12 September 2014
Dearest Spouse and I sat down to watch the flick Milk the other night. It’s worth a couple hours of your life to see how a fight for the rights of one slice of humanity became, though Harvey Milk’s leadership, a cause of human rights. But in the end of this true story, both he and the mayor of San Francisco are assassinated by a crazed political and personal opponent who’s attorney used, somewhat successfully in that he was convicted only of manslaughter, what became known as the “Twinkie Defense”, the theory that his devolution from a previously healthy lifestyle to a diet of junk food proved his state of depression and consequently his inability to act rationally. (Actually, the movie gets this fact wrong and perpetuates the myth that his diet caused the irrationality – a mark of shame on an otherwise excellent work – but some quick web sleuthing – thanks Snopes and imdb – corrects the story.)
What does this have to do with running, I hear you cry? Simple. It raises one of the most basic questions of our being: How do any of us recognize when we’re no longer able to recognize that we’ve lost the ability to recognize reality? And how can that affect – or even cost – our lives while we run?
Few of us, thankfully, will find ourselves in a state of such depravity that we engage in violence against others. Some of us, though, will indeed find ourselves in a state of sufficient depravity to drive ourselves past rational limits. We may, in a way, engage in violence against ourselves.
Remember who’s writing this. The person who rationalized his collapse at the end of the 2008 Wineglass Marathon as a simple fall, but who over the years came clean with himself and recognized that he didn’t get to the moment of that fall through a series of entirely rational decisions. And the person who is somewhat convinced that he learned his lesson and stopped himself from doing it again a few years later at Boston.
It’s good that I think I’ve learned, and I think that I can keep from making the same frightening mistake again, though there’s no guarantee I’m right. But even if I am, there is still the problem of the first time. I like to say that you don’t know what the thing that eventually kills you will feel like, because it hasn’t happened yet. Likewise, you don’t know what it feels like to pass from rational mental functioning to something else, certainly not the first time because you haven’t yet felt it, and maybe not even later, because, well, it’s a circular argument as you can see.
I won a race the other day. That doesn’t happen often, and it was an exciting occurrence for me, but my excitement and happiness lasted all of about one minute before turning to horror. At the end of that minute, my rival for the first two miles of that five kilometer race came into view of the finish line, staggering wildly, obviously physically unstable, and clearly heading for disaster. Despite being nowhere near recovered from my race, I raced again, this time toward him, but didn’t reach him in time as he catapulted headlong, frighteningly, into the pavement. Then things got weird.
But first, let’s back up about forty-five minutes. The event was a local community race, and I’m leaving details vague to respect the privacy of those involved in the story. Many of you readers already know where it happened and to whom; it’s no secret, but these identities don’t matter to the telling of the story. So for those of you who don’t know them, I won’t spread any more details. But suffice to say that it was a small event. Despite the best intentions and efforts of the organizers, word just didn’t get out too well. The thought had crossed my mind that morning that maybe only forty folks would show, and maybe I’d have the fun of a moderate-fish-in-a-small-pond win. I wasn’t far from wrong; only sixty showed.
Still, it only takes one contender to push you to second place, so I scoped the crowd and picked out a somewhat familiar face, a man about my age who I was sure I’d seen at the races before. A little chit-chat confirmed that on any given day, he’d likely give me a run for my money, and I knew that at a minimum he'd be vying for our mutual fifty-plus group. A few minutes later at the starting line, another apparent player appeared, a young turk who humbly self-deprecated his readiness, but fooled neither of us. It’s amusing how we tend to spot each other, but we do.
After one of the stranger race starts I’ve experienced – someone blowing a horn from somewhere behind us without warning – and our subsequent vocalizations of less-than-savory oaths in response, the three of us split from the pack for the almost-entirely-uphill first half. In almost a repeat of that woodsy 10K from a couple weeks back, my two rivals set a pace a hair too hot, and I satisfied myself with staying within a fifty-foot tape measure of them. Like that day, I knew they’d either come back to me, or there wasn’t much I could do.
By about a mile and a quarter, the young one did come back. Adding a bit of nitro to the mix when I passed, I tried to convince him that I wasn’t going to let him come back at me, and indeed that was the last I’d see of him till those frightening moments a minute after my finish. That left my same-age rival still about forty yards up.
Collecting my thoughts after what I’d tried to make look like an easy burst, but what had in fact taken a toll, I lost attention for just long enough that I didn’t catch my rival missing the turn at one-point-four until he was ten yards past. This being a gentleman’s sport, I gave him a holler about the turn, and he doubled back, erasing half his lead but still leaving me with a challenge and no certainty whatsoever that I’d be up to meeting it. But on the next small hill, I caught up far more easily than expected. My racing sense signaled weakness, but what lay ahead was almost entirely downhill, not my best skill, and an easy place for a contender with some speed to open it up. Left to a sprint to the death at the end, my confidence would not be high.
We hammered the subsequent big downhill elbow-to-elbow and made the turn for the last rise, a mere tenth of a mile of barely perceptible up, leading to a full mile of gentle downhill to the finish. Having sensed that weakness earlier, I put on my second burst of the morning on that rise and opened a gap before starting the downgrade, still fearing the dogfight that might erupt. Knowing he must be nipping my heels but refusing to glance back and show weakness, I poured on all the intensity I could muster. Halfway down, a spectator said I had fifteen seconds on him, but I didn’t buy it; he wasn’t in position to have timed the gap, and besides, it seemed far too quick a drop-off considering the level of competition I’d been up against. I didn’t let up, and glanced back only after making the final turn; seeing nobody, I wore my best Death-Warmed-Over face over the line.
Win. Small pond, to be sure, but so what, a win’s a win. Now, how close was he, after all? Come out of the chute, look back, nobody. Time passes, nobody still. It made no sense. For what seemed an eternity, but was only a minute. And then, around the corner appeared the young guy I’d lost at a mile-plus, and my rival, reeling, lurching, tottering at high speed, stumbling, crashing, shoulder to the pavement, maybe the head, road rash for certain, concussion perhaps? Horrifying.
I arrived seconds after he hit the ground, but rather than groan or moan in pain, he demanded that no assistance be given. I was taken aback. This wasn’t the famed 1908 Olympics, where Dorando Pietri was disqualified for receiving assistance when he collapsed before the finish line. This was a local race, where we could have carried this guy over the last stretch and nobody would have complained. But to my amazement, before I could do anything, he got himself back up and started to shave down the fifty yards remaining to the finish line.
He didn’t make it. Thirty yard down, he crashed again, this time with me in chase, entirely uncertain what to do. Again, he demanded no assistance, and again, he rose and staggered toward the line, which this time he crossed, only to collapse a third time, this time at least landing on my feet to break his fall.
Watching the first fall was frightening enough. Experiencing the bizarre sequence of events that followed ratcheted up the scale considerably. Then, while tending to him as he lay prostrate in the chute, hearing that in fact he’d been witnessed going down two or three times before I’d seen him, that what I thought was his first fall was in fact his third or fourth, was simply mind-blowing. Fellow caregivers spoke of competitiveness and type-A personality, but clearly there was more going on here.
The EMTs rolled him into the ambulance and the report came back from the emergency room that his internal temperature had hit a hundred and five – basket-case heat stroke, also known as hyperthermia (oh yeah, did I mention, it was HOT!). More telling was his later report that he had no recollection whatsoever of the last three-quarters of a mile; a report that was to me in a way a relief. It was no Twinkie Defense, but it helped me to understand that his irrational actions were the product of his heat-compromised head rather than some crazy competitive drive seeking second place in a rather meaningless local race. And this is where we get back to presence of mind.
A lot of things can cause us to lose our heads, and none of us is immune from this danger. In the case of Harvey Milk, his assailant suffered from, at a minimum, depression, if not true depravity. In my case at Wineglass, my best clinical diagnosis would have to be stupidity-induced type-A over-competitiveness. In the case of my rival, heat stroke is known to cause neurological symptoms including bizarre behavior, irritability, delusions, and hallucinations. For all we know, he really might have thought he was Dorando Pietro in the 1908 Olympic Marathon.
This is the local bleeding edge of the national debate. How do we prevent people who lose their heads, for whatever reason, from doing things harmful to themselves or others? At what point do we intervene? When is that prudent, and when is it infringing on that person’s rights? Had someone tried to stop me at mile twenty-two of Wineglass, I would have been mad as hell and given them the fight of their life. This time not only I, but apparently other spectators beforehand, had tried to assist, which would have meant stopping, my rival, and he gave the fight of his life. The cause of his losing his head was different from mine, perhaps more insidious and harder to spot and control, but in the end the result was the same: we both could have given our lives.
I am no expert and claim no answers here. After Wineglass, I learned some self-policing, which helped at that subsequent Boston, but I can’t say that experience would have helped me avoid the heat-induced irrationality we witnessed this time. Perhaps a more activist intervention stance is in order? You might save a life, though you might also get someone really upset with you.
I just don’t know. Please be careful out there.
06 September 2014
Planned races mean sitting and thinking between now and then. Accidental races, like that Wickham Park adventure, involve no thought whatsoever. Somewhere between those two extremes is a middle ground. So when the email showed up the day after my all-out effort at the Level Renner 10K seeking last-minute cannon fodder for a Greater-Boston-led expedition back to the Lynn Woods Relays, a race I hadn’t done in six years, and said relays were only two days out, that was enough time to think about packing the right gear in the bag, but not so much time that I’d be thinking about the race itself. It also wasn’t enough time to think about the fact that my local club had another woods race planned for the very next night. I just jumped on it. Back to the Woods! And that meant that the very next night, I’d do it again. Back to Back! To the Woods!
Part One of this duology wasn’t high-pressure. Our Greater Boston Track Club team intended to field a top-notch men’s open team, and they did, and they were far more than top-notch, and they blew everyone out of the park, making me proud to be wearing the same uniform. Our team, in contrast, was there for a good time, a good workout, and, as it turned out, a good meal afterward with good friends. We couldn’t find four of the same gender, so we went as a mixed team. We couldn’t even find four properly aged runners, so we supplemented with the daughter of a teammate, blowing any chance of old-fart award placement and leading to our brilliantly conceived team name (I can say that because I did not make it up myself), GBTC Masters and Apprentice.
While quite a bit slower than last time, I wasn’t at all unhappy with the race itself. Part of that differential I chalk up to the course change; less asphalt and more gravel equals a slower course, and in the span of a merely two and a half mile leg, little changes can make a big difference. And on trails, who really knows (or cares?) if the distance was accurate or the same as last time? If one trusts the distance, this one was a Personal Worst, but scanning the fifty-plus teams (with no way of knowing the ages of those on open teams, so it’s unscientific), I’d say I fared pretty well against the jury of my peers. I can say scientifically that I blew out nearly forty teams on my leg without giving up a slot. It didn’t win us a thing, but hey, you take your satisfaction where you can find it. But that analysis is fairly irrelevant. We had a fine night out at the races. When all was said and done, we had a late night at the races. And suddenly it was the next night at the races.
Wednesday night saw four hundred runners on one hundred teams, coursing through the woods of Lynn; it was a big wing-ding indeed. Thursday night saw a massive crowd of twenty, yes twenty, coursing through the woods of Berlin; it was a decidedly small wing-ding, perhaps not even a wing-ding at all. But it’s become a summer tradition for our local Highland City Striders known as the “No Frills 10K”. No entry fees, no awards, and almost no goodies save some leftovers from the club’s big 10K a week ago and the case of waters I hauled in to supplement.
Wednesday in Lynn may not have been an A-race, but I’d certainly given it my all, and I was questioning the sanity of showing up at anything labeled as a race the very next day. Alongside me on my warm-up, club-mate Will (blue shirt in the picture), who’d run – and won – the club’s big 10K only two nights earlier, was asking himself the same question. Knowing ourselves to be of similar caliber (though he of considerably fewer years!), seeing no obvious threats around us, knowing the casual aspect of the evening’s festivities, and most importantly both agreeing that all-out racing was just plain silly in light of our previous evenings’ endeavors, we inked a mutual non-aggression pact: run it hard together as a workout, bring it in together. That pact had an out-clause, however. Will stubbornly promised he’d chase down any youngster who tried to upset this freshly minted New World Order. I figured if that happened, I just wouldn’t care and told him (in jest, of course) to just trip the kid.
It’s a two mile circuit around Gates Pond, so the course is simple: start a tenth of a mile off the pond, spin it thrice, zip back out that tenth, and you’ve got 10K. But it’d diabolical, too, because each lap brings a good half dozen ups and downs, a few of them rather noticeable, and all on gravel roads with plenty of poor footing. It’s ideal to wear you down.
The kid had it, and ran it well all the way home, though in the end, the half-minute differential between us probably happened almost entirely on that first lap around the pond. He didn’t fade, but Will came back to me at the close of the second lap, and with the overall and not-terribly-coveted crown rather certainly gone for both of us, for a few minutes it seemed that the mutual non-aggression pact was back in force. I’d have been happy for the two of us to push each other home in a solid workout. But a half-mile into that last lap, my restored partner conceded fatigue, he was baked, off you go, he commanded…
It’s an odd situation. Where does cooperation and geniality stop, and competition begin? Given that green light, knowing my partner – or rival? – had released the bond of our gentlemen’s agreement, what exactly were the rules? With ten minutes left – including the third round of those highly noticeable hills on the back-side of the circuit, the possibility of my own fade was still quite real, and while I wouldn’t have cared if he rejoined me, my worn and wounded legs didn’t want a dogfight. I took the logical out: if you don’t know the answer to the question, just don’t let it be asked. Lap three clocked in faster than lap two primarily because I didn’t want to have to answer that question, a question that, in this context of a casual twenty-person race where even if I’d rolled over and walked it in, I’d still be the quickest antique on the lot, simply didn’t need to be asked. In the end, Will rolled in about a hundred feet or so behind me, we jogged a pleasant warm-down amidst the beauty of the forest, and agreed that once again, we’d had a fine workout and a fine night at the races, which is about all one could hope for having popped in three races in five days, the last two back-to-back.
11:18 PM 9/6/2014
30 August 2014
Life isn’t fair, but sometimes you slough that off and appreciate the goodness that is. Back in May, I wrote of two races which presented what couldn’t have been a more stark contrast: one by runners, for runners; the other a charity fund-raiser that saw the runners as a handy source of cash. Through the power of Almighty Marketing, not to mention the appearance of the governor and other notables, the charity ball out-drew the runners’ race by about nine to one. Bad news, right? Well, maybe not. First, it was a good cause. Good for them. And second, on any given day there are a lot more people at the mall than there are on the summit of Mt. Adams (or pick your favorite non-road-accessible White Mountains major peak), but I’ll take Mt. Adams. That’s just the way life goes. And let’s face it: Mt. Adams would get a little crowded if it were the other way around.
As you’d guess, I skipped the charity run, and targeted the Level Renner ten kilometer as the next stage of my twelve-step racing rehab, my first middle-distance outing since May. I expected a strong field to help push me a little closer to the exit ramp from my racing doldrums. The field certainly materialized; the doldrums were only partially vanquished.
The hundred and one people who ran “on the Level” in Brockton a couple of Sundays back (may have fit on two school buses, but they would have been very fast buses. Don’t confuse field size with field quality. This race wasn’t your garden variety duffer five-K; it ran more like one of the Grand Prix series. I thought about trying to relate to you how different this was from its contrasting contribution-collecting counterpart, but that science got nerdy (read: boring) quick. You can suffer through it as an appendix, and an inflamed one at that, below. For now, I’ll just say that the level of competition at this race made it easy to get my butt kicked, but the organization and operation of the race made that butt kicking a highly pleasant experience – hats off to the Level Renner guys!
Let me start you off with just a little bit of nerd data: twenty-one of the one hundred and one racers ran sub-six-minute pace, and another twenty-two came in at sub-seven – nearly half the field in total in a range that most people would label as fast. Could be they were inspired by being in Brockton, the City of Champions according to its welcome signs, where running fast can be good for your health? (Sorry, Brocktonians, you know I’m kidding…really, the venue was delightful.) Or could be that those who follow Level Renner are clearly a self-selected group of competitors, and without the mighty arm of marketing (and no visiting governors), the masses just didn’t show? Bottom line is that the lack of the masses did nothing to diminish the quality of this event. And frankly, that lack made parking a lot easier, too. All the better with both Dearest Daughter the Younger (who ran) and Dearest Spouse (who got some nice pics) along for the fun.
I admit that I was fooled by this one. I looked at the course and saw two loops, an inner and an outer, around reservoirs in a relatively flat part of the state, and judged that it must be a relatively easy course, right? Looks perfectly in alignment with the “Level” part of the organizers’ name, right? And I was rather wrong on that count. This was not as Level as expected. There was only one hill, and it wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t something you could ignore, either. In a fit of either evil or genius or both, they managed to work this hill into a two-loop course a total of three times by diabolically placing the start at the very bottom – so you’d hit it when you weren’t yet in your stride – and positioning the finish at the very top – so you’d hit it when your tank was on fumes. With that on the day’s menu, the ascent in the middle hardly mattered.
I had no illusions about what I could pull off. In jest, but tinged with obvious reality, I offered up my concession and congratulated rival EJ on adding a win to his column well before the gun. Catching him wasn’t in the cards, nor was coming close to my two-year-old best, but I did single out as a stretch goal the time that would translate to an eightieth percentile, or ‘national class’ (take that label with a grain of salt) performance in the age-grading tables.
The irony is that the Grand-Prix-like field, the likes of which have spurred me to some of my best performances in the past, wasn’t much of a factor this time. My relative slow-down from a year back meant they were largely out of range in no time. But there was in fact just enough of the right competition to keep the motivation flowing.
There’s a funny thing about racing. If you’re alone on a sparsely populated course, you’ve nobody to egg you on, and it’s easy to consciously or sub-consciously ease off. But conversely, if you’re in a huge pack, the competition loses relevance. With people passing and being passed constantly, there’s no reference as to whom to key on or how to pace. The most competitive situations, in my experience, are when it’s you against one or just a few others. There’s a non-verbal language that seems to flow between such small groups that says, “Game on!”
Through three miles, that eightieth percentile stayed in reach, though just barely. That goal and a stubborn refusal to break contact with my new pacer were balancing the agony of racing rather nicely, until mile four clocked in an inexplicable twenty seconds off pace. Knowing the level of detail of the organizers, I had a hard time buying the likelihood of a course-marking error, though I’d later hear similar reports from others. I chalked it up to mid-race sag and a few more ups and downs than perhaps I’d been aware of. But suddenly, eightieth percentile was a long shot at best. Even when miles five and six dropped right back to target, that twenty seconds was forever.
…Which I crossed nineteen seconds off the eightieth percentile. I had to settle for seventy-nine-point-something, not quite what I’d sought, but still my best age-graded race since the Repair & Clot Saga. But with that last burst, it was a moral victory. Another step of racing rehab notched.
[Final note: I’m glad a couple of my Greater Boston teammates are head-shaver types. Makes my considerably-more-visible-every-year scalp look almost fashionable in this warm-down shot!]
Appendix: A Tale of Two Races’ Fields
Thinking about the differences between the Level Renner 10K and the “Charity 5K”, I was curious how to compare the fields of two races on two courses, two days, two distances. Here’s some thinking and a little math. You may find this interesting or painful.
To compare courses, short of a topology study, I just applied basic judgment. Every course is different, so an exact comparison isn’t possible. But assuming both were measured accurately (a stretch, but appears true here) and knowing both, the charity run’s described as fast, while the Level course wasn’t as level as expected but was still quick, neither stood out as being a significant factor. And the weather was fine on both days, so I set that potential factor aside as well. This then leaves the simpler question of how to compare a 5K to a 10K. There are several methods, two of which I use here, and it turns out they came out pretty much in the same place.
The simplest method is to use a pace predictor such as the one on the Runner’s World web site. This tool doesn’t take into account age or gender, but simply reports expected times in various events based on what you ran in any given event. A slightly more complicated method is to use the age grading tables, which are statistical compilations of bazillions of races. By this method, you start with a performance in a certain event, and based on age and gender, determine the Performance Level Percentage (PLP) for that race, or how it stacks up to the thousands of race times upon which the tables are built. You then take this PLP and plug it in to see what that same level of performance would produce in a different event. The advantage here is that you can run it multiple times across a sampling of ages and genders to better represent the span of abilities. I ran both methods, and as it turns out they come out pretty much in agreement with each other. That means either that the world is in harmony (or more likely that these two methods are, in fact, built on the same statistical data), or it is rigged, but that’s for you to decide.
Using the PLP method, a 40-year-old male running the 10K at 7-minute pace produces a PLP of 65.4. That PLP plugged into a 5K for the same competitor a 6:43 pace. Since the world isn’t all 40-year-old men, I re-ran the process for a sampling of ages and genders running the 10K at 7-minute pace and came up with an average equivalent 5K pace of 6:47. The pace predictor came up with a little more aggressive prediction of 6:43. For my pseudo-science, I’ll go with 6:45. Running the same age-grading procedure for a 10-minute pace 10K yields an equivalent 5K pace of 9:41. And in this case, the pace predictor agrees spot on.
There is one more factor. Calling these paces equivalent is charitable to the 5K since many of those who run the five wouldn’t or couldn’t run the ten. But to keep it simple, we’ll just ignore that.
Now let’s look at the races. At the Level Renner ten-kilometer, a pretty astonishing 42.5% beat seven minute pace, a group we’ll call the fast zone, and 90% beat ten-minute pace, what we’ll call the mid-pack, leaving only 10% in the plodders. But at the charity race, only 4.5% hit the equivalent fast zone, and 42.5% – ironically the same percentage of fast zone at Level Renner – ran the mid-pack standard. The remaining 57.5% plodded their way through 5K.
This comparison isn’t intended in any way to sound elitist. I’m not judging runners based on pace ability (Proof: certainly mine has slowed in the last year!). Your DNA has a lot to do with whether you’re a twelve-minute guy, a seven-minute guy, or Meb Keflezighi. More participation means more healthy people, period, and that’s a good thing. But it is interesting to compare the fields and get a feeling for the different nature of these events. And it makes you feel better when you barely cracked the top third at the race you ran, to know you would have hit the top 2% at the other place.
Enough nerdism for today. Get out and go for a run.
26 August 2014
A while back a club-mate posted what struck me as a very amusing little graphic, even if to many of you it’s probably old and overused by now. Just go with it, humor me. At my advancing age, I completely identify with the absent-minded Dory (that’s from Finding Nemo if you just swam out from under a reef). Um, what was I writing about again? Right!
Eugene was a reasonably important race for me; a test of recovering fitness level at the longer distance, being already qualified but still aiming for a better Boston seeding time in a fall marathon. But while I pushed it hard, it wasn’t a speed contest, nor the body-wrecking full marathon distance. Coming off it I felt little collateral damage, but still, there was recovery to be had. The following week’s travels, not restful by any stretch, and punctuated only twice by easy runs, left me high on the stiff & sore scale upon return to my native time zone. Stiff, sore, and of course miles behind in my work. The first bits I’d just have to deal with. But at least the work bit was eased by convenient coincidence of having our company picnic slated on the first day back. Beats working, right?
But we’re a distributed workforce, so that picnic was down near Hartford. Not yet acclimated to the time zone, rising early for a run before heading south wasn’t an attractive thought, so I packed my bag and figured I’d catch whatever opportunity the day offered up for a few stiff and sore recovery miles. A couple of meetings, a couple of volleyball games (where at my size, I am utterly outclassed, but nobody cares), and a couple hundred pounds of food later, as the crowd began to dissipate it was time to slink away to the nearest phone booth to transform into running guy, then wander off through the park on a slow, stiff, and seriously overfed recovery jog.
Not so fast. You thought you were getting off that easy? Why are there a couple of runner-looking types wandering around the parking lot? Why is that one approaching me, and why is he asking me where the race is? Race? What race? There’s a race? Oh! There’s a race! Yes, just around the corner, barely a quarter mile distant, were gathering a hundred-plus for Monday night’s instance of the Wickham Park cross country summer Grand Prix series.
Who knew? How cool is that? Seriously, who could resist? (Don’t all raise your hands at once!)
Now, if you’d asked me the day before, even hours before, if I’d want to run a race that evening, the answer would have been unequivocally no! Stiff, sore, tired, and of course, post-picnic, stuffed to the gills with foods I’d rather not itemize. (Why, oh why, did we eat desert afterward? Yeah, because it was there…) But if you put it in front of me like that… You’re here, there’s a race here, and it’s my kind of race, for the runners, just a couple of bucks… Hello, Dory! Oh look! A race!
I did a quick mental calculation while warming up with gentleman who’d initially asked me about the location of – and in the process lit me up on the existence of – the race, and decided that I had but three goals, in order of importance: first, don’t lose my lunch, second, get a good workout in, and third, soak it up. God sent me a race, right when I needed it. Enjoy it!
Yes, that first goal sounds a bit less than polite, but trust me, you don’t know how much we’d eaten.
As it turned out, this race series is seen as the summer tune-up for many area high-school cross country athletes, not the least reason being that Wickham Park happens to be a key location for big meets and at least sometimes, the state championships themselves. It’s a big draw. Or in other words, the field was smokin’. There followed a giant sucking sound, pulling me into the first loop far faster than I deserved or could reasonably stomach – really – and even with the best I could muster, still watching only the backs of a large group of mostly fast young guys.
Rarely have I gone into a race less ready. On top of everything else working against a rational decision to race, this one was also short – claimed at only two-point-six but even shorter by my estimate – and fast. I’ve prioritized fitness and endurance this year and have been absent from the track entirely since popping that hamstring in early June. I couldn’t have picked a worse race at this given time.
Yeah, so what? Just run, you idiot! The field was kicking my butt, but I was among my peeps, running trails and fields in a beautiful park, and getting in a far better workout than I’d planned. And at least to that point, I still had my lunch.
I’d like to tell you that out of some deep reservoir of unknown strength I pulled out an amazing performance, but that would be an utter lie. Rather, I enjoyed the scenery, huffed up the biggest hill around the mile-and-a-half mark, and made the final loop – a reverse of the initial loop – considerably slower than my first time around, a decidedly strong indicator of a decidedly not-so-strong race. There was really nothing competitive about it, save for the fact that I thought I saw an old guy or two in front of me and for a brief moment considered a chase. Turns out I was right – there was one fifty-plus up there, but there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
But hey, I didn’t lose my lunch. And I got in a great workout. And I had a ball, over the notion of having a race appear in front of me, over the group of great people putting on the race who made for interesting chatter, and best, over wandering back to the few remaining co-workers, now even more bloated from more food and drink, in my post-race finest, sweaty and runner-style disgusting, but still offering up a good eyeful of a different way to have fun. What’s not to love?
And the ice was broken. It’s time to race!
22 August 2014
[Ed Note: First things first; some housekeeping. After a stretch of wandering in the desert with little to expound upon owing to injuries, reduced training, and so on, I now find myself about a half-dozen stories in arrears. Brace yourself, prodigious prose productivity perhaps pends!]
Life deals up unexpected turns. Who’d have guessed that within a few days of each other we (yours truly and Dearest Daughter the Younger) would find ourselves first running on the edges of an abyss formed by the fires of a thousand volcanoes and a billion tons of volcanic ash, and then later running among the giants of the damp and drizzly redwoods, populated by the oddly charming if severely unappetizing western banana slugs. Experiences like these are not soon forgotten. To quote the Talking Heads, eviscerating a few irrelevant interim lines, “And you may find yourself in another part of the world, And you may ask yourself, well...how did I get here?”
In part, blame those test shoes. Certainly you remember (because I know you recall all that I write, right?) the trail shoes I was sent to test, the shoes that inspired me to trade pavement miles for trail miles, the shoes that led me like a lamb to the slaughter to a number of nasty wipe-outs, bashes, and bruises (not the shoes’ fault, mind you). Yes, it was the shoes that screamed, if you’re going to be tooling around the American West hiking on trails through expanses of great awe, why not run a few of them instead? Besides, I promised I’d put miles on their shoes, so into our elaborate expedition we slipped a few fabulous forays.
Yes, as you read last time, we went all the way to Eugene, Oregon to run a half marathon just because it finished on an oval stretch of rubber entirely identical to every other oval stretch of rubber save for the fact that a lot of famous and talented people have run on it (and even that doesn’t truly make it unique…). But you can’t go that far, run the race, and just come home. The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone…and the next thing you know…
Once airfares dipped enough to make it somewhat less than entirely ludicrous to consider travelling to Eugene for the race, practicalities set in. There’s the expo and packet pickup, there’s the fact that you don’t want to race right off the plane, nor do you want to get back on the plane post-race sans shower (two things an airline passenger doesn’t want next to them: an Ebola patient and a sweaty runner), so it became instantly obvious that this would be a multi-day itinerary. From that point, the mysteries of airfares dictated what days thou shalt and shalt not travel.
But beyond the practical bits hung the simple fact that when you’re heading that far away, and to a place of amazing beauty and geological excess, you might as well soak it in. While DDY had never reached the Pacific, the fact that I had on many occasions didn’t make me any less interested in squeezing all the adventure I could from this excursion. You can see where this is going. Our race in Eugene quickly transformed into a ten-day extravaganza, orchestrated to cover as much ground as humanly possible. A restful vacation this was not.
I could spout for pages on the places we went, the wonders we saw, but you, dear reader, come here for running adventures, so I shall not disappoint nor stray too far. The challenge on this odyssey was to find ways to fit runs in, when our days were filled with hundreds of miles of jaw dropping scenery (it became a watchword of the trip to grunt, “WHOA!” virtually every time we turned a corner to a new vista) and miles of hiking and exploring. Somehow I managed to sneak in a half-dozen outings, even a double one day, morning and evening coming in two separate states. But those shoes egged us onto the trails…
When you think of the Pacific Northwest and Oregon, some places roll straight off the must-see list: Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood, Crater Lake come instantly to mind. We hit them all, but then dug down the list of obscure sights to one I’d never heard of: the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Borne of my desire to show DDY the ‘other’ Oregon, the deserts east of the Cascades, the part I’d never myself seen, she scoured the maps and found this gem. I’ll lay a bet that you’ve never heard of it either. Now you have. Go you must, said he Yoda-like.
John Day himself, spans three ‘units’ spread across many miles. That inter-unit travel time isn’t lost, however, as the scenery outside of the monument land often matches that within for its ability to amaze and delight. Still, by the time you’ve reached a part of the monument to explore, you’re ready to shake off the car legs and crank up the heart rate. Our plan to fulfill this need was to trail run a circuit at a place called Blue Basin in the Sheep Rock Unit. I’d tell you what town that’s near, except there aren’t any. The nearest named place is Kimberly, which so far as we could see, consisted of two buildings and a sign worthy of photographing for DDY’s best friend of same name back home.
Wow. But after that, it was time to run a race. And then, it was time for a recovery run, and that time found us about five hundred travel miles down the road, in a very different place. This time, no hills. No desert. No volcanoes. And really, though it’s never truly absent, no erosion. Instead of big vistas, big trees. Really big trees.
Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park looked like a gorgeous redwood-strewn sweep above the Pacific, leading to a trail who’s name made it simply irresistible: Damnation Creek; likely not runnable but a short hike to the ocean itself. From afar, this looked like a dramatic way for DDY to finally reach the waters of the western ocean. But from up close, an obviously very knowledgeable ranger pointed out a factor we’d missed: mountain lions! Apparently the Coastal Trail was not the place to be, especially for our planned evening jaunt. DDY would have to (and did) find those Pacific waters elsewhere.
Jedediah Smith State Park east of Crescent City. The road and its neighboring trails offered up flat, easy jogging, perfect for DDY’s post-first-half aches, surrounded by the unimaginable – until you’ve seen them – immensity of the redwoods. And if the trees weren’t enough, the giant banana slugs served DDY a slimy delight, the blackberry patch at the far end served me a feast, and best of all, the warm invitation of the Smith River at the end of the trail served both of us the perfect recovery. After all, aren’t wicking running clothes designed to get wet?
10 August 2014
I’ve got this thing about privacy. Yes, I post my adventures for all to see. Yes, I gave in last winter and got on social media. No, I’ve nothing to hide, I’ll hand my phone records to the NSA. Still, I’m somewhat old school in that I really don’t like to advertise my travels in advance. Hey, you never know, there are wackos out there, right? As a result, those of you not otherwise in on my plans via local chit-chat might find it surprising that Dearest Daughter the Younger and I just ran a half marathon in…where? Yeah, Eugene, Oregon. Tracktown, USA. The very same. And I never warned you it was coming. Keeping you on your toes, mind you.
It’s not unheard of for me to race in far-flung or obscure places. I have traipsed off to Seattle and Kentucky, but those were for national meets that were only held in, well, Seattle and Kentucky. A plain old garden-variety half marathon? Aren’t those available all over? Answer: Yes, but… Blame this one on DDY. It was her idea.
“Dad, I’ve found a half marathon that finishes on the track at Hayward Field!”
I can’t recall if this was before or after dinner, but it is notable that I didn’t cough anything up.
Let me get this straight… You want us to go to Oregon to run a race we can find around the corner just because it finishes on a certain track? But as I said that, I cannot lie, I knew it was sacred ground. But seriously? You want us to spend how much on airfare, car, hotel, food, not to mention time off, planning effort, and all that jazz to run a race we can do here at home just because it ends on the X-Y coordinates… where the Olympic trials were, and will again be held… where Prefontaine and legends hath tread…where…wait a minute, why are we even talking about this?
“Dad, I’m going to get a job and I’ll help pay for it!”
By now you know. She did. We did. And you don’t fly all the way out there, just run the race and come home. We made it an epic adventure, a saga you will hear more about. But for the moment, we’ll stick to the prime objective of this expedition: We ran the Eugene Half-Marathon, for her, her first, and for me, another notch in my quest to regain some sort of racing shape. She succeeded brilliantly. I, well, I succeeded; I’ll leave it at that. And we had the time of our lives.
Since DDY came off the “Around the Mountain” carriage road at Acadia back in June with a smile on her face, I knew she’d cover the distance in Eugene. I didn’t care how fast or slow she did it. All that mattered to me was whether she’d walk away from this as a triumph or a living hell; the latter certainly putting a damper on future miles. But before I’d find out, I too had a race to run.
And Eugene put on a pretty good show. The run up was a little over-produced, to be fair, with a few too many cheesy emails, but I’ll chalk that up to comparing it to the subdued New England scene, where running is so in our blood we don’t feel the need to rile up the troops on a weekly basis beforehand. Not that running isn’t in the blood of Eugene and Portland, but this event clearly drew from far more than just the Oregon Duck and Nike corporate headquarters crowd. Fine, rev ‘em up a bit, it’s just email. It’s all just part of a solid organization effort.
Amidst that aura the gun went off at six in the morning. Or, as Robin Williams crowed in Good Morning, Vietnam, “It's 0600 hours. What does the "O" stand for? O my God, it's early!” Seeing it hit ninety-something later in the day, fifty-six at six was a worthy reward for rising before four. Fine, we’re up already, belt out that national anthem (getting the words wrong), but get us on our way.
In a word, or to be more accurate, two words, mostly uneventful.
There was no real racing for me, no obvious competition, no duels or showdowns. It was a hard, fast run, plain and simple, targeting a goal that seemed like a reasonable stab toward racing redemption. I’d self-seeded at an hour twenty-five, three minutes off my best, yet in my current state, a bit of a stretch. I’d like to say I monitored my progress to hitting that target, but once past mile four, the only real sin committed by the Eugene folks became apparent, as it became clear that monitoring with certainty wasn’t going to happen. Mile five, missing; mile six, early; seven, eight, and nine, entirely uncertain; ten nowhere to be seen. At four I was on target, hitting the first hill feeling pretty good. By the second hill at eight, the misfortunes of injuries and lousy training were already rearing their ugly heads, but without decent mileposts (yes, still no GPS watch for me, call me a purist Luddite) I really couldn’t judge how ugly it might have been. By the half/full split at ten, the field was so sparse (I’d end it nearly half a minute behind the previous finisher), it was just a game of trying to stay focused, stay intense, stay on the goal, and in the face of some blinding early morning sunrise, don’t trip over anything and stay on my feet.
Being accustomed to the full event, the half wraps so quickly. In no time, there were the gates of Hayward Field. There was that track, only hours before the host of the best youth of the world, and over the years the home of legends. No amount of late-race agony can prevent you from kicking it up with all you’ve got for your half-lap through the Holy Cathedral of Track.
Yes, I hit my buck-twenty-five (allowing for some change), and yes, I even took home (or at least they’ve promised to ship me) hardware for third in my old fart category, but there was unfinished business. You don’t travel all that way and spend all that dough and not be there to share the moment and get a picture with your daughter finishing her first on the track at Hayward Field.
But security and traffic flow made it impossible to hang around and wait. Off the track with you, you’re finished, move along! So we had a plan, hatched and planned, knowingly winked at and ignored by a particularly friendly volunteer. Time to execute!
Off the track, recover, retrieve the mini-camera from one of our checked bags. Key step, tear the D-tag off the back of my bib so as not to screw up the timing. And head out backward on the course…with a crucial pause at the unofficial beer stop at twelve-point-one, since I certainly couldn’t avail myself of that joy during the race. Back to the twelve-mile water stop, baffle and amuse the volunteers by jumping in and working the water stop (“Wait a minute, you ran, now you’re here working?” “Yeah, it’s a habit”). Realize with some embarrassment that you’ve forgotten what she’s wearing and hope to God you don’t miss her…and a few minutes later, along she came. So, what would it be, smiling or grimacing?
“Whatever you do, don’t give me that water! I’ve drank way too much!” Otherwise, smiling. Big smiling. Not even annoyed at Dad jumping ahead and snapping pictures (almost all of which came out wicked pissah blurry) smiling. Huge relief!
The fact that she sliced more than ten minutes off her expectations was gravy.
The fact that we got a couple of great pictures, Dad and DDY, there in that Holy Spot, was better.
Yeah, we traveled cross-country for a not-so-plain-old half marathon. We’ll both remember this one for a long, long time.
21 July 2014
To hear the crowd talk, you’d be forgiven to believe that leaving the streets and heading for the trails cures cancer, feeds the hungry, and brings peace to Gaza. Or if you don’t want to go that far, you might at least believe that trading pavement for the soft, comforting terrain of off-road will relieve your aches and pains and help you avoid injuries.
Er, exactly which injuries were they talking about avoiding? Today I sit with wounds aplenty, ranging from scrapes and cuts and bruises to things that I’ve considered might be broken (only later to decide likely not, though said judgments may have been endorphin-influenced). And this isn’t the first time this has happened since the trail running bug bit, not to mention plenty of other bugs on those trails. Maybe I’ve avoided some injuries, but clearly I’ve just traded them for an entirely new set and discovered a new form of bodily abuse.
Nor is it news that while in our favorite park, DDY and I once again enjoyed a number of delightful runs on Acadia’s vaunted carriage roads. It’s noteworthy that DDY stretched her longest to eleven miles – and a tough eleven at that – “Around the Mountain” for those of you familiar with the area – in preparation for her upcoming first half marathon (while Dad rather irresponsibly changed plans mid-run and tacked on a few more for a hard fifteen before going back to meet up – yeah, I needed that).
But it is news that one of those carriage road runs started with a couple miles on trails, a rare outing for me and a new experience for DDY. She found it rather cool to have to slog across beaver bridges on a run; a bit more interesting than counting telephone poles. And the unpaved surfaces did, at least at first, feel better on my rather battered body. So the stage was set, my interest piqued, and I was just waiting for a catalyst, which conveniently arrived several days after returning from Maine in the form of a notice that a certain corporation to whom I’ve sworn non-disclosure was sending a pair of trail shoes to test. Well, that sealed the deal. If they were sending me trail shoes, I guess it was time to dive into trail running.
Courtesy of the shoe deal, I’d suddenly shifted from rarely running a trail outside of cross country season to having a weekly quota of trail miles But I didn’t have to look far to find the trail running community. A group within my local club that calls themselves the Water Buffalo Faction (an unauthorized faction they like to say, the name obscurely pulled from the classic Veggie Tales tune – trust me, if you’ve had kids, it is classic) already had the trail disease and was just waiting for a new host to infect. Let’s just say my resistance was down. And once infected…the disease begins to do its damage.
A few days later the bruises made themselves known, but these are badges of honor, right? Keep in mind that I’m no fan of the “show me how tough you are” fad events (or as the Center for Disease Control has called them, bacterial love-fests for your digestive system); I’m rather on the purist side. But these aren’t artificial hazards, they’re about as real as rocks and roots and slick hillsides can get. And there is no hefty entry fee. So yes, I guess these are badges of honor, and they multiplied over the next several weeks, setting the stage for Sunday’s arena of abuse, the Mammoth Trail Half Marathon, an inaugural event brought to you by The Water Buffalo Faction.
With a target half marathon coming up in only a week, I jumped into this as a last minute last big training run before the main event. Goal Number One was simply to not hurt myself. And based on how this article has progressed so far, you can guess how well I attained my goal.
Run trails! Avoid injuries! Right, who are they kidding?
Tred-Not. Effectively a simple glue trap, when stuck onto your hat, the annoying dummies (recall I said stupid), who have a habit of dive-bombing your head, pretty quickly get lucky and get stucky. As it turns out, I seem to have an attractive aura about me, making me not only the favorite of the flies but also of my fellow runners who know that if I’m around, they’re that much safer. What an honor!