27 October 2019

The Cheese Storm Incident

It’s fitting, I suppose. My first attempt to run the New York City Marathon dramatically came to an end thanks to a major storm. So it was, again, this time. Sort of. That first time it was Hurricane Sandy, which, after a week of dithering (what to do?), finally put the nail in the coffin of the event. This latest time it was an entirely different and somewhat odd type of storm, which, after a month of dithering (what to do?), it too finally put the nail in the coffin of the event. Such was born the Cheese Storm Incident.

I suppose I deserve it. I’ve always had an aversion to trash-talking of any sort; you trash-talk and you usually get bit. That’s why I never do it before a race. I avoid it so much that my clubmates regularly ignore me when I anti-trash-talk (if that’s a thing) and point out how crappy I’m usually feeling and how poorly I expect to perform before toeing the line. Even when I really do have a Meh race, they often don’t see it that way, only reinforcing their disbelief of my pre-race grumblings.

This time, I blew it.

Granted, what I did would hardly be called trash-talking, but by my standards, perhaps I jinxed myself. I wrote “I Must Run This Marathon”, and I stated aloud far too many times that I’d be running New York come hell or high water (though considering Hurricane Sandy, high water would in fact be a good reason why I wouldn’t run, but you get the idea). I guess that for me that qualified as braggadocio. I opened my mouth. I got bit.

I’m out. Cancelled. Not only that but sidelined. I’m now oh-for-three on New York.

To cut to the car crash, as a former co-worker used to say, I’m the proud owner of a complete radial tear in posterior horn of the medial meniscus of my right knee, and, in the wake of the Cheese Storm, it might actually be worse. Dr. Triathlon (we’ll get to him later) prefers the self-healing option, which could take up to (gulp!) six months, though I’m hoping for four. Surgery, says he, only removes material and hastens the onset of bone-on-bone arthritis, not a good idea for the active, athletic type, especially when there’s already evidence of some bone degeneration around the tear. In short, me and the (literal) pain-in-the-ass stationary bike down at El-Cheapo gym are going to be good friends for quite a while.

Oh how did we get here? How have we sunk so low? How has the ever-increasing entropy of the universe caught up with us? (We? Us? I hear you saying… Yes, you’re just fine, I’m the hurtin’ puppy. It’s just linguistic artistic license. Go with it.)

It all started in a 5,000-watt radio station in Fresno California… no, wait, that was Ted Baxter (just checking to see how old you, dear reader, really are). In my case it all started with a simple walk around town back in May, prior to Sugarloaf. Or at least that’s when I noticed it. It probably started before that, because the symptom that came on quite suddenly that day, as Dearest Spouse and I neared completion of a long circuit around our beloved city wasn’t so much in the knee as behind it. Suddenly I couldn’t straighten my leg, and later I’d find I couldn’t bend it all the way, either. This, it would turn out, appeared to be the work of a big-ass baker’s cyst, which itself appeared to be the work of an already ticked off meniscus. But at that stage, who knew? I did what all runners do: walked it off, managed the pain. We live for pain, right? Then Sugarloaf came with decent results, so I shrugged it off. Runner mentality.

But as I’ve previously documented, I really couldn’t entirely shrug it off. I don’t need to reiterate the bitching and moaning of my last post. Suffice to say that during the last Adirondack Death March weekend of the season the pain was manageable, but for days afterward I wasn’t moving too well. And New York loomed. What to do? This called for a Plan, yes, that’s Plan with a Capital P.

Serendipity dropped an interesting idea. A running bud posted that a half-marathon needed pacers. On Nantucket. Now, I’ve lived in the Commonwealth for over thirty-four years, and I’ve yet to go to Nantucket. I know, it’s just an island, but someday I need to set foot there. And a half marathon would force some decent miles, three weeks before New York. And acting as a pacer would force a slow, comfortable pace. It would be a proof point, a bit of confidence heading into which might be an Epic Struggle in New York. To be fair, it wasn’t the greatest deal around; though the race was free for pacers, the boat ticket and the pacing team shirt rang up to a decent price, but I really didn’t care. It was an Adventure. It was Nantucket. And it fit within The Plan.

Just to be sure I wasn’t running on anything seriously broken, I paid a visit to a new orthopedist, an athletic type we’ll call Dr. Triathlon (I told you we’d get to him) who came recommended by my current physical therapist and spiritual advisor as the best knee guy out there. A couple of fresh x-rays revealed nothing (though I’d never learn why the radiologist put a menacing arrow on one of them), no surprise for what I expected was a soft tissue issue. I left his office cleared to run but a bit perplexed. I was skeptical of his diagnosis (said skepticism would prove apt in due time) that the lower end of my hamstring, which wraps around the inside of the knee where the pain was greatest, was seriously angry. This really didn’t fit the bone-centric pain I was feeling, but hey, he’s the doctor, right? I left with a prescription for some beat-things-into-submission meds.

Which did nothing. So much for that theory. And the horizon seemed to be sinking by the day. By the time the pacing team shirt showed up in the mail, I was no longer certain I could even run that half at the comfortable pace I’d committed. And as a pacer, I couldn’t chance letting down those whom I’d be pacing. Time to amend The Plan.

Turns out I had a free entry to another local half marathon (which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty; it was free because the previous race by this organization had, um, underperformed, let’s say, so they offered me this one). Two weeks before Nantucket.

Now you are starting to see the absurdity of the situation. From running a Boston Qualifier in May, I was reduced to running a half marathon just to see if I could run a half marathon slowly as a pacer, which in itself was just to see if I had a shot in heck of running New York. Sad, ain’t it?

The day of said local half dawned close to ideal. It’d turn mildly warm a few miles in, but nothing to provide any excuse for a total collapse; no, this would all be on me. A small gaggle of about seventy lined up at an obscure spot on an obscure road in an obscure town, and with zero expectations for racing performance – this was, after all, just a test of going the distance casually – I sauntered off about as casually as I’ve ever started a race. Frankly, it was downright pleasant.

And for a while, it stayed that way. I was easily exceeding the pace I’d need to pace without much effort. For a few miles I linked up with the young lady who’d win the women’s side; curiously she looked familiar, which turned out to be because I’d run an earlier event with her identical twin sister. All was sunshine, butterflies, and happiness (along with a couple of good hills, which I rather enjoyed, I really loved the course) till about halfway in. Then all went to hell in the space of a mile.

From cruising to barely moving. From, yeah, the knee hurts a little, but no different than usual, to a stride so uneven, so favoring the tragic knee that the opposite calf started twitching dangerously. From humming to a broken wreck. Stretching stops. Both calves flipping out. As much pain walking (no, limping) as running (no, jogging). Downright pathetic. But just as stupidly as ever, willing myself to finish. I shuffled home, tail between legs, and drowned my sorrows by crashing the party at the hometown 5K, a far more jovial, friend-filled, and food-and-beer equipped event.

Now I wasn’t just not moving too well, I was in downright agony. Running was out of the question. A flurry of phone calls to Dr. Triathlon’s office over the course of the week got me booked for an MRI that Friday night, and after laying in the bang-bang tube with the earphones pumping bad music (really, that’s what they called ‘classic rock’?) I left with a DVD that I totally could not interpret. I mean, x-rays are straightforward. MRIs are wild. Looking at those images, I swore there were cracks right through the base of my femur, which felt about right for the pain (wrong: just normal vascular structures that exist inside your bones…who knew?). But by the weekend, the pain was calming down and I was feeling like this too would pass.

Do you remember that this is supposed to be about the Cheese Storm Incident? I haven’t forgotten. It’s time.

It’s now Monday evening. I have an MRI in hand. I have an appointment with Dr. Tri and, I suppose, with fate, in the morning. And I have a substantial bowl of pasta in front of me for dinner, whipped up by Dearest Spouse. And DS picks up the jar of grated cheese, because this being a more-or-less desperation dinner, it doesn’t merit grating up the real parmesan in the fridge. And it’s one of those store-brand plastic jars with the lid that opens on one side to sprinkle and on the other to pour or spoon. And she holds onto the lid flap and shakes it vigorously to break up the clumps. But only one lid flap. The other is freer than a love child at Burning Man. And it’s the side that pours. And oh, did it rain. It poured.

Cheese Storm. Category Five.

An instant of silence, that tension of, she’s wondering, will he be pissed at this lapse (which, admittedly, I’ve been known to allow to happen, I’m not proud of that failing), and… we burst out laughing. A happy old married couple moment. Dearest Spouse starts to move to clean up and I say, oh, just sit down and eat, we’ll deal with it later. We eat our dinner surrounded by a fresh coat of cheese as delicate as the soon to arrive snow. See, even I can be poetic if I try hard.

Sated with pasta, I retrieve the vacuum from the basement, and we work more efficiently than FEMA after a tornado to remediate the mayhem. Satisfied, I walk gently down the stairs to return said vacuum, still fully aware that my knee is not in top form. And halfway down, on an otherwise ordinary step, something goes pop, or crunch, or snap, I really don’t know, but I know it makes some sort of discernable unpleasant nonstandard noise, and the pain shoots, and I cannot move. At that moment, I know it’s over. My hopes of pulling off the New York City Marathon at last – are toast. I spend the evening crawling around the house. It’s that bad.

Thus, the Cheese Storm Incident. So, how did you kill your knee? Cleaning up cheese. No, really.

I stumble into Dr. Triathlon’s office the next morning on crutches. He doesn’t seem alarmed. I guess he’s used to this, but since I’d left him in far better shape the last time I’d seen him, I guess I expected at least a little surprise. The MRI, which, having been taken Friday night before Tropical Storm Romano made landfall, is probably already obsolete (though again, Dr. Tri didn’t seem concerned by this either), shows the damage. Only a radiologist could string together prose like, “Complete radial tear of the posterior horn of the medial meniscus. Associated edema at the meniscocapsular junction at the level of the posterior horn may represent meniscocapsular sprain.” There was more, but I don’t want to unnecessarily raise the average word length of this saga.

I didn’t disagree with Dr. Tri’s assessment that it’s worth trying to let it heal rather than surgically snipping out parts that will never grow back. So it’s months of no running. Pray for my sanity. No Nantucket – not a big deal, though I felt bad for having committed and having to pull out. But moreso... No New York. And so that’s it. Three and out.

Unlike Boston, New York does allow for a deferral, so I can translate my entry to next year (paying again, but whatever…). But I’ll have to decide that around January, when it may not be entirely clear how well the healing is going. I had already concluded that it was probably time to scale back to shorter distances – I just planned to ease into that after New York, and Boston, and, well…I’d get there at some point, and not fret about it. There are always adventures to be had that don’t require twenty-six miles, and there are plenty more summits as well. Just take it as it comes…

But you’ve got to admit that if it had to happen, you couldn’t ask for a better title for the big moment.

21 August 2019

Either / Or

An email arrived a week back that sent a jolt through the system. Time to pick your transportation and baggage options for the New York City Marathon. It’s less than three months away.

Marathon? I’ve got a marathon slated out there? In less than three months? And not just any marathon, but New York, where I am Oh-for-Two, the first miss being Hurricane Sandy which wiped the event and much of Staten Island off the map, the second being a couple years back when my injured state just would not let it happen, so now, third time’s a charm (right?), and I Must Run This Marathon. But oh, how far from marathon shape I am in. Or not in.

Sure, I ran Sugarloaf just three short months ago, and sure, I pulled off a respectable showing. But oh, how fast things have been falling apart. I’m getting out there, but not necessarily to run or do anything remotely like getting ready for New York. Consider, I hiked as far in the Adirondacks in one three-day stretch last month as I ran for the entire month. Granted, while those classic Adirondack Death Marches didn’t hurt so far as endurance and fitness go (but certainly did leave scars both physical and emotional), …they were not runs. That’s different fitness.

Life has, I’m afraid, come down to an Either / Or proposition at this point. Too much running sometimes leaves me with tenderized joints that might – or might not – survive the next scheduled Death March (and those events need to be scheduled – travel, companions, etc.). But too much hiking leaves me without the running fitness that I need to be building, rather than losing, with New York looming. This year, injured or not, I am going (dammit), even if I need to jog or walk the thing. Thus, I need to be in some sort of shape other than marshmallow.

As such, there have been lots of non-running days before hiking expeditions, and there have been a lot of expeditions lately due to my obsession of chasing both Adirondack 46er status (and with it, completion of the Northeast 111 list, which, as I’ve noted here before, curiously includes 115 summits), and the New England Hundred Highest roster. None of the remaining summits on either list are common with the other, so I’ve got plenty of rocks to scale and short seasons (considering weather and daylight) to cram them in. And no, neither completion will happen this year, but you’ve got to make headway, right?

With little running comes little racing and with little racing comes little writing. The cable news industry may have to fill their airwaves, so for them, any news, even news that really isn’t, is news. The Weather Channel also ran into this problem, but their solution was to create so much weather-themed-but-not-actually-weather content that it seemed there was never any weather being reported when I tuned in, so I stopped tuning in. I’m not keen to emulate those models, so when I have little of great interest, I just go a bit dark.

And it’s been a bit dark of late, even somewhat depressing. A difficult time for someone who’s theme here is to find the bright spots, stay positive, highlight the good, shine with motivation. My body has decided to age quite a bit in recent months, and things hurt, things don’t heal, challenges mount. I used to carry on about the pesky left knee, but now it has a partner on the right which hurts in an entirely different manner, and, irony of irony, one hurts more running, the other walking, so you can’t win. Training has suffered. Racing has suffered. Fitness has suffered. But all bitching and moaning makes Jack a dull boy. So let’s stop bitching and tell stories anyway.

June brought about an entirely ordinary five-kilometer race, and July followed with an even more ordinary five-miler on the Fourth. Bitch, bitch, moan, moan, I hear you say, you still took a first and a second in your age group in those races, respectively. Yeah, but when you’re a full minute slower in than just a year back in a very short race, well, that’s disappointing. But there is good.

June’s outing was our local club’s race in honor of fallen Massachusetts State Trooped Thomas Clardy. It’s a race, but really, it’s a mission, so whatever racing performance comes out of something like this is secondary to our efforts to make it a premier event. And a premier event it was, all hands on deck from the club, the entire recruit class of the State Police running the course in formation, and a truly impressive showing from the law enforcement community, striking a note of pride in all of us. Oh, and there was also the fun of herding – and sometimes racing – the kids through the mini-marathon course. Hard work, I know, but somebody had to do it.

And as the race went, it wasn’t terrible, though it was a bit of a roller-coaster. Doing double duty as both race staff and runner, I didn’t commit to even leaving the start line until about ten minutes before the gun, and even then, I questioned why. Less than a mile in, passing Dearest Spouse, I gave her a look of anguish and shouted out, “It’s bad.”, but the mile clicked in better than expected giving me a reason for why I felt so beat up, so spirits brightened. Yet minutes later, by the halfway mark I was back on the rocks, so baked, so fried, that when a clubmate of my generation crept alongside, I gave in and told him to go out and get it, since my get it had got up and gone. But with a half mile to go, he tanked as well, and I had that momentary internal debate of honor: after having verbally conceded, what kind of cad would smoke on by? I rationalized that it wasn’t so much about passing him as it was about not letting myself disintegrate, not giving in even more, not letting myself slow down further, no matter who was in front or behind me. So, what could I do? It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win. And all of this action-packed drama in a mere three miles.

The amusement of the day was that while I put nine seconds on him by the line to take the Mostly Fossilized Division, the next finisher, a mere four seconds later, was equally ripened and rounded out the top three of our division. Thirteen seconds and three consecutive finishers covered the podium for our the old farts. Don’t think I’ve seen that before.

So, let’s see, we had civic pride, come-from-behind drama, and a statistical anomaly. Plenty good.

No such drama a month later at the Harvard Five-Miler on the Fourth of July. Just a hot, hilly, hellacious haul, and this time when an apparently fossilized competitor passed me by, I just smiled and waved and let him go as there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it, then turned my attention back to coaching the young kid next to me while we tackled the big climb. My initial assessment of my vanquisher’s maturity proved accurate;
yes, you can indeed judge a book by its cover, and so I settled for the slightly smaller second-place-sized jug of maple syrup. The race? Meh. The outing with my clubmates? A prime example of finding the good.

And so, with no other races slated till fall, that would, by this not-very-ripe date of mid-August, have wrapped up the story of the summer already. Except that the summer has been repurposed for knocking off summits. Remember that bit about finding the good? Well, here's more: I’m declaring this a big win season, just in a different category. Since the start of last month, eight of the New England Hundred Highest have fallen, plus three of the ‘Dacks. I won’t finish either list this year, so I’d better not expire just yet, but that takes out a quarter of my remaining peaks in barely six weeks.

Hundred Highest summits range from mellow to obscure to gnarly, and each assault has taken on a different flavor. East Sleeper, a blowdown-encrusted viewless and forlorn spot, came down with the interesting bonus of signing on to a seven-summit multi-day backpacking trip, the first time I’ve strapped on a full pack since the early nineties. The good? I didn’t die. The Weeks (North, Middle, and South, two count, guess which ones…) topped Sleeper with an even more hellaciously blown down obstructed excuse for a trail, but served up some sublimely green and beautiful (and oddly flat) summits. Equinox and Pico delivered relatively tame – as in, pleasant, passable trails – ascents shared with Dearest Spouse, as did Jay. But the lug from that latter spot to its sister summit,
Big Jay, on a brushy, blowdown-tangled, mud and muck filled semblance of a barely beaten path which required an hour-twenty to cover a single mile (which of course had to be covered again in reverse) had DS questioning my sanity. And the last of this set (not chronologically, but story-logically), Vermont’s Mendon, offered some mild navigational challenges, but all in all could only be classified as a pleasant recovery hike because it came the day after that three-day stretch of Death Marches just to the west, and I needed something that by comparison seemed reasonable. Which brings us to…

I’m repeatedly taken aback by the Adirondacks. What they call trails out there boggle the mind compared to most New England trails (and consider that what we call trails in New England boggle the minds of folks from out west and other areas, so let’s give this insanity the ranking it is due). And then, as bad as those are, much of the ‘dacks are crisscrossed not with official trails but instead with herd paths, unmaintained trails that cover stunningly impassable terrain, serve up absurd steepness, and imbue general disbelief. It seems that around every corner is another, “You’ve gotta’ be kidding me!” moment.

Intrepid Adventurer Daniel, who I met years ago in the midst of the Mohawk Hudson Marathon and who has, since then, caught ‘dacks fever, met me for this multi-day scheduled abuse-a-thon. Day One served up a mere ten and a half miles on a relatively simple summit with only one “Holy Excrement” moment, a thirty-foot pitch described in the guide with the understatement, “very steep” that tested my upper-body climbing capabilities as well as a bit of mental gumption. (Of course, you never get pictures of these spots, since the camera is safely packed away at suck moments so that if they have to come and recover your limp and broken body, they’ll be able to recover the Trip So Far on your device.)

Day Two’s target was the summit that makes aspiring Adirondack 46ers groan: Allen. It’s a nineteen-and-a-half mile out and back, but its special joy is that you really don’t start climbing the mountain until about eight-and-a-half miles in, at which point you’ve got about two thousand feet of ascent in about a mile, up a rock slab waterfall coated in Allen’s famed red-slime algae. And of course, you also have to come back down the same way, because mountain justice is cruel. We survived the ordeal with a combined three butt-landings (Daniel won this one, two to one) and one hanging-from-a-tree-while-both-feet-flailed-for-a-grip (my special moment of joy).

For Day Three, we needed something a little less mentally taxing. I thought I had a good target. I failed miserably. Seymour turned into another way-too-steep slab climb (how steep? …let’s just say, if you’re a Scotsman, don’t wear a kilt) with way too many snarling struggles up precarious pitches, way too many brushy side paths, and way too much swinging from the trees while heading both uphill and down. It was during this ascent that the mountain nearly defeated me. For a time, I went to a dark place, I lost my will to fight, I decided that I might not finish this quest. But like a good marathon, the mind recovers.

So yeah, we’re going back for more. I won’t lie. Some of the challenges I’ve read and heard about on the summits that remain downright scare me. I’m still not certain I’ll finish either of these challenges. And I’m not sure my knees will hold up – either for ascending (and worse, descending) the heights, as well as surviving the distance of the Big Apple’s mean streets this fall. But the marathon mentality draws me to give it a try. And that’s always good.

06 June 2019


My clubmates and I debated the idea endlessly. Just who’s idea was this, anyway? How did we manage to drag fifteen runners (plus a few family members) to the middle of nowhere to run a marathon? (To be precise, a dozen for the marathon and a few more for the shorter sister event, but nevertheless…) Clearly this was a fine example of groupthink, or perhaps just a stone rolling downhill and, against all odds, picking up moss, which may be an apt metaphor since the Sugarloaf Marathon serves up plenty of downhills.

This mass mileage migration wasn’t my idea, but I’ll admit I encouraged it, because I was one of only two of us who’d done this one before. I did offer positive reviews to those who asked, but still, not my idea, nor was I the first in, even though I’d signed on in December, since even then I had an inkling that I might need a do-over if Boston didn’t go so well. Which, as you’ve read, it didn’t. Gee, I was so wise (he says in hindsight, ignoring the times he wasn’t.)

That rolling rock picked up momentum, adding people, adding a rental house which almost guaranteed this would be not just an event but an Event, adding the synergistic contributions that happen when a dozen-plus mildly crazy and heavily motivated people all get closer to Time Zero and toss in more ideas (custom jerseys for our “Loafers” team!), more support (every mechanical muscular recovery device known to man!), and, as it would turn out, more (much more!) food. And beverages, of course. Goes with the neighborhood.

The result was probably the finest race weekend I’ve ever enjoyed. Not the finest race, though that wasn’t so bad, either. (Spoiler: Yes, I’m back in for Boston 2020, my ticket is punched for number fourteen.) But as far as club camaraderie, mutual support, and just plain fun, yes, the finest. And I say that with fine thanks to my ‘mates.

Sugarloaf is a net downhill course. That doesn’t make it easy. Boston is a net downhill course, too, and nobody will tell you that makes it easy. But Sugarloaf does have a little more marathon-friendly hill profile going for it, in that you do the big climbs in the second five miles, when you’re still relatively fresh. Or at least you should be; the previous time I ran this race three years back, I suffered a mental death on the biggest climb around mile nine and pretty much wrote the day off, only to find a miraculous rebirth just past the midway mark, where you are treated to one of the finest gravity assists in the business. That day’s rebirth led to what was my last (and may well forever remain my last) sub-three day.

That gravity assist, a winding, scenic, rollicking river-serenaded chute from miles twelve to seventeen, is enough to lift anyone’s spirits significantly while lowering their elevation dramatically, rocketing you into the relative drudgery of eighteen through twenty-five with just a bit more juice than you might have otherwise had. It’s because of this that Sugarloaf is said to offer a boost of anywhere from a few to ten minutes off your Boston time. It’s because of this, and the fact that being five weeks later, you can recover from Boston but still reap the benefits of your training (indeed, Boston itself is training for this one) that Sugarloaf is an excellent choice for that do-over.

Galileo proved (supposedly, whether the experiment actually happened is disputed) that gravitational acceleration is independent of mass. Our gang, acting like a bunch of climate-denying anti-vaxers, ignored science and tried to prove quite the opposite.
Anticipating that downhill course and apparently assuming more mass would increase velocity and reduce rolling resistance, we ate our way north, starting Friday in Portland (Salvage Barbeque!), continuing unabated (with interruptions for mirth and shenanigans) through Saturday night’s immense pre-race dinner that, as Arlo Guthrie might say, could not be beat, ensuring we hit the line Sunday morning fueled with a ton of bricks and ready to roll on down the hill to Kingfield, which is an attempt at a poetic way of saying that we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s mutual contributions to the feast, or more simply,
that we ate a lot.

Conservatism, not something I’d ever aspire to politically, was my obvious strategy. Don’t blow up. Get that qualifier. Get back to Boston next April. But that was my plan this past April too, and it didn’t work out so well that time. Still, given what I had to work with – a rather abused body, undertrained for the task, but coupled with a brain trained and willing to override synapses screaming ‘Stop!’ – I had little choice but to replicate my Boston plan. Go out at a comfortable pace and start banking time ahead of my Boston qualifier pace and hope to hell I held it together.

Unlike Boston, the weather cooperated, almost too much. Rather than warm and humid with expectations of warmer, this one dawned chilly and drizzle with expectations of chilly and rain, not much different from my last ramble down Maine Route Twenty-Seven. Indeed, it was chilly enough that after stripping down to my planned race duds, turning in my gear to the baggage bus, and jogging a quarter-mile warm-up, I went through a rather ludicrous panic phase, deciding it was too cold, deciding I needed my rain jacket, deciding I’d board the bus and rifle through a couple hundred bags to retrieve said cloak. You’d think I’d learn by now. Fortunately, I failed in finding that needle in the haystack and went off in my planned get-up, which was comfortable by a mile in, and which, even as the rains turned heavy late in the race, turned out perfectly. Indeed, while a bit squishy by the end with a few spates of annoying headwind, conditions really couldn’t have better.

The start of this race was almost a party. Dead flat, targeting a low-effort pace, chit-chatting while the drop-dead gorgeous scenery of Flagstaff Lake and the Bigelow Range distracted our attention (you must at some point in your life hike the Bigelows), then cruising into the town of Stratton to be surprised by a friend perched on a motel balcony (how on Earth he spotted me from above while I was wearing a hat is beyond me, but let’s face it, he’s talented in multiple ways), the first five slipped by while I banked well over two hundred seconds ahead of goal pace. Echoing Boston, I’d started my mantra of mental math early, but again knowing full well how an Epic Collapse could drain that account in a matter of a few miles. And knowing full well how mile nine, the biggest climb on the course, had just about killed me a few years back.

Nine hurt. I slipped over qualifier pace and spent a bit of my banked time assets. And ten and eleven, though downhill, didn’t pick up all that much. We’d joked ahead of the race that owing to the location of our rental house, if things didn’t look rosy we could simply take a right turn at mile eleven, bail out, and call it a day. Even though my bank account was now approaching four hundred by that point, I still had my doubts and gave the option half a brain cycle. I’d learn from my clubmates later that I wasn’t the only one who did so. But the marathon mentality kicked in. It’s not supposed to be easy. Carry on.

Sugarloaf’s Gravity Assist then worked its magic. I could question the accuracy of the mile marking placements, but what’s the point? Mile fourteen flew. Mile fifteen defied reason. My bank account exploded like the price of Nortel stock during the dot-com bubble. But that didn’t last. Could I?

Sugarloaf runs a fifteen-kilometer sister event. They line everyone up around mile seventeen and point them to the same finish line. Unfortunately for those racers, they miss all the fun, since the last nine miles, or at least eight of them till you pull into Kingfield, are the drudgery of the course. There are nice spots to be sure, places where the river continues to serenade with its gurgling goodness, but by and large this stretch is a slog, plain and simple.

Were I properly trained, I’d be leveraging the power conserved by the earlier joys of the course into an epic drive down that slog and all the way home. After all, save a few small insulting late mini-hills, most of this stretch, while dull, is still a mild descent. But as it was, there was no epic drive, just an epic grind. This was my thirtieth (official) marathon, yet I still can’t pinpoint how anyone, let alone me, can focus a brain to force a body that wants with every fiber to take a seat to instead plow on – for another solid hour. Eight miles… seven miles…six miles… pace rising, but slowly, under control… five miles… four miles… scanning ahead and being continually confused and disappointed by someone well ahead of me who’s white jersey looked distinctly like a mile marker… three miles… two miles… holding it together, bank account still growing, never willing to acknowledge I could crawl it in for the Boston qualifier, because, well, maybe I couldn’t.

Not until twenty-five did I slow enough to spend a few seconds from the bank rather than contribute, the first time since mile nine. Picking it up through the final push of twenty-six, the math hinted I might even break a ten-minute barrier, but the last point-two ran mysteriously long, quashing that idea. Back in my earlier chase-the-personal-best era I might have cared about this course anomaly. This day I knew I’d just wiped nearly twenty minutes off my Boston time and punched my ticket for next year, and it was pouring, and that ten-minute time barrier just didn’t matter.

Now, while I wasn’t in any way looking at this race competitively, there was a back-story with a heavy outcome. Three years ago, when I was still bordering on being relatively quick, I was passed in the first mile by a short (shall we say diminutive?) balding (shall we say hair-challenged?) gentleman who looked to be of my vintage and who flew by so quickly that I wrote off winning the division right there. Nearly three hours later, I made the one and only turn on the course – it’s twenty-six-point-one miles down one road, then take a right – and found him Death Shuffling slowly toward the line. I repaid the favor, blowing by him to win the age group, which, it turned out, he most certainly was in.

This time, I wasn’t thinking of winning anything, and then… I swear I saw him before the start of the race. Memories came back – a rematch? Only if he’d slowed down as much as I had in three years. But he never appeared again, and he’s not listed in the results. Instead, in an interesting repeat of events, I was overtaken by someone who again looked of my vintage; not short nor balding this time, nor can I really recall where he passed. Not expecting to be competitive in my current condition, I took note but paid little heed, and no, this time I didn’t catch him. But he landed only a minute ahead and he did take the division, leaving me with a surprising and unexpected second place, and an even more surprising chunk of cast-iron armor plating for an award. It’s cool, but I’m not at all certain what to do with what is clearly the heaviest thing I’ve ever won in a race.

Unlike last time where I licked my wounds, gathered up my one travelling companion, and high-tailed it home, this time being with the club meant that the fun wasn’t over. Once I’d regained my wits, stripped off the sogginess (harder than you’d think with malfunctioning parts), and swathed myself in enough dry clothing to return to normal body temperature, I found our gang, already re-coagulating, and we reeled in the rest of our clubmates as they made that one turn and lumbered down the chute When our last rolled in, we had everyone in earshot hooting for him. And then it was time to hobble on our busted blisters and wonky knees back to the shuttle, back to the house, up its mysteriously steep and narrow stairways (a fine practical joke for that post-marathon physique!), to celebrate a dozen plus victory stories and gather for a second immense dinner that once again Arlo Guthrie would have said, could not be beat. Admittedly, this time, with notably more beverages.

And though none of us could really recall who came up with the race excursion idea, I admit to having come up with the idea of taking a gentle group hike the next morning up one of the small summits of the Bigelows. I further also
admit I was a complete idiot for suggesting this; clearly a case of, “What was I thinking?” It was enough for all of us to coax our broken bodies on a gentle meander through the neighborhood, putting an exclamation point on the weekend of punishment and mirth. We couldn’t even get ourselves out of our cars that afternoon as we ate our way south through Portland again (Thirsty Pig!...what was I thinking ordering the Spicy McFirepants?). We’d considered climbing a mountain?

We called ourselves the Loafers, but crazy motivated people would have been more accurate. Crazy motivated people that I’m damn glad I know. Thanks, clubbies.

10 May 2019

Hitting the Bottom(s)

I really wanted to hit the Bottoms this week. And no, that’s not a grammatical, usage, or punctuation error, it’s just a pun that stands in for a quest to overcome a small bit of nastiness in the world. So to continue with the pun, they say you have to hit Bottoms to see what’s important and to start the fight back. I somewhat non-concur. I had to fight just to hit Bottoms.

Right, he’s truly lost it, I hear you saying. So, let’s back up a few days.

Recovery from Boston wasn’t pretty, though it really had little to do with Boston. Any soreness from that adventure peaked, as usual, a couple days hence, and quickly subsided, but a general malaise set in that went beyond the usual joint complaints and instead rose to a general alarm complaint. About a week back I turned in the closest thing to a tempo run since Beantown, circling Portland Maine’s Back Cove a couple of times, one of my favorite spots to hit after a northern customer meeting. My pace wasn’t horrid, but to think that it was all I could muster, and to think of the ugliness that accompanied the effort, well, it just wasn’t right. It seemed pretty clear that the meds that Lady Doc had directed – the ones that killed me back in February and I’d abandoned till after Boston, but then being a duly compliant patient had in fact restarted right afterwards – were at it again. Having failed to qualify at Boston and with my second chance race, Sugarloaf, a scant two weeks out, I pulled the plug on the pills once again.

A mere two days later I toed the line (well, sort of, since there was no line at the start to toe and they didn’t bother let us all get into the road before calling ‘go’, but I digress…) at Foley’s Backstreet 5K, a decent-sized local event that our local club had descended upon en-masse last year, and had so much fun that we descended again en-larger-masse this year. I could harp about how I pulled in over a minute slower than last year’s outing despite ideal conditions, but that would skip the important bits: first, that a couple hundred meters in it was clear that I actually felt good for the first time since Boston, second, that while not blazing, I maintained the intensity, rolling back late-race challenges by a pair of youngsters, and third, that I actually had the oomph to kick it in, avoid a get-passed-at-the-finish-line insult, and score a finish line photo in which I am not, for a change, exhibiting my usual death-warmed-over look. Oh, and I took the old farts’ division, much to the chagrin of my club-mate who, like last year, would have owned that title had he not invited me along. Next year he’ll probably keep quiet about this one.

Next up after Foley’s on Sunday was an early Monday foray to a Company Rah-Rah (which, to be fair, turned out to be a pretty good Rah-Rah) in Nashville, Tennessee. Aha, that light bulb just went on; you frequent readers probably have an inkling of where this is going. Yes, a traveling runner story, with a twist.

On the ride home from Foley’s, my carpooling club-mates, who’d just visited Nashville a few weeks prior, suggested getting in a run at the Shelby Bottoms Greenway, a roughly four-mile-long stretch of green, trails, and more green, hugging the Cumberland River almost directly across from my home away from home for the next few days, the truly gargantuan Gaylord Opryland hotel. The Gaylord, one of the biggest non-casino hotels in the country, is a combination convention factory and adult Disneyland. It features at least three glass-enclosed climate-controlled atria, the largest of which could probably hold several Midwestern towns in entirety. Every detail is attended to, every plant perfectly coifed, every faux waterfall perfectly designed, even the walkways are varnished with some magical substance that makes them always sport an ‘it just showered and things are pleasantly damp and shiny’ look while remaining remarkably non-skid. And it would turn out that the staff was top-notch and the food was almost uniformly excellent (smoked brisket hash! – a food providing the perfect way to die and inspiring my social media idea… #hashtag). Everything in the facility was top shelf. But everything was in the facility. These places are designed to be the hospitality equivalent of Alcatraz. You’re not supposed to leave. Indeed, it’s very hard to leave, at least without motored conveyance.

But I run. I insist that I leave. I want to see the real world on the outside, the tour from ground level. And I’m not satisfied with the one-point-four-mile all-sidewalk round-the-hotel jogging loop they offered up on my arrival, neatly packaged in a pocket-sized brochure with the warning that this was urban running and that all due caution should be taken. Blech.

But on Sunday afternoon, I didn’t yet know about that neatly packaged three-inch brochure. What I did know was that no amount of Internet searches would turn up any decent places to run from the Gaylord Opryland (though to my amusement I did find this page which highlights the worst cities to run in, four of the five of which I’ve previously railed about in this column). I also knew that the resort occupied a slim strip of pavement hemmed in by the river and an eight-lane freeway. I further knew that there were some non-descript roads by which I could escape to north, though with no apparent destination or scenery. But mostly I knew that I wanted to take advantage of my friend’s recommendation and make my way to Shelby Bottoms to enjoy all that green, which meant escaping to the south and crossing the river. The problem was getting there.

The City of Nashville did its part to solve my problem. A bit over a decade ago they built a lovely pedestrian suspension bridge from the Bottoms to the Opryland side of the river. Google Maps then served up hope in the form of a small road that paralleled the freeway and connected the south end of the Opryland resort-cum-hotel-cum-mall-cum-behemoth to a tiny rotary where the trail from Shelby came off the pedestrian bridge and plunged into a tunnel to parking lot across said freeway. Other than the need to hop down from the roundabout onto the trail, which appeared pretty easy, it looked like a win. Two miles from my hotel room would put me across the river with miles and miles of both paved and unpaved trails – and lots and lots of green. An early morning start would give me time for a fine tour of the Bottoms and still get me back for the Rah-Rah.

Except for one little problem. Well, two, to be precise.

That little road was actually the entrance to a building housing Ryman Hospitality Properties. (You’ll understand why I’m calling them out by name shortly.) And a quick peek at Google Street View turned up a big issue: that little road was guarded by spiked iron gates at both ends, hermetically sealing off Ryman from the rabble of the real world. While it looked likely I could get around the one on the south end, resplendent with open lawns, the one on the north end was embedded in deep, thick woods, thwarting any attempt to circumvent its distinct lack of hospitality; rather ironic for a company whose name is hospitality.

A study of the map showed that no reasonable alternative routes existed. To cross over the freeway from the hotel would involve, besides a lot of busy and highly unpleasant intersections, a crazy-long detour that would make the round-trip to the bridge a long run in its own right. No, there was no alternative but to breach the ramparts.

Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not being so pompous as to claim that as a runner I have any special rights to cross someone’s private property. Of course I don’t. But here’s an interesting little detail: Ryman, it turns out, owns Opryland. The hotel (Marriott only manages it). The music hall and famed show. A bunch more places. So Ryman, in the hospitality business, is sealing itself off from its own customers, a most inhospitable stance. We love you, or at least your money. Now don’t bother us.

In part, I get it. If you look at the map, you can understand why they wouldn’t want vehicular traffic coming down the road. It’s small. It’s not designed for volume. And when things happen at Opryland, they happen big. It really would be unpleasant to try to empty out a show, the mall, or a convention through their driveway, especially if the freeway backed up and people bailed for this alternative. So that part makes sense.

But nobody would pass this way on foot, save a few fitness crazies like me. Nobody would leave a performance at the Grand Ol’ Opry and try to walk back to downtown Nashville. It’s a long, long way (and it’d probably be very dark). Nobody would walk from the mall with their shopping treasures in hand. There’s nothing on the other end, save that bridge to the greenway, and once you’re there, there’s nothing there either, again, for a long, long way. And the southern end appeared (and I’d confirm later) to offer plenty of ways around the gate, so this blockade wasn’t adding any level of facility security. So why not allow pedestrians to pass, at least during daylight hours? Isn’t the point of the greenway to provide accessibility to outdoors? Isn’t the point of a hospitality business to provide a pleasant experience to their customers?

Before I slept Sunday night, I was already roiling at the irony. Here was a city that had made an effort not only to preserve open space, but to make it accessible by building a bridge (and a big and costly one at that, mind you), only to have that wonderful resource be put off-limits to their biggest point-source of visitors and tourist and convention revenue – by the very firm that was drawing those people in. It’s a wound inflicted by their own benefactor. It’s the antithesis of what enlightened civic leaders strive for. Readers of this column will recall just three months ago in A Tale of Two Cities my praise for what Austin, Texas has created, and how their work has transformed their city by slathering it with a sizable dose of healthy lifestyle, and it has paid back in spades. Nashville is trying, but they’ve been blocked at the ten-yard-line by a member of their own team.

But I’ve jumped ahead and made a lot of conclusions before spelling out the story, so, let’s back up.

Owing to what I’d learned in my pre-trip research, I arrived in Nashville with an agenda, no, make that a mission, seasoned with a relish of indignance. Fight the injustice! Free the Bottoms! On check-in, the Gaylord’s front desk was a bit flummoxed by my ask of a way to get to the greenway and sent me to the concierge. Once there, I thought I’d hit the jackpot when Concierge The First not only understood my plight and seemed to have a solution, but doused her answer in passion for my cause. Enlightenment! Yes, she said, you can get around that gate through the woods (foolish me, having seen the barrier only from a distance on Street View, I thought the method would be obvious and didn’t ask further details), and further, she said she’d been working with the city to open up the very access I sought. Hallelujah! There is hope for the world!

And so I duly dragged my stiff and aged butt out of bed the next morning and made it out the door a few minutes after six, which those who know me know is not a time I prefer to be active. I worked out the kinks while traversing the acres of parking lot that offered the shortest route south. Reaching the resort’s southern terminus, just before the resort road melded into the mega-freeway, off in a last forlorn lot to the right… yes, there it was. The Gate of Unwelcoming, the Portal of Prohibited Passage. And to my surprise, a Gaylord pickup truck was in front of it, and it was open. The Evil Empire making rounds perhaps? As I approached, the truck rolled through, and the gate started to swing slowly shut.

I contemplated making a dash. I could have made it. But if I did (and if nobody shot me) I would still have to get back. Scaling the spikey thing was not an option. If I couldn’t return, I certainly wouldn’t make it back in time for the Rah-Rah. And we’d been read the riot act that we would be at the Rah-Rah on time.

I let it swing shut, and when the truck was long gone, surveyed the scene. A Most Unwelcoming Sign warned that trespassers would be eaten by angry hippos (yeah, I made that part up, but it was unwelcoming). Fences along the road melded gapless with the gate, and southern-style-thick foliage extending on both sides. But the fence along the road only ran for perhaps twenty feet, and it almost looked trodden behind it. This, I surmised, must have been the ‘through the woods’ that Concierge The First had spoken of. I swung myself around the end of the fence and, clinging to that barrier to avoid the poison ivy and the slight drop into even thicker poison ivy, made my way to the gate – only to find Yet Another Fence, this one extending outward from the gate directly into the thick, no end visible, no trodden path, passage thwarted. Well, at least I wouldn’t get eaten by angry hippos. Extracting myself from the fences, I circled the small lot from whence the fence commenced, and finding no trodden paths into the thick, considered myself repelled but not defeated. I retreated, took a tour of the soft yellow underbelly of the resort (the service and warehouse district, so to speak), and popped in a few more miles by popping out the north end into a residential road amusingly signed to repel RVs.

Back to the drawing boards. Concierge The First happened to be off that day, so my next effort landed me with Concierge The Second. Once again, the effort and caring offered up was second-to-none. Second got creative, explored several transit options, and went so far as to offer that she’d personally drive me down there (at 5:45 AM!) which I politely declined since it kind of subverted the point of the quest, and more importantly, since I could have permanently contaminated her seat cushions on the ride back. But key to this story is that she got on the phone and called our now mutual nemesis, Ryman (Non-)Hospitality, expecting that a reasonable request from a reasonable person would get a reasonable response. Expecting to hear that yes, we keep that locked to keep crowds of vehicles at bay, but sure, you can run through, since there will never be a full marathon crowd passing by, or maybe we can offer you a one-time code for the electronic gate lock, or…let’s just say, expecting hospitality.

Nope. No way. Absolutely not. We don’t want your stinkin’ stinky runners. Go away.

I think Concierge The Second was just about as devastated by this as was I. Oh, the humanity.

Well, kids, there’s only one option left: Yup, the freeway.

Now before you rise in horror, before you call Dearest Spouse and tell her to reign me in (or you are Dearest Spouse and would prefer I come home alive, which I did, but, well, you know), consider that in the course of runs everywhere I occasionally find myself on stretches of freeway-like roads with exit ramps that often must be crossed (not the case here) and traffic moving quickly, like rural highways. And worse, I often find myself on roads that aren’t freeways but have such a nasty lack of shoulders or other safe spaces that even slower-moving traffic represents a huge hazard. But still, this was really a freeway.

As it turns out, the distance from where the south end of the resort road melded into said eight-lane freeway and where the next exit ramp departed for that tiny rotary was only about a quarter mile, all with a good shoulder. With the exception of about a quarter of that distance where a concrete wall forced running on that shoulder, it looked like (thanks again, Street View) that one could hop the guard rail and run protected along the rough but passable edge on the other side. I was a bit more nervous about the outbound trip since traffic would be coming from behind me, but it would be early and volume, I reasoned, should be light.

The next morning, I hit the parking lot at a quarter to six. Passing the gate which had stymied me the day prior there was again a Gaylord pickup truck making rounds. Or perhaps they’d had a change of heart and sent someone out to see if I’d show up and politely let me pass? Or, alternately, that staffer was there to unleash the angry hippos on me if I tried? I mentally gave the truck an impolite salute as I passed and hit the on-ramp (which I note did not have one of those ‘pedestrians prohibited’ signs) with acceleration akin to my aged Prius.

Traffic was indeed light, but it only takes one semi doing seventy to rattle you a bit. The concrete barrier section came early and passed in a minute. Hopping the guard rail wasn’t hard, though the terrain on the other side probably offered up more chance of injury than had I stayed on the road –those
six-inch cobbles they use for drainage really aren’t amenable to confident footfalls. As the thick woods gave way to the open lawns of the Ryman Hospitality building, I noticed another Gaylord pickup truck at their south gate. Were they really coordinating to let the fool pass? Or were they doubling down on their defense in anticipation of my threatening arrival? Ominous.

Reaching the rotary victorious, and more importantly still alive,
it was an easy task to hop down the banking to the trail. In another minute I was on Nashville’s quite glorious suspension bridge, then swirling down its looping approach ramp, and I’d finally hit the Bottoms.

Shelby Bottoms wasn’t a stunning piece of scenery; indeed, it was rather unremarkable (though had I gotten further south I would have gained more river views to turn up the remarkability meter). Instead, it was glorious for what it wasn’t. It wasn’t urban. It wasn’t developed, save for the main path being paved as a bikeway with a few small bridges. It wasn’t crowded – indeed, I was surprised at how few people I saw, which told me that Nashville has a way to go to try to reach Austin’s widespread embrace of their green spaces. And oddly, it wasn’t even that quiet: traffic noise from the freeway across the river never ceased, but the cacophony of birds and insects closer by made a credible effort at allowing me to forget the former. In truth, it was quieter while running behind the mall to get there than it was at the Bottoms, but I’ll take the Bottoms any day.

And it was green. Stupendously green. Entirely green, save for the flitting of cardinals, the occasional bits of mud, and the gray of the bikeway. The unpaved paths ranged from wide and road-like to single track, where the green impinged so quickly that a tree down across the trail had rapidly grown over green again. Dewy grass was politely cleaning the mud from my shoes when I came around a corner and almost ran into a trio of deer. Various critters rustled in the brush and occasionally bunny-hopped out for a look. It was just what I’d hoped for.

I overstayed my schedule, because, well, after what it took to get there, why not? Energized, the trip back north flew by. Passing the Palace of Prohibition, I offered up one final mental ‘driving finger salute’ in defiance to yet another looming Gaylord pickup truck as I hit the freeway again. Facing traffic this time, the brief stretch where I had to be on the inside of the retaining wall was over before I’d gotten nervous about the now early-rush-hour traffic. Getting back a bit later than planned, knowing my co-workers were used to, and at times even inspired, by my antics, I opted to hit the open-air (well, open atrium?) breakfast pre-shower – which turned out to be rather fun when the new exec-level guy at the table turned out to be a triathlete. Mutual respect gained.

I’m not immune to the truth: I took a risk here for what most would say was a rather meaningless goal. But I calculated and accepted that risk as low enough (and frankly probably lower than the ‘legal’ long detour, which entailed crossing major intersections), and besides, everything carries risks. Travelling to Nashville itself probably offered up far more risk in aggregate. I came through fine and relished my reward for taking that risk.

But Nashville, and more specifically, Ryman Hospitality, needs to fix this. Not everyone will be so daring, and the chance of a tragedy does exist. Open up access. Free the Bottoms.

29 April 2019

Playing Pinball

Back in my college days, I came back to my dorm one day to find that one of my suite-mates had bought me a copy of The Soul of a New Machine, a book by Tracy Kidder that journals the creation of a new computer at a company called Data General. Bob thought it was a good book that I’d enjoy, and though none in the suite were in the habit of buying each other random gifts, he just did. It was a simple and thoughtful nicety, and I doubt he thought for a moment that I’d end up going to work for that company out of school, which brought me to New England and set my life on a path that resulted in the here and now. The world works in strange and wonderful ways. Thanks, Bob.

One of the themes in Kidder’s work was the concept of playing pinball. The idea drove the team of young designers (“Hire them young since they don’t know what’s not possible”), tempting them not with traditional rewards like fame and wealth, but simply with the chance to play again. Like pinball.

Most people don’t run. Most people that run don’t run marathons. Most people that run marathons don’t qualify for Boston. Many, if not most, people who do qualify still don’t run Boston, because they’re scattered throughout the world and most people’s resources are limited.

I’ve been blessed with a body that runs, one that runs fast enough to qualify for Boston, and in part thanks to Bob’s unprompted gift and the chance happenstances that came thereafter, the fortunate fact of living ten miles from the starting line of the most famous marathon in the world. And so I keep going back, because I can. Twelve times prior, thirteen after this year’s edition. My endeavors have won me little in the way of fame outside of my close circle of friends (a couple articles in the MetroWest Daily News over the years hardly qualifies as fame), and certainly little in the way of wealth (though I have scored a lot of goodies at the expo, the ‘wheel of rice’ being one of my annual favorite booths), but they have let me play pinball – every year I’ve been allowed to play again. All I have to do is finish, and hit my qualifying time, which in past years has been, owing to that whole blessing thing, relatively easy for me. (I’d written a rather laborious explanation of the qualifying process for the unfamiliar, but as most of you would be bored silly, I’ll skip it here and drop that into a quasi-appendix at the tail end of today’s tale.)

Relatively easy yes, but not this time. At this year’s Boston, I only closed on half the deal. Mission accom, but no plished – yet. Yes, I made it to the finish line – goal one, so to speak, but no, goal two didn’t happen, I did not chalk up a qualifying time. Oddly though, there was an element of joy even in that, because when the realization sunk in that it wasn’t going to happen, the last few miles took on an entirely different feel that was, in an agonizing sort of way, kinda’ fun.

That realization started just past mile sixteen, just after seeing Dearest Spouse at Newton Lower Falls, when she noticed I was smiling but was wise enough from many iterations of this exercise to know that wasn’t necessarily a reliable indicator. By that point, I had over eleven minutes in the bank, plus or minus, given the vagaries of mental math mutated by marathon miles, but I was already of the realization that it wouldn’t be enough. Climbing the ‘zero-ith hill’ over the freeway bridge, I said as much when Marcos, my acquaintance from the morning (we’ll get to that) pulled alongside. I hadn’t given up by any stretch of the imagination, but when you feel it, you feel it. I’d be taking walk breaks by eighteen, and that eleven minutes, built up mile by mile over the first half which had gone swimmingly, evaporated ridiculously rapidly.

A lot has been said about the warmth this year, especially in the second half. In truth, it was the humidity. Even back in 2012, when temperatures soared to the high eighties, the humidity stayed April-style reasonable. This time, even the low 60s overcast start came with nearly full humidity. I was sweating considerably by mile one. I was in heat mode from the start – every water station, a couple of sips, and over the head with the rest (though the ironic combination of low morning temperatures and no sun for the first half made those cooling pours shockingly cold, every single time). When the sun came out full bore around mile sixteen – right around the time I knew my cake was baked – the book had been written. Despite popping electrolytes, both calves went into tic-spasms, threatening to go full-on disaster mode lock-up cramp, forcing me to back off even when the rest of the body relented from its complaining and hinted I might be able to pick it up. So yeah, the warmth was a big factor (and I note, those out later caught the next weather front and instead had to deal with cold, go figure…) but the bottom line is that this came unraveled because of poor training and poor fitness. Mother Nature was an accessory to the crime, but this one was all mine.

Not that there was a lot I could have done about that. Injuries and other medical issues gave this winter a Superfund designation of toxic disaster. My total mileage for the first quarter barely exceeded some of the months I’ve turned in over the years. While ironically, the parts that worried me going in actually held up pretty well in the race, plenty of other parts rose (or fell, as the case may be) to take their place.

Having seen just about everything that Marathon Monday can dish out, this year we were treated to a new twist in the form of lines of thunderstorms, not the mild kind, but the sky ablaze with fireworks kind, that seared my ride to Hopkinton into the memory banks. Having been invited by clubmates to join them at the center for the charity they supported (the Michael Lisnow Respite Center, a fine organization worthy of your support), I traded in a couple extra hours of sleep for an earlier departure to get to the comfort of a roof and real bathrooms a quarter-mile from the center of town – and a front-row seat to the early-morning dousing and light show. As we wended toward Hopkinton through torrential downpours, visions of last year’s swim hung like dread, though the air was much warmer. Later I’d learn that runners were shunted from the eternal mud-pit of the Athlete’s Village into the high school – a first – due to the storm, and rather ironic since in the days leading up to the race, the Boston Athletic Association tried to sucker me into paying extra for such a privilege. But by race time, the rain had passed, the skies almost hinted at clearing, and spirits rose along with the humidity.

Coming to the start from a house in a different direction than the Village, a house that had been filled with mostly wave three and four charity runners, was an entirely odd experience. When one of the few wave-two runners I’d met there, Marcos, opted to stay back to run with his friend in wave three (he’d later change his mind and we’d meet up briefly, remember him at mile sixteen?) I just left the house and walked east alone, no announcements, no fanfare, no crowds. With wave one loaded and leaving as I approached and only a few stragglers hurrying down from the Village, there was no human wave, just eerie calm. If I hadn’t met up with a local woman while we weaseled through security and walked together up the hill to our corral, it would have been an entirely solo affair. We were, in fact, the first people to re-enter corral three after wave one left, so we intentionally stepped in together to give us both the bragging rights of being first – certainly the only first I’ll ever earn at Boston.

Besides hanging with mostly charity runners at the house, the kind of folks where you have to convince the nineteen-year-old running his first marathon from wave four that qualifying for next year really shouldn’t be Goal One, coming from the Lisnow house also brought an entirely different vibe. I’ve always understood why people enjoy running Boston with charity teams, but I’d never experienced it firsthand. It’s not the same international feel of the Village, which I love, but a warm and friendly with-a-purpose and welcoming feel. An impromptu ceremony broke out for a woman running only days after finishing her chemotherapy (the Lisnow house is not a cancer charity, this just happened to be…) and I found myself wearing a supportive armband in her honor. The resulting sunburn stripes – since nobody foresaw the second half conditions and nobody brought or was passing around sunscreen, even at the start – was almost comical. But the unique under-armpit chafe it caused, unknown to me till I hugged Caitlyn, a friend and training partner who by fate arrived in the finish chute nearly simultaneously, which suddenly mixed her sweat into the wound (say ‘yeeeeoooow!’) turned out to be the most annoying injury of the event. Minor, or course, compared to the likely permanent damage my joints are feeling, but a reminder of that cancer patient’s journey every time I stretched my arms for a week.

Interlude: The people you meet. Somehow I discovered that the woman marshalling corral three was a tennis friend of the best man from my wedding. The world works in strange and wonderful ways. Back to the tale.

And as these things happen every year, we were off, and the cylinders were firing nicely. Though the alarm bell of heavy sweating went off – manageable – I was clicking off miles with very low effort about forty-five seconds under my needed average pace, which sounds like a lot, but with the back-loaded Boston hills and an expectation of an Epic Struggle due to the poor training season, it was a prudent investment. My cranial accumulator counted seconds in the bank, two hundred, four hundred, six hundred, nearly seven hundred, and it wasn’t hurting. Till rather suddenly, around fifteen, it was. Dearest Spouse was right. I was smiling as I passed her at sixteen, but I knew the Ogre of Poor Training already had his hands around my ankles.

All momentum was gone by the top of the first hill. Eight miles to go is far too soon for that tipping point. By the time a friend offered me pickle juice – yes, I know some people are into this, but not me (thanks anyway, Adam) – around nineteen, I was struggling, though still holding hope that the bank account might still let me eke out next year’s qualifier. But seemingly each time those thoughts came around, the calves would start to cramp again (despite the electrolytes I’d periodically popped) and the air would come out of the balloon again. Once over Heartbreak, I pretty much knew the BQ was gone, and I decided that if any Boston College student was offering a brew, I’d take it. Sadly, that did not occur.

Did I mention it got hot? The sun was, quite surprisingly, blazing. The wind – even the promised tailwind – was gone; no cooling from any direction. But still, fleeting thoughts of just-maybe-I-can-still-pull-this-off kept popping up. And calf cramps kept knocking them down.

By Beacon Street it was Game Over. For only the second time in my thirteen Bostons, the other being the year I’d just had my foot surgically repaired, I got to the space of It Just Doesn’t Matter. I walked when I felt like it. So what? I smiled and waved and joked with encouraging spectators. Why not? I looked left and right and saw scenery I’d never noticed. Why’d it take me so long to do that? And when I got to the (brilliantly orchestrated) pedestrian crossings that my local Highland City Striders club was operating at miles twenty-three and twenty-four,
I celebrated: high-fives all around at the first one, though I made a show of it and kept running, and full stop, hugs all around at the second. Once again, one of the best race pictures ever came about when I wasn’t actually running.

After one last walk on Hereford Street, I made sure I was running around that last fabled corner (way too many overpriced race photographers there to do otherwise) and settled in to jog it out. But in a last burst of pride, I noticed that a ten-minute increment was creeping closer on my watch, and, despite being in the ‘purely for the joy of it’ zone, that racing brain kicked back in and told me I’d be less than happy with myself if I let the clock tick over. One final burst down Boylston brought it home with seven seconds to spare – against a meaningless number of course, but hey…

Did I mention it got hot? I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve finished a marathon and not needed a heat sheet, though I took one anyway. Within hours it would be raining and cold and nasty windy again, but for the moment it was the tail end of the steam heat that had just generated the worst positive splits (positive is a bad thing, my non-marathoning friends…) in my recorded history, but gave me a walk to my ‘other local club’ – the Squannies party – without the usual shivering. Whatever.

As for Boston 2020, at the moment I am out. I’ve got another marathon planned in a few weeks and another chance to snag a qualifying time, but if the couple of weeks since the race are any indication, my chances, quite frankly, don’t look so good. My body is just not happy these days. There’s always the charity route, and though I loathe the idea of hitting up my friends, if I thought that this was a temporary thing and that a big recovery loomed, I might consider if for a year. Frankly, I don’t, so I probably won’t. And as I’ve stated earlier, if the streak ends here, it has been a hell of a ride, and I’m good with that.

Ironically, for my recovery week, Dearest Spouse and I headed to Seattle to visit Darling Offspring the Elder (hint: never fly out of Logan the Wednesday morning after the marathon), and during that trip, in between lots of amazing food and some very slow recovery runs around Capitol Hill and Volunteer Park, we paid a visit to Seattle’s Living Computer Museum. Besides a fabulous and warm-memory-evoking display of a Digital PDP-8, the machine on which I cut my teeth, which in a way led me into my college, which led to the literary gift from Bob, which led me to New England, yada yada, there was also one of the original Data General machines, the Nova (opening photo, above). That one pre-dated my time at the company, but that was the machine who’s successor, the Eclipse, was built by the team that coined the term ‘playing pinball’. Full circle.


Here’s a little explanation on qualifying for Boston, and how it’s different when you’ve got a ten-year streak going.

It’s well known that you must run a certain time in a qualifying marathon to gain entry to Boston, and that your qualifying time, or “BQ”, varies by gender and age. But owing to the popularity of the race, there are many more BQs than can be accommodated. To avoid the typical rush like what happens every time a block of tickets opens up for Hamilton on Broadway, the Boston Athletic Administration devised a creative and fair solution. Simplifying the story a bit, once everyone who wants entry has registered, they rank entrants by how far each is ahead of their own BQ, then fill the available slots from the top down, biggest gap of actual versus BQ wins. An old guy like me can get in if I’m five minutes ahead of my BQ, whereas a young guy who ran considerably faster than me still might not if he was only one minute ahead of his BQ. In the years since this system was devised, the gap, or the cut-off, needed to gain entry grew so much – this year it was close to five minutes – that the BAA just shifted the qualifying times down by five minutes across the board for next year. That just brought reality into the process for the typical applicant, but for us ten-year people who weren’t subject to the cut-off, we just found our qualifying standards tightened by five minutes, because there’s another piece to the puzzle. Once you’ve completed ten consecutive Bostons, you’re given the opportunity to register early and skip the cut-off. We ten-year folks can get in just by making it on the nose. This was a big advantage when the cut-off grew large. Now that the qualifying times have dropped across the board, our reality has caught up with everyone else – for now. Chances are good that even with the new standards, the cut-off will grow again.