No Whimpering

When March gets here – that’s on the other end of the annual 60 Day Challenge which started a few days ago – we can talk about it coming in like a lion and leaving like a lamb (or in recollection of John Belushi’s famed take on the subject, it may come in like a wildebeest). At the moment, the New Year has just come in, and it’s arrived with a whimper. And while that’s OK with me, I refuse to whimper. Having heard in the last two weeks the tales of two friends who narrowly cheated death this past year, I’ve no right to moan and complain about a small painful bit and its resulting impact on my training and racing.

Best laid plans had me bursting dramatically and triumphantly onto the roads on Christmas Day, breaking my self-imposed injury exile with Yuletide Glee. But let’s face it, the first run back after a long break rarely results in drama or triumph; more likely – as was the case this time – it’s a slow and careful shuffle. So why waste that annual excuse to run in Christmas plumage on a jog of a mile or two? No, far better to be good and ready for that Christmas return-to-the-roads gift. Besides, knowing all the Christmas Crap (chocolate-covered nuts, chocolate-covered cranberries, chocolate-covered pine branches, chocolate-covered rocks, you know) coming in my near future, I just had to get back into it. Crank up the metabolism, kids, the onslaught is coming!

Thus I jumped the gun on my planned Christmas gift. As one who is rarely early for anything, I should probably feel a little pride, but I do recognize that heading out a few days ahead of plan probably just tempted fate. All the more reason to make the reboot a slow and ponderous process, two miles, then three, three and a half, four, no watches, no worries about slogging along at nines, and mostly, no relapse of the big Achilles woes. A twinge? Yes, a bit, it’s not perfect, and my toes are still crossed. Pain like before? No, at least not yet.

With the pre-holiday ramp-up, I was ready to have more than a measly twenty minutes of fun on Christmas Day. Ironically, the biggest threat to that annual tradition came from Mother Nature. Christmas Day dawned so warm – in the mid-fifties – that it was almost overkill to hit the roads in traditional garb. Balancing the headgear with shorts, both to shed head heat and, well, just to do it – to run in shorts on Christmas is one of those things you do because you can – that run was mildly dramatic and triumphant, stretching the distance and dropping the pace back into the high sevens, and being out there long enough to spread some cheer among passing motorists, a few of whom actually pay attention and notice the fun. Ho ho ho to you all!

But let’s be honest. It wasn’t really dramatic and triumphant, it was still rather slow and plodding, with the primary goal of not hurting anything. As were my subsequent brief holiday week outings, wrapping up the year with almost the identical mileage and outing count as the year before. Ho-hum annual stats for a second straight year, but this was no time to try to pile it on to rescue any sort of nerdy yet meaningless numerical goals. With less than four months till Boston (yes, it’s out there), there’s a lot of work to be done, but none of it means a whit unless I’m healthy enough to help fill a corral in Hopkinton.

Which is exactly why the New Year came in with a whimper. While it’s a tradition to race on New Year’s Day, partially to kick the year off with a bang and partially to – let’s be brutally honest – stuff it in the face of the hangover lifestyle, this year my resolution was to make no bangs for a while, just whimpers. So rather than hitting the Freezer Five or First Run, I opted to join clubmates for a very pleasant leisurely stride on the trails at our local Assabet National Wildlife Refuge. New Year’s Day run notched, no damage done. A chance meeting with a local clubmate the next day kept the streak of non-abuse alive, and the next day, taking advantage of our lack of snow (at least until last night), another trail outing – complete with some photographic silliness – kept the Whimper Streak going through the third.

What’s the point of this prattle? It’s certainly my goal to get back to fightin’ shape. It’s certainly my intention to regain a competitive footing. And it’s certainly my plan to work hard to get there. But if a day, a week, a month, a season, or more of unexciting, non-racing, strength building training – the stuff that doesn’t make for extremely interesting blog posts – well, so be it. That’s what needs to happen. And I won’t whimper.

A couple weeks ago I received news from a teammate of his freak accident that resulted in a near-fatal infection. A couple days ago I received word from a former co-worker of his freak illness that resulted in not just a near-fatal, but in fact, a multiply-fatal condition – as in, the brought him back from the other side more than once during his ordeal. These stories scream the word perspective, and remind me that I’ve got no right to complain. I’m vertical and breathing, and that’s what matters.

I can hope that this year brings the fun of big gains, big races, big numbers, and big fun. But I’ll keep reminding myself that twenty-fifteen mostly needs to be the year of No Whimpering.

13 December 2014


Skimming this month’s Running Times (I find these magazines become repetitive after about two years, so a skim usually suffices), I did note an interesting bit on connective tissue, the bane of my existence as age accumulates. On the famed Achilles, said article referenced a study once done where subjects who had lived through the era of atmospheric atomic tests – a time when the levels of carbon-14 in the atmosphere were higher than normal and higher than now – had the composition of their Achilles tested. In many of those whose formative years coincided with the carbon-14 era, their Achilles still showed a higher concentration of the isotope, decades later. Ah, but what does this mean, you ask? It means that the Achilles, unlike most parts of the body, doesn’t self-replace and self-repair at any appreciable rate unless you actively compel it to do so.

This isn’t a surprise to me, having had this very discussion with Dr. Foot Doctor two summers back. His advice that the Achilles just doesn’t heal at any rapid rate led to my decision to submit to his knife, his sewing skills, and his magic wand for some active repair and active coercion to heal. The major injury certainly responded to the suture in fairly short order, and the coercion bit – the wand-induced perforation to promote blood flow where no blood has flown before, did also, after a long time, bring about healing. But all of this came at the significant cost of the Clot Caper, an adventure I’d like not to repeat, so this time around I’ve not sought to tread that path.

Which leads to the current quandary, whereas the injury-du-jour (or at least the one in discussion here, ignoring the knee from the other side of the world which still irks regularly) resides in the transition zone where the upper Achilles meets the lower calf, that spot that isn’t tendon or muscle but is in fact a little bit of both, adding hope to the healing prospects (being partly muscle) but also adding mystery for the prognosis (being a mix of unknown proportion). With the wisdom of accumulated history (not to mention being well under my medical deductible this year), I really didn’t think shelling out seven hundred bucks for another MRI was needed to diagnose a small tear in the Mystery Zone, especially when during the first few weeks of my forced break, each time some event caused me to thoughtlessly break into a jog or do something slightly stressful, I could almost feel the regression. It wasn’t hard to imagine a small tear, trying to heal itself, that kept getting pulled apart again and again. The trouble, of course, is that my walnut-sized brain took weeks to reach this obvious conclusion, but there’s a lesson here: the value of training logs, even when you’re not training. Here’s where I go all nerd on you…

My logs are comprised of a couple of elements. Having been born with the Spreadsheet Gene, that device tracks everything and allows me to bask in OCD glory and tell you at any time my mileage since this adventure began on the twenty-third of March in the year 2005 (that’d be seventeen thousand, five hundred and twenty two…point six). The document component comprises the standard loggy bits – the whims and reflections of each day – plus a bunch more similarly OCD features added over the years during moments of abandon, when the spirit moved me to look at something a slightly different way.

One of those bits which has proven most useful is the section labeled “Running Days” which is nothing more than the digital form of coloring in the calendar with crayon. Why? Well, because who doesn’t like crayons? And also because I can tell at a glance if I’ve been running a lot of days or missing a lot of days, going to the gym too little, and so on. Like many of these added loggings, it started simple before growing additional heads. Run on that day, color it in. But that didn’t really tell the story. Hit the gym for upper body? I’d like to see that, too. Didn’t run, but hiked twelve miles? Doesn’t really seem like that day should be left uncolored, now, does it? Categories proliferated like CIA-supplied weapons in the Middle East to the point where I’m about to hit double digits if I think of one other flavor. (And if you’re wondering what that red “Seriously Ugly” means, think blood clots in the emergency room. Seriously Ugly.)

But all of this time spent on arts & crafts has a purpose. It was pretty clear from glancing at the last month and a half that while it’s now been that long since admitting to injured status (that sunny yellow that so lies about the reality of my mental state), and I’ve thought of myself as having been off the roads that long, it wasn’t till nearly Thanksgiving that I brained up and actually stopped interrupting this interruption long enough to make any progress. I should note that while not marked in the coloring book, another case of spontaneous jogging erupted at Dearest Daughter the Younger’s cross country meet back in early November, further breaking up healing time, thus never making it past about ten days in a stretch throughout last month.

Stubbornness dies hard, but it’s now (nearly, I hope) dead. Tomorrow marks three weeks since last slipping out of Park and into gear before the rubber on the tires was cured. And lo-and-behold, things are actually starting to feel better. I’ve forced myself onto the stationary bike, truly dreadful, but better than nothing and stress-free to the hurting bits. I’ve played cripple on the stairs and other uneven spots to try to avoid re-tears. I’ve gotten over the seriously grumpy stage and risen to only mildly grumpy as my body has adjusted to a lack of endorphin production. And despite knowing that it’ll take longer to recover my fitness and speed the longer I wait this out, I’m at peace to coast just a little while longer so the next time I hit the road, it’ll be for keeps.

I hope.