30 August 2015


It’s one of those weeks when the way the article started just wasn’t working. I thought I’d have your attention with a title punning bear – as in the one that ran across my path a few weeks ago in New Hampshire – with bare – as in the attire in view while I strolled South Beach in Miami this past week. But no matter how I twisted my prose, it just wouldn’t work. Despite how much I wanted to slip in that ursine encounter, a first while running (though certainly not a first while hiking) as notable news, I just couldn’t get from there to the real tale at the top of the ticker, the absurdly hot, humid, and horrific experience that is running in Miami in August.

All creative writing aside, the bear part was exciting, despite lasting only a moment during my run in our favorite little berg of Franconia, New Hampshire. While cruising an obscure road in this obscure town, my attention was drawn to the passage of that most frightening of vehicles, the dreaded Rental RV, all the badness of a lumbering and ungainly box on small wheels combined with the inexperience of a newbie pilot. Smokey, a bear of notable girth, must have had a death wish to have dashed when he did, perhaps fifty yards up from me, but far fewer in front of the wily Winnie. All indications were that he made it back into the woods, where bears will do what bears will do, and I returned to our favorite White Mountain lodge with a fun story.

Oh that the presence of beloved New Hampshire-style mountains, or any elevation change for that matter, and the crisp forty-nine-degree air of my morning runs in their midst could have been even slightly in my presence this week. Sadly, that was not the case. Some months back, Corporate Employer laid out a selection of dates when I could sink my teeth into some compelling technology training. Of all options, only one week remotely fit between the maze of scheduling reality. The problem was that the venue was Miami, and the week was in August. I fully expected this combination to be a seriously suboptimal slating selection, but having no other options, I clicked that box. Had I realized just how suboptimal, I might have taken dire and irrational measures to have done otherwise.

From this…

To this…

Once arrived in Dade County, all creative writing aside, the bare part was a rather visually entertaining span, enjoying a stroll with Niece and Spouse on the famed South Beach with its remarkably low clothing-to-skin ratio. The heat was pressing but still novel and made bearable by wading knee-high in the bathwater-like surf. It’s notable that this excursion took place before actually trying to run in the area; before I learned just what I was up against. It’s also notable that Niece and Spouse – who are known to run at times – choose to live in this place. What I’ll be saying from here on, including commentary about humidity rotting the locals’ brains, is meant with no disrespect for said blood kin. It’s just, well, true.

That bare reality quickly gave way to Monday morning’s first run of the week, which quickly revealed a minor detail I’d forgotten about: Miami is a lot further west than you tend to think. In the summer months, it’s second nature to me that getting out early isn’t a problem daylight-wise. But in Miami in late August, sunrise has already crept to seven, a bit of a challenge when corporate breakfast starts thirty minutes later, and the real corporate fun a mere thirty after that. And it’s also the case that the closer one goes to the Equator, the faster darkness turns to day; there is no extended dawn. In short, sunrise at seven means very little light till darn close to seven, so one must rise in the depressing blackness of night and hit the mean streets under cover of sodium vapor lamps to cover any respectable distance before the bagels are gone. But in a land of heat and humidity, that would seem to be a good thing anyway. After all, it’s coolest before dawn, and that must be a comfortable time to run. Right?

In a word, wrong. While daytime temperatures never exceeded the low nineties – a level we top regularly in New England – the humidity and resulting absurdly high dew point made the mornings hover around eighty with literally saturated air – nearly one-hundred-percent humidity. Back home, early morning track workouts in the summer-damp low seventies are bad enough. It’s hard to describe the heaviness of the air when you set foot outside the climate-controlled confines of the hotel into the Miami miasma. It almost pushes you back inside. It’s so dense, it’s always on the verge of exploding. The old song says that L.A. is a great big freeway. Miami, on the other hand, is a great big thunderstorm, as the sky tries to shed itself of summer on a constant basis, with storms visible across the vast, flat horizon almost constantly for days at a time.

Yeah, big deal, I hear you saying. We’ve all run on those really hot days.

Yeah, big deal indeed, I say. Even those really hot days up north just don’t have this feel. And those really hot days don’t come one after another after another. And when they do, we (well, most of us) have plenty of gear to swap in and out to assure we start fresh the next day. On this weeklong excursion, travelling light, I’d brought one pair of running shoes. While I prefer to rotate a few pairs, I can get by without that luxury now and then. I really hadn’t thought it would be a problem. Ah, the things we learn.

Morning One: About six miles, heading south. In the urban desert of the Hotel Zone, nestled against the south side of the airport, options for attractive running routes are limited at best. A couple miles of leg-crushing concrete (coupled with time-sucking waits for freeway-like traffic to clear at major intersections) brings me to the brief relief of a parkway-like drive in Coral Gables where I can enjoy a quiet and traffic-free expanse of leg-friendly macadam and puzzle at the wonder of locals out walking and running in long sleeves, pants, and even sweatshirts. Did I mention the humidity rotting the locals’ brains? By the time I’m plodding back hotel-ward, I’m in full drench with accompanying chafing, and am fully toxic and leaking heavily on arrival. Jerry, the hotel doorman, rushes to supply not just a bottle of water, but a well-chilled one, the first of what would become a daily kindness leading to some fun chats and I’m sure his amusement of their novelty of the week, el corridor loco. That small kindness was appreciated more than you know. Well done, Sofitel Miami. (On another note, the concierge actually did have a prepared map for joggers. Their two mile route wasn’t enough for my needs, but I can count on one hand the hotels I’ve stayed in that recognize and cater to people’s desire to run on something other than a hamster cage in the fitness center. Again, well done, Sofitel.)

Morning Two: Weather.com pegs the humidity at well over ninety percent and posts a ‘feels like’ temperature of ninety, and that’s in the pitch darkness a half-hour before dawn. I get an earlier start, not due to any temperature advantage (there is none) but to make it to the office closer to on time, yet somehow an extra mile soaks up that advantage. But I think I’ve got the system all figured out, stepping into the shower clothed, washing the togs, hanging to dry in the air-conditioned room. I should have suspected coming trouble when even a tech singlet wasn’t completely dry by evening.

Morning Three: Dressing amidst the sparkle of the pre-dawn streetlights outside my hotel room, I can’t help but notice that while I’ve got dry clothes, my shoes are more than a bit damp, but I’ve no alternative, so onward. With an even earlier start, I intend to venture further toward what looks like an attractive golf-course-skirting avenue, but it’s so dark, and Coral Gables has a habit of using street-level painted concrete blocks for street signs (Niece had warned me of this!) that I miss my turn and, while certainly finding some nice neighborhoods, don’t really hit my planned route. Worse, that evening, despite them having sat in the air-conditioned room all day, I realize my shoes aren’t merely damp, they’re soaked. Leaden. Not just wet, but briny. Salt doesn’t evaporate. Problem. I call the concierge and ask for a fan. Housekeeping arrives in twenty minutes and I leave my little brine-buckets in a zephyr overnight. (Well done, Sofitel Miami.)

Morning Four: I’ve now proven that salt does not evaporate, not that I didn’t know before. Sad shoes are somewhat dryer, lighter, but by no means dry, and downright slimy. I’m anticipating a planned evening run with a local club arranged by a co-worker, but knowing the way the week has gone work-wise, I figure that’s a gamble, so to be sure I don’t miss the day I head out on a short jaunt. (As it turns out, the evening run indeed does not happen, so it was a wise move.). Turning west for a change, I’m delighted to cross an overpass, the first hill I’ve encountered other than a meagre three-foot rise in Coral Gables and the ramp to the front door of the hotel. It’s not much, but my legs appreciate the change. (I can see a distant hill from my hotel window. It’s a landfill. Look very closely under the red arrow in the photo below… Otherwise there is nothing to break the monotony of the Miami topographical desert.) Even on a mere five-mile slog, I’m squishing in my shoes and my pointy bits are screaming from every morning’s soaked-and-heavy-fabric-induced abrasion. But Jerry has that cold one on arrival…

Morning Five: For my last hurrah (the sound I’ll make when the plane leaves the tarmac to head north), I re-study the maps so that even in the dark, this time I can find that golf course. I’m rewarded with a view of a grove of utterly gorgeous baobab-like trees (which may indeed have been baobabs, but I’m no botanist). In the endless expanse of sameness that is Miami, it’s the first truly sweet view of a week’s worth of running. I stretch the last morning to eight miles, not really caring if I’m a few minutes late at this point. I know that without drastic action, the TSA won’t allow me to bring my weaponized footwear on the aircraft, so this morning I step in the shower shoes and all and bathe everything down to the insoles before leaving them for a final morning with my good friend the box fan till late checkout during my last morning at the office. By noon, they’re sufficiently disarmed and cleared for transport.

Six hours or so later, I step out of the terminal at Logan and luxuriate in reasonably dry, low seventies air that feels like nothing less than heaven. The next morning, back with my local peeps, our easy club run in mid-sixties is a joy. The preceding week seems surreal, a bad dream.

Those poor shoes, washed of their load of salt, are currently enjoying a respite in the disinfecting northern sun, but something tells me they will always whisper, “Squish!” on every future stride in memory of their southern trauma. Let’s face it, Miami is for winter.

04 August 2015

Sounds Great

An old adage reminds us that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That conflicts with a different old adage (or perhaps it’s an idiom?) that suggests we should take things at face value. And while seemingly unrelated, I’ll toss in yet another old adage that says that ninety percent (or some similar made-up percentage) of the battle is simply showing up. Actually, there are a lot of old adages. With the number of them I’m spewing here, I’m sounding rather adagio, a punny bit of irony since that means slow, and this is a column about racing which one would hope to be fast.

Where on Earth is he going with this?

Through a quirk of fate, I’m holding a medal that says I finished second in the USA Track & Field New England Championships men’s masters’ five-thousand meters. Wow, lil’ ol’ me, the second fastest master on the track in New England? That’s quite a title. Impressive even. Sounds great.

Ah, but remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

So here’s the dirty little secret. Seventeen people showed up for the race. Seventeen. Nine were fast young guys who unsurprisingly finished first through ninth overall. One was a woman. Yeah, one. And she won the women’s race. Funny that. That left the other seven of us to comprise the entirety of the masters race. I didn’t quite grasp these numbers at the time, but later analysis, as they say, eked out these truths.

It’s worth noting that the entire New England Championships meet had been slated for two weeks prior but was postponed due to ugly weather. It’s a near certainty that plenty of people who’d planned to compete found their dance card unexpectedly shuffled. The starting line probably lost two or three competitors for every one of us last-minute hey-why-not-jump-into-this entries.

Still, we’re told to take things at face value.

Second out of seven isn’t as impressive as second out of a hundred and seven, but to be fair, the seven that did show up were solid athletes, competitive enough to follow USATF events, confident enough to consider jumping into a meet labelled “Championship”, and daring to race five thousand meters on the glaring transparency of the track rather than anonymizing crowd of a community road race. Let’s face it, the typical field of one hundred seven or even one thousand seven would fall a little differently on the bell curve.

So then it’s true: ninety percent of the battle us just showing up.

But I really had no intention of doing so. Once again, I was sucked in at the last minute through the positive peer pressure of my Greater Boston club-mates. Another spur-of-the-moment decision made on legs still recovering from the Level Renner only days earlier. And like that marathon relay a month earlier, with no time for niceties like reconditioning my legs to operate in track spikes, which sure would have been nice on that Friday night’s wet, slick surface. No, there was no real prep for this other than behaving myself the night before.

That night before had included a casual pub run with my local Striders peeps. While just a fun run, I’d previously used it as a hard tempo to gain training value from the evening’s outing before the evening’s ingestion began. This time, knowing I'd signed up for the USATF race a mere twenty-four hours hence, I vowed I'd stay with the front of the gang and go no faster. The irony is that when I looked at the comfortable pace that gang led, it occurred to me that I'd need to slice off a full six minutes to hit my goal the next night. Admittedly, that was a bit daunting. Adding to that was the mild amusement that in neither my youthful nor my aged Second Lap days had I ever run a five-thousand on an outdoor track. I’d done it indoors once, several years ago – a dizzying twenty-five laps – but never on the outdoor big oval. There’s something about the immediate feedback of lap splits that changes the race. For the better or worse, I couldn’t say.

With the small field and the fact that the rest of the meet’s events were slated to be held in the next day’s high sunshine, the race itself took on the feel of a hard workout, so without pressure that two misfires of the starting gun led only to amusement rather than any level of competitive stress. The third time being a charm (another adage?), we began our twelve and a half slippery circuits.

Holding no illusions of matching my best times from younger days, I targeted lap splits that would deliver an eighty-percent age-graded performance. After a quick opening lap and a half, I settled in behind teammate Kris while we clicked off four more right on target – or at least my target. He’d seeded in at thirty seconds faster, so I knew he wasn’t where he’d like to be. When the next lap sagged oh-so-slightly, we swapped spots; it was my turn to pull our train for a while.

Mentally this was an interesting game. Twelve and a half laps, and I was not racing for any position but merely for a target time, so no strategy, surging, or fighting for position. Just even laps, hold it steady, count it down, simple…and still I managed to lose count. Go figure. I could blame the young fast guys lapping us, but sadly it was nothing more than a mobile senior moment.

Recovering my mental position, we’d knocked off three more, each a second ahead of target, but Kris was fading and would fall back I know not how far, as I had no need check; so far as I was concerned he was an ally, not a rival, in this game. With three to go, simple wasn’t so simple any more as fatigue grew, but somehow the certainty of the track – the known exact distance as opposed to the vagaries of a road course – made the countdown more manageable as the next two barely held to plan. Last lap, any semblance of form rapidly decaying, still focusing only on time, knowing I was ahead of my target but still seeking all I could squeeze out, suddenly the guy who’d led me by a wide margin all along was coming back, that margin narrowing…and meanwhile I sensed that Kris too was coming back to me, the three of us converging as the finish drew near.

No dramatic position changes would occur, but we three tightened the gap enough to make it interesting to the end. Having arrived with a goal time, and having shaved ten seconds off it, and having not really registered the demographics of the field, I gave no consideration whatsoever to the outcome of the competitive side of the race. I was fat, dumb, and happy (or perhaps skinny, sweaty as hell, and happy). That guy in front of me, Matt, and my teammate Kris proceeded to slug out a few laps of warm-down amidst pleasant runner chatter.

And then, a funny thing happened. Reminiscent of that moment in Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant, when the Sargent came in, pinned a medal on him, and told him, “You’re our boy!”, I jogged back to the finish area and found my utter oblivion interrupted when a race official handed me a medal. I can’t remember ever finishing a race and not checking my place, not knowing what hardware might be coming, and having to literally ask, “What’s this for?” It simply never occurred to me that in a race called the New England Championships that I’d win anything. “Second place,” was the official’s answer.

No kidding.

I know the truth. My time was satisfying for me. I hit my eight-percent age-graded goal. But it wasn’t anything spectacular. And yes, I’d finished second among the masters. Out of seven.

But hey, second in the USATF New England Championships? It sure sounds great.

28 July 2015

Chasing and Racing Away the Summer Slump

Summertime, and the living is…so far as running goes, usually associated with a slump. It happens every year, and though I’ve learned to expect it, it never fails to alarm me that once again, this could be the Beginning of the End, the start of that inevitable slide to oblivion (which is rather presumptuous of me to maintain that I’m not in oblivion already, but…). By the numbers, July hasn’t looked all that bad in terms of average training pace, until I cast off the rose-colored glasses and acknowledge that there have been more days of “no time” in the log than days where the run felt good enough to make it worth worrying about how quick the day’s miles passed.

And so we do what summer demands: run slow, run at ungodly hours of the morning to avoid the heat, run in interesting places to substitute fresh for fast, and of course, shake off the cobwebs with a few races. The slow part is easy. The ungodly part, not so much, but I’m getting better at rolling out before six, though I swear I’ll never enjoy it. The interesting places part comes by the luck of the schedule, earlier this month hitting three other states in a ten-day stretch, including a jaunt to my native Upstate New York for a family wedding. It seemed like a cool idea to run up the roads to the top of the Watkins Glen gorge and take the rim trail back down, and the deer and fox crossing my path on the way up seemed good run omens, but the reality of a muddy winding trail with a fatally high and unprotected drop into the yawning canyon on the left just didn’t work out as planned. Interesting? Yes. Fresh? Yes. Comforting? Not by a long stretch.

Which leaves the last bastion of battling the blahs, the summer race. And what better place to race than on a reasonably shady course in a beautiful park alongside ponds filled with blooming water lilies, that is, well, in a somewhat less than garden community of the Commonwealth. OK, so you can’t have everything perfect, but if it weren’t for the Level Renner 10K, I’d probably never have the adventure of going to Brockton. Truth be told, I can’t tell you if the rest of Brockton lives up to its reputation, but D.W. Field Park is a pretty nice place. Of course, two thirds of it is in Avon anyway.

By just my second trip to this venue, it’s become a favorite. It’s mostly because the folks from Level Renner who put it on do it solely for their love of the sport. That shines through. This is a by runners, for runners race. They’ve dispensed with the crap and focused on the important stuff, notably including actually reporting on the race as a race first – pretty rare in this age of overpriced and over-swagged corporate for-profit events and endless 5K runners-look-like-ATMs fundraisers. Instead, you get reporting on the race with videos and commentary on the action, interviews with the winners, and actually paying attention to the fact that our sport, while inclusive and welcoming to all abilities, is at its heart, competitive. Thanks to that attitude, while not a big event (though they doubled this year over last), the field oozes quality, and quality provides the competition that inspires better performances.

All that was great, but overhanging mini-Grand-Prix-style motivational atmosphere was an entirely different kind of atmosphere, a crushing one with heat pushing the mid-eighties and humidity close enough to fully saturated that my warm-up left me a soggy sorry sight. Probably two thirds of the course is indeed shaded, which technically helped, though we were too far gone even before the gun sounded to truly appreciate that positive aspect. So, into the woods, but bring a paddle or a bucket or something because it’s wet in there.

The bad news is that a camera malfunction left Dearest Spouse with only a couple of shots of the tail end of my warm up with training partner Issam, also known as He For Whom a Blog Name has Never Stuck, and a few burst shots of the start, including a bit of goofiness (see zoom) when I noticed her snapping away. After that, kaput.

The good news is that a camera malfunction left Dearest Spouse without pictures from later in the race. The videos posted on the Level Renner site make clear you didn’t want to see that, anyway. It wasn’t pretty.

The last I’d see of my training partner was during that warm-up, after which he blew my doors off by a couple of minutes and erased my local club masters 10K record. Ever humble, he’d typically not even report the feat to the record master, but to my view, records are there to be broken, so once I managed to recover the ability to speak afterward, he gained my lauding, admiration, and insistence on recognition of his feat. The guy is just plain tearing it up.

Meanwhile, back in the cheap seats, I duked it out with perennial rival Bad Dawg. To call our relationship a rivalry at this point is my second sin of presumptuousness in a single column since it’s usually a rather one-sided contest these days with me on the short end, unless I can catch him on a tough day. Never more than a few strides off my flank, by about a mile and a half in, with the temperature gauge already pointing toward overheated, he slipped ahead – my only question being why it took him so long – and settled thirty to forty feet up. Over the course of the next four miles I watched in frustration as he first stopped by his parked car to take a slug from a cached bottle, then stopped at not one but two water stops for the full ingestion approach, and despite my uninterrupted efforts, I still couldn’t catch him. On some dimension somewhere, that’s just wrong.

But with under a half mile to go, with not just my feet but also those of the runner nearest me exuding resounding squishes on every stride from the absurd amount of sweat drowning every inch of our beings, my ersatz rival succumbed to what I’d learn later was in fact his tough day – he having raced a mere three days prior. On the last turnaround, literally working not to slide out of my inundated insoles while cornering, I slipped past him. But with the third and final ascent of the course’s sole hill between us and the end, no part of me expected it was over. Utterly tapped, that climb seemed so absurdly slow that I couldn’t fathom why I had yet to be overtaken. Only when topped out did I dare break my cardinal rule of never looking back and do so, knowing my opportunities to come out ahead on this scorecard were mighty few, and being damned if I’d give it up in the last tenth of a mile.

I know I placed a lot more importance on that micro-victory than did he, since it’s been a somewhat rarer occurrence to put a check in my column, so learning just how big the gap was at the end took on a somewhat irrational urgency. Dearest Spouse, who’s Priority One was to corral my wilted remains into the shade post haste, didn’t immediately connect that that my seemingly dazed wandering back toward the chute was in fact entirely lucid behavior with purpose. As noted, irrational purpose, but purpose none the less. Pointless, too, since I didn’t see the gap anyway.

Two minutes prior to my finish I’d lost my local club’s masters 10K record, but to my pleasure, on a day that could make molasses flow (or perhaps just rot), I’d sliced a fair chunk off my local club’s seniors 10K record, one that I already owned, but one that I made a little bit harder for my training partner to snatch away when he gets old and crusty like me. Combined with surpassing my target time and age-graded performance, it was a fine even if disgustingly sweaty way to break through a couple layers of that summer slump.

How long is it till September?

22 July 2015


Consider the lowly asterisk. One of only two characters that have been bestowed the Sainthood of its very own telephone key. It’s a graphic that has largely lost its identity in the smartphone era, being known to most of the current generation as merely ‘star’. And of all the commonly used symbols in our life, it’s probably the one that almost nobody draws accurately; for that matter, few even agree on how many points it should have.

But oh, it’s power. This diminutive glyph has the power to destroy what people have worked a lifetime to achieve. Roger Maris never got over his asterisk. As the man who finally, after thirty-four years, broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, he found his achievement demeaned with an asterisk. Growing up as a baseball fan (in Upstate New York, so pardon my not being a Red Sox fan back then, but at least I followed the Mets and despised the Yankees even then), I always remembered that asterisk after Maris’ name. Yeah, he broke the record, but he did it in the recently lengthened season, whereas The Babe had eight fewer games in which to set his mark. So slather that man’s reputation with something worse than a scarlet letter! Give him an asterisk!

Well, I got my own asterisk last month, along with twenty-some of my Greater Boston Track Club teammates, at a rather unusual and significantly enjoyable event, the Somerville Road Runners Club Challenge Cup Marathon Relay. We earned our asterisk fair and square, and we’re proud of it. Of course, the race officials just called it a disqualification, but we’re OK with that. To us, it’s a glorious asterisk.

This one fell into my favorite category of races: accidental events. Or call it a pop-up, unplanned, and therefore unable to generate great angst in the lead-up, since you don’t have much time to think about it. And besides, if you didn’t know you were racing it just a few days before, would it really matter if you tanked anyway? No pressure, just fun, let’s go out and test the wheels.

Now, most of my accidental events have at least been on the radar screen, just waiting for the opportunity to jump in to arise. Consider that first Martha’s Vineyard, or last year’s Lynn Woods, both races I knew about before the last minute chances to toss my shoes in the ring. But this one? Never heard of it. And considering the nature of the beast, twenty-six legs of a mile each (save the first one which included the extra point two), it was an event for which I was ill-prepared at best. What, me, race a mile? It’s been three and a half years since the last time I did that. It’s not something I remotely train for. The potential for comic outcomes was vast.

Yeah, let’s go for it.

The call went out a mere three and a half days before the gun went off. Our intrepid team organizer took on the audacious task of assembling a team of twenty six in a mere three days. Merely thinking he could pull this off at all pretty much defines the word chutzpah. And impressively, he did pull it off. Mostly.

Pulling together the twenty-four runners that he did in that period of time is nothing to shake a stick at. And being a couple short wasn’t really a problem, since the rules allowed for two to run a pair of legs (though the repeat offenders were supposed to have been the slowest on the team, which would have put Old Relic here, running in the midst of the gaggle of Young Hip and Fast GBTC speedsters, at serious risk of having to experience twice the agonizing fun). But we fell down on our female count, where the rules said we needed at least eight to run at least ten legs, but came up a few short at only five. As a result, we knew going in that our efforts wouldn’t count. We decided we didn’t care (which also meant we didn’t care who ran the double legs, which mercifully saved my legs!). We’d run it anyways, just for the fun of it. After all, shouldn’t this all be just about the fun of it?

We ran it, we smoked it, and we wiped the other teams off the track. And indeed, it didn’t count. Yeah, so what?

The irony of course, is that had we had our full complement of fast women, I and my fellow masters would probably have slid off the roster in favor of the younger faster guys. There was no rule requiring a certain number of antiques on the team (hmm, suggestion for race organizers for next year?). So perhaps an asterisk was the best I could get. I’ll take it and be proud to be associated with the team that earned it.

As for the race, though I had only three days to think about it, I conveniently had the chance to hit the track the morning after signing up. It’d been so long since racing on any track, I frankly had no idea whether to attack this in road racing shoes, or the odd red slipper-like featherweight things I’d picked up recently and wasn’t sure what to do with, or dive in head first and strap on those track spikes I bought years ago when I barely tasted the indoor track scene. A couple of shoe changes later, it was pretty clear that my aged gait wasn’t going to take to the spikes in three days flat. I settled on the red monster slippers. Likewise, I wasn’t at all sure how to prepare for racing a mile, knowing that my warm-up requirements have gotten longer and longer, and that I don’t hit full speed until about number three or four of any track interval, and that with twenty teams shuffling twenty-six runners, there’d be no space on the track for those kind of warm-up shenanigans. When race day came, I found myself leaving the stadium over and over, trying to simulate leg-loosening repeats over a series of mini-warm-ups. I can’t say I was anywhere ready by the time my nineteenth leg rolled around.

Meanwhile, our GBTC Speedy Young Turks and Fast Sleek Women were embarrassingly running up the score on the rest of the teams. I knew that in the end, nothing would matter, but teamed with guys running four-twenties and thirties, and ladies smoking low fives, I had to at least strive for respectability. Besides, we’d been promised a barbeque by Coach Tom if we beat his youthful marathon best of two nineteen. Never mind the unattainable win, we wanted the burgers. I targeted five and a half as an attainable – and mostly unembarrassing – goal.

Snap, it was over. Accustomed to marathons, firmly of the belief that a five-K is way too short and fast for my tastes, the mile barely registered. Click, a lap, a little quicker than desired but of no concern, just back it off a hair. Click, the second lap, a little too slow, noticing that by leg nineteen, runners of all abilities spread into an almost uniform paste over the track offered utterly nobody to key on. Click, the third, always the toughest lap of a mile repeat in a workout and no different here, yet a second quicker than the previous, in good shape. Click, the last one, solid, closing with pleasingly even first-half-second-half splits, and as a bonus beating my target by a few seconds. Hey, I’m just getting warmed up. It’s over?

I knew that I simply hadn’t known how to race that distance, and that given some practice, I’d probably slice quite a bit off my result, but coulda’ shoulda’ was meaningless, and the order of the day was just to soak it up and enjoy. To my amusement, I later found myself having run the fourth fastest of the nearly fifty fifty-plus men’s legs, not that the distinction would get me a cup of tea at Dunkin’s. But to even greater amusement, I savored the moment with a bunch of our teammates accumulated on the track to root on our last man as he closed out our odyssey out at the two hour, thirteen and a half minute mark. Three things were obvious: we’d earned our burgers, we’d bettered the next team by enough (six minutes, it turned out) that had we swapped five of our men’s legs for more women’s legs we’d likely still have won it, and that despite having just teamed for what we thought was a pretty respectable time, we knew that most respectable Kenyans would have kicked our butts entirely on their own. That kind of put what they do in perspective.

In the end, twenty-two teams found spots in the results, followed by a twenty-third, emblazoned with a prominent DQ rather than a place rank. But in my book, DQ is for ice-cream cones and Blizzards. We took it as an asterisk: what we did, but what was – and had rightly to be – taken away. Roger Maris, we feel your joy, and we feel your pain.

09 July 2015

Forest Roads

Dearest Spouse made an amusing comment recently. “In any other household,” she noted, “I’d be considered the fit one.” Living with Yours Truly, who is admittedly a tad obsessed with tallying miles and refusing to admit that trips around the sun must have some cumulative impact on the rate of that accumulation, and with Dearest Daughter the Younger, who has been touched by more than just a tad of that genealogical influence, she’s got a point. With her daily exercise routine (she’s at the gym far more often then I), healthy lifestyle (I’m not terrible, but she’s far better at avoiding nutritional vices), overall health (while I fret over my cholesterol and blood pressure, doctors can’t find hers), and toned (dare I say svelte?) physique, she’s the envy of anyone. Unfortunately, that stuff doesn’t show up in the newspaper like results from running Boston, so I tend to get the attention while she clearly doesn’t get the credit she deserves. So let it be known publicly, she’s significantly skewing America’s fitness curve in the right direction, and I won’t be a whit jealous to hear you compliment her on it.

I put that out there publicly because she enjoys teasing me publicly about my habits on outings like our annual sojourn to Acadia National Park. “Apparently,” she points out, “he doesn’t think hours of hiking are enough, so he goes running as well.” True that, guilty as charged. I do generally run on the days that we hike, and since I’ve stumbled into another streak, on this year’s trip that meant I’d be running on every day, including every day that we hiked, which was every day, save one.

But in my defense, the same thing that draws us to Acadia to hike and enjoy the forests, mountains, and coastlines of Mount Desert Island also draw me to want to be out absorbing that beauty and the smell of the pine forest as much as possible – and what better way to chalk up more tree time than to run through those forests? So for this year’s trip, I privately set myself a goal that at least part of every day’s run would be off the pavement, either on simple forest roads or the on the park’s rightly vaunted carriage road system. And to my pleasure, I went eight for eight.

From the cozy cottage we rent by the sea, it’s a brief jaunt before pavement even appears, but under my rules, an extended driveway doesn’t count. From there, it’s a minimum two miles to the closest forest road within the park, though to get there even that quickly requires gingerly stepping across the unique stone pedestrian causeway holding back the waters of Norwood Cove. Not that this is a bad thing; indeed, it’s yet another allure of the place, visible from afar yet oddly hard to actually find, hidden down a long dirt residential drive, and popping out on the far end on the back side of some country-club tennis courts, a seemingly private space where public passage is not just accepted but expected. It’s Maine, basically; there are in most cases no pretentions. Midway across the stones is a somewhat-less-than-confidence-inspiring bridge which, depending on when you hit it, crosses the tide rushing madly in or madly out, either of which carrying the force to hurt you, or, at just the right moment mid-tide, serene balance. Zen.

And not too distant on the other side, into the woods! The park forest road to Valley Cove is a mere six tenths of a mile in and the same course back, such a short forest interlude for the time taken to get there and return, but carrying such an overpowering aroma as to put you miles from reality in about one hundred yards. At the end, a brief trail puts you not just on the rocky beach, but on the rocky beach in a cove so isolated as to be almost magical, a place you don’t want to depart on any day, but mostly on our last day, before heading home (with two hikes enroute), a real ‘so long Maine, I’ll miss you’ spot. (Photos are of Valley Cove from across Somes Sound and from above on St. Sauveur Mountain)

So it is for the other reachable forest roads on the west side of the island. A few miles on paved roads to get there, a few miles back, and only a brief interlude in the trees…but worth every step to get there. Lurvey Springs Road is only a mile and a half of bliss on the south side of Beech Mountain, but it’s bliss worthy of the highway run needed to get back into town (though to be fair, it’s a screamingly fun downhill romp of a highway run). The road through Hio Heath gives about two miles of solitude through woods that are frankly so flat and nondescript as to be calming in their own right, letting you forget which way you’re going or how far it is till you’ll pop out in the back of the park campground, surprising the Winnebago crowd on a misty Maine morning. All these made the week’s agenda at least once.

But the jewels of Acadia are its carriage roads, bequeathed from Rockefeller’s oil fortune, a small give-back considering the monopolistic practices he used to build that fortune. Putting politics and ethics aside, they are a delight: light underfoot, enlightening to the senses, and extensive enough to fashion some major mileage. Being on the east side of the island, we can’t reach them on foot from the cottage, but a short drive is a small price to pay to run these gems.

Sunday post-hike found us at Little Long Pond, just feet from the ocean shore, on one of the few sections of the road system I had yet to traverse (I love covering new ground I haven’t seen – new roads, new trails, whatever). Darling Daughter the Younger and I traipsed a four-mile loop heading clockwise around the pond and over Mitchell Hill with a few sublime viewpoints. After lap one, DDY headed off to snap another hundred photos (seriously, averaging two hundred a day, this kid knows how to beat the hell out of a bucket of pixels) while I spun around, dropped the pace to sevens, and cranked a hard lap in the opposite direction. Zen and satisfaction, what a deal.

Tuesday, our one day of no hiking, Maine cold, Maine rainy, Maine raw, so raw as to make me put on gloves in June, we assuaged our dismay at the weather by putting in highly choreographed long run. Departing from the famed Jordan Pond House, DDY headed clockwise on the “Around the Mountain” eleven mile loop, while I pushed the pace heading east to Bubble Pond before joining her route in the opposite direction, providing us with a Moment of Zen (Oh! John Stewart! We will SO miss you!) as we passed each other on the north side of Sargent Mountain where the views would have been sublime…save that Maine weather. Then, with the intent of covering a few more of the few remaining roads I’d yet traversed, I headed south to tie into the route of Sunday’s run, meaning the last of my sixteen miles, intricately planned to finish within two minutes of DDY, ended seriously uphill, agonizing, yet climbing on a new road (for me) through the valley of a rumbling brook so beautiful it was hard to care about the effort.

Thursday, having covered five summits in boots, DDY and I swapped them out for running shoes and set out on a purely tourist circuit on the northern quadrant of the carriage roads, arcing the outer limits of the Witch Hole Pond area. DDY wasn’t quite used to my tourist running mode and was rather surprised by our laissez-faire attitude, stopping for ponds, stopping for turtles, stopping for views, stopping for bridges, stopping for snakes, whatever.

After all, when the forest calls, sometimes you might work hard, but sometimes, you just go with it.

26 June 2015

Wicked Early

Those who know me well know that one thing I generally am not is early. Arriving at most events in the nick of time, or perhaps a nick or two out of time, I usually refer to this somewhat undesirable habit as the “efficient use of time”. After all, those meetings never start on time anyway, right?

When it comes to race training, old habits die hard, and here too I’m not much different. Life flies by, and suddenly I realize I’m eight weeks out from a marathon and haven’t topped ten miles in several months. What typically follows is a frantically compressed training cycle that I get away with due to my overwhelming talent and dashing good looks. What’s that you say? Oh, right, just a daydream…or a horror movie, you decide.

But seriously, since I stay relatively fit year-round, save for injuries or other major training breaks, and since that base level of fitness can generally slog me through twenty-six, admittedly I do pretty much get away with it. But perception isn’t always reality. What the outside world might judge to be another strong marathon performance, I often know to have been eked out on what could have been better preparation (of course, that’s life, accepting reality is healthy!). Running in many ways makes us all better people, but as that improvement isn’t universal, it hasn’t cured my tendency to get a late start for almost everything. That’s why it’s notable that a few weekends back I made my way out to preview the front half of the course for my fall target race – over four months early.

That target is the Mohawk Hudson Marathon, which as a former resident (college days) of what we always referred to as the Hudson Mohawk region, will forever strike me as titled oddly backwards. But in this case it makes sense, since it starts in Schenectady – on the Mohawk – and heads downstream to Albany – on the Hudson. Part of my training is just getting the name right.

Not being into the marathon tourism scene, I’ve had this one in my head for a while not due to its location but because of its reputation for being flat and fast. That reputation matches up nicely to this year’s post-Boston quixotic vision of rolling the dice against the clock this fall. This is the course on which a teammate of mine made his one and only submersion below two-forty, and while that’s certainly not in any version of my future parallel universes, well, I’m jes’ sayin… And as it turns out, with Dearest Offspring the Elder now encamped at my alma mater, Rensselaer, in Troy, it turns out that the location is, well, rather handy. And nostalgic. And since we were going out to visit with DOE anyway, well, why not start to get the course into my head a bit early. Yes, I said early, that word that doesn’t generally run on my track.

When a course is described as flat and fast, it’s reasonable to ask the question of why one would care about getting a preview of it. After all, there should be no surprises, right? But there always are, and so far I’ve seen only in the first half. More may lurk, yet to be discovered, and I just want to know… Besides, I’m of a geography-centric mindset. I’m hopeless with names, but places imprint easily and tend to stick. That’s a real benefit for building the mental maps and cues that can make a big difference in the highly mental marathon game. And then there’s the opportunity to get in a long hard run early in the training cycle, since our theme is after all about being early.

Such it was that I convinced Dearest Spouse, ever supportive of my obsession, to provide support for Mohawk Hudson Recon Part One. After inserting me at the starting line at Schenectady’s Central Park, she proceeded to the next stage of our elaborate logistical plan, a meeting at Lions Park at mile eight on the Mohawk-Hudson (ooh, there’s that name order thing again) Bikeway, where Phase Two of the plan would kick in. My intent wasn’t just to scope the course, but scope it at a solid tempo pace, and knowing Dearest Spouse would not only be waiting, but was putting up with this whole charade, added a layer of motivation to put down the hammer. Always a bit slow to warm up, I settled into the course, mentally acknowledging the mild rises along the first leg which I tagged ‘stupidity preventers’ (as opposed to Boston’s downhill start, which encourages stupidly fast opening miles). By mile three, having also made mental notes of the sharp road bends that called out for running tangents, I’d dropped the pace below sevens and planned to keep it there, knowing that race day would call for a whole lot more. That’s about when the surprise kicked in.

Centuries ago the Flat-Earth believers expected flatness until you fell off the edge (and I won’t get into the whole Columbus-era myth, since mankind knew the Earth was round in the time of Aristotle). Their misguided belief offers wisdom for runners of this course, however. Around mile four at a place called Blatnick Park, a spot dedicated mostly to ball fields (its main road is called “Line Drive” – cute…) but notable to Mohawk Hudson as the point where the course joins the river, the Flat-Earth maxim comes true. Passing the ball fields and rounding a bend, a splendid panorama of the Mohawk River comes into view quite suddenly, delighting the eyes, but before you have time to enjoy it, you fall off the end of the world. Right about where that big red arrow is.

This is the kind of thing that you preview a course to learn. As hills go, it’s not enormous, but it’s big enough, it’s steep enough, and it’s sudden enough that if you don’t know it’s there – and you don’t see it coming – your quads are going to be rather unhappy with you. And you’ll have twenty-two to go. Ouch.

Topographically, the next eight miles didn’t exist, save one road crossing dip, living up to the flat & fast label after that rude edge-of-the-world shock. Being a rail trail, make that flat, straight, and fast, which called for mentally cataloguing landmarks and points of reference with the expectation that those notes will make the trip in October go that much faster both mentally and, hopefully, physically. Previous years’ faded mile markers, not always obvious, hinted that my tempo pace was holding well, but come fall, that would make for merely decent where the goal is, let’s just say (because I don’t make predictions), a little more than merely decent.

At eight, Dearest Spouse was in position as planned, and once I passed, she began executing Phase Two, walking as I continued the run. Our hastily contrived plan would work out just as expected, my reaching roughly the halfway point of the course, doubling back, and meeting her head-on (no fatalities were reported) for a warm-down walk back. Logistics are everything.

The flatness continued to twelve, but interspersed with scenic river overlooks and cool green corridors. This is a truly a trail worthy of the trip, at least until the next rude shock at twelve, where the sylvan utopia is forced to deal with the reality of the Adirondack Northway, alias the interstate. Nobody reviewing the course map would find this surprising, but in my mind, you have to experience it. You have to realize that when the trail cuts left to drop you on the road that gets you past the highway, it does so with an unexpected short climb that would be inconsequential in any other venue but after having your legs drone for eight dead-flat miles, hits like about a quarter ton of bricks – and then drops you to the road just slightly steeper than your flat-tuned and suddenly-shocked legs are comfortable with. This is the kind of thing that you preview a course to learn.

Taking advantage of the newfound road, next comes the amusement of running under a signature bridge you’ve driven over so many times, but this time gaining a unique view missed by millions of motorists. Enhancing that experience is the odd fact that thanks to great engineering or simply good acoustic luck, it’s far quieter than you’d imagine for the speed and quantity of traffic passing above, oddly peaceful despite the frenetic pace just feet above your head.

Approaching mile thirteen just beyond the bridge, the meter rang and it was time to reverse, racing back to meet up with Dearest Spouse before she’d given up on me, pushing the hammer down once again expecting (wrongly, of course) she was getting impatient with my adventure, generating the kind of internal angst only I can serve up for myself. But even imaginary angst still motivates, driving me to finish the last few of the day’s fifteen at the fastest clip of the day. It was nice to know that while I’d only covered the first half of the course, the total run left a mere eleven more to the course’s end at Albany’s Jennings Landing, and though I was still shy of my target fall pace, there was plenty in the tank.

All this, and more than four months early. Wicked early. Let’s hope it pays off.

Editor’s Note: While you don’t see numbers on these ramblings, I do number them for my filing system. Though the system isn’t perfect – there have been a couple ‘special’ un-numbered entries and conversely, a couple of numbered ones that probably didn’t deserve a number balancing them out – it’s notable that with this posting, I’ve hit the three-hundred-article milestone. Assembled in a book, the collection would be a veritable tome. And imagine if you read each in a mere five minutes (a challenge considering my verbosity), you’d have wasted more than an entire day of your life. In truth, I’m honored for the few minutes you do spend soaking up these random thoughts, and thank you for your support of my other vice of writing.

03 June 2015

Days of the Dementors

I’ve long forgotten which events occurred in which of the twelve-point-six million Harry Potter films, but I do recall many of the events themselves, notably the scene where the Dementors attack our beleaguered hero and first suck the warmth and joy from his surroundings before trying to suck the joy from his soul. Until the sun finally re-emerged around four this afternoon, I was pretty convinced that the Dementors had overtaken New England for the last few days as the mercury hit levels that brought the fleece blanket out of the bedroom closet.

Back in mid-April, I and many others expounded on the brutality of the Weather Gods on the day of the Boston Marathon; the rain, the wind, the cold, the joyless souls being hauled off the course hypothermic, the remaining souls going hypothermic post-race in the canyons of Boston’s Back Bay. It occurred to me last night, tooling across town in my eco-mobile, that the car thermometer read forty-six degrees, which was, to my recollection, the temperature for Boston. And Dearest Spouse reminded me how back then we’d thought that was a nasty day for so late in the season.

But that was April. Hello, it’s June. That month that comes in like a mink whale and goes out like an opossum, or something like that. The Dementors arrived just hours before the month rolled in, the dial dropping over twenty points in the hours after my dozen humidity-swathed mid-day Sunday miles. Now, who remembers the spell that Harry used to ward them off? (Answer: A co-worker with whom I brought up the Dementor theme, quickly reminded me: Expecto Patronum!)

It’s totally wrong to put on long sleeves, double shirts, and gloves, yes, gloves, to go for a run in June, but faced with dank windy rainy forties, I don’t want to be right. Yet though the joy may have been sucked from the atmosphere, I’m finding some of it on the road.

While quantity isn’t everything, in terms of building the base and overall fitness, it’s a lot, and the odometer keeps turning, topping a mileage milestone on that dreary first of the month, the same day my latest streak – begun entirely by accident but now happily living a life of its own – hit a hundred days. And the body – excepting the left knee which has been entirely disconnected from reality, getting no worse or better through breaks or heavy training – is holding up. A co-worker asked me today about my Achilles, and I had to ask him to repeat himself. The word Achilles simply didn’t light up the neurons, since the testy tendon itself hasn’t lit up a whit of awareness in months. In short, things are holding together despite having turned up the dial to eleven.

But while basking like I’ve rarely done in the fever of a fall target race with more-or-less unrealistic hopes (which is of course motivation, but also potentially massive disappointment, but hey, I’m a big boy, I can handle it…), quality has to join the mix. Over the last few weeks, a couple of strong tempo runs have popped up, sometimes when least expected, to keep alive that go-for-broke spark of hope. An impromptu stop for a quickie run on my way home from a business meeting turned into a half-marathon at three-hour marathon pace (and the discovery of one of the finest rail trails I’ve run, Hop River State Park Trial in Vernon, Connecticut, a must-run if you’re in the area). And yesterday, despite the Dementor’s Gloom, an ordinary outing dropped into a tempo with a pace in the sixes, piercing the aerial dreariness with the satisfaction that I’m still refusing to act my age.

Even today’s, the forecasted improvement seemed to need to fight for its right to exist, and didn’t fully prevail till late afternoon. Our reward for surviving this late-season unexpected dose of despair was a perfect evening on the trails, the air a crisp sixty, the ground surprisingly solid and dry considering the volume of rain over the last three days (testament to the drought leading up to the deluge), and the filtered woodland sun seeming far more sublime than usual; its absence having made our hearts yearn for it that much more.

Clearly the trick to surviving what the Dementors throw at you is to cast your own spell, damn the torpedoes, run on, and don’t forget a good running cap to keep the slop out of your eyes.