30 March 2015
A couple days back I crept a notch closer to the next age group with requisite details like cake and goodies enclosed in attractive yet fully recyclable paper. Ever searching for an annual theme, this year I’ve proclaimed to be finally playing with a full deck. (Last year I was seventeen again. And again. And again. And the year before…well, you get the idea, keep it fresh every year.) But a bigger milestone passed a few days earlier: a decade since rejoining the ranks of runners. Just like that, ten years, snap your fingers.
What a ride it’s been.
Ten years ago, age was creeping in. (Of course, it still is, but at least now it has to put up a pretty good fight.) Back then, while it wasn’t as if I was a sloth – I’ve never really gone inactive – being ten years into the dad thing, slothiness was encroaching. The alarm bell went off while plopped at my desk, noticing my legs were feeling a little odd, and making the mistake of Googling that symptom. You know nothing good ever comes of that. But the frightening diagnoses it served up, which I didn’t really believe then and still don’t, jarred me to action.
On the twenty-third of March of 2005 I strapped on a pair of Asics I’d picked up in the markdown bin of the local big box shoe warehouse and set out to cover a two mile stretch I frequently walked with Dearest Spouse. I barely made it. In retrospect, that was pretty impressive compared to the experience of most who take their first steps in excess of ambling pace. After all, I didn’t start as a slug. But I was pushing toward a buck sixty on the scale, which for my frame translated into a rather cheeky visage in some photos of the day.
Undaunted, a few days later I pushed the envelope to nearly double that distance, and by the end of the month I’d rather boldly – and foolishly – defined that route as the “standard” course, having run it all of twice. I managed to traverse it with only one walking break, and with nine and a half miles under my belt, had nearly pierced double digits for the month.
No doubt having the perspective of a previous running life, even if twenty-plus years in the past, helped. There’s a glass half-full half-empty thing going on here. I talk to plenty of beginners who can’t fathom covering three or four miles. I came at this from the opposite side, finding it hard to fathom that I couldn’t cover three or four miles. I remembered the past and what was possible. It was only a matter of time.
Time passed, as did a lot of scenery, potholes, heat, snow, and slop. And on the last day of the tenth year (that would be the twenty-second, since the twenty-third technically began my eleventh year), my log reported eighteen thousand one hundred eighty-eight and three-quarters miles. Having just read of a guy who covered over sixteen thousand in less than two years, I can’t in any way claim that’s impressive, but it’s still a big number, and more importantly, it’s a journey.
The statistics are obsessive yet still fun. Two thousand four hundred eighty days of running, sometimes more than once, a little over two-thirds of all the days that passed, including those which found me sidelined with injuries, three surgeries, and that dance with the blood clots. A seven hundred and fifty day streak of at least three miles per day which proved something defined as either resiliency or insanity as you wish, again personally significant but not noteworthy in the big world of others’ big accomplishments. As best I can count, one hundred and nineteen races, including twenty-one marathons, plus forty-two training runs of twenty miles or more to prepare for those masochistic meanders. Runs in twenty-four different states and at least sixty-six different cities and towns in Massachusetts, and within my own City of Marlborough, every mile of every street, at least as they existed at the time of that odyssey.
Beyond the numbers, though, is the transformation the years have wrought. From that first five kilometer race a few months into the adventure, to racing eight (and shortly, nine) Boston Marathons, plus experiencing the honor and excitement of toeing the line at two national championship cross country meets sharing team colors with some of the most outstanding athletes in New England if not the country, these past ten years have provided an unending stream of goals, motivators, thrills, yes, also spills, rewards, and fun. They’ve changed who I am, what I expect to do on a daily basis, and how I look at the challenge of the next ten years, or twenty, or more.
And even beyond the transformation are the people. Ours is a game for the masses, but with the line between the masses and the elites far narrower than in any major sport; a line that grows even fainter the deeper you dive into our pool. The champions of running, our heroes, are basically just like us, eminently accessible, as un-elite as any elite class could be, because they have percolated up from the likes of those all around us. And unlike other big-name sports, there is no defined age for anyone’s time to ride the top of their particular corner of the arena, so anyone can rise to local, regional, or greater significance from anywhere, anytime. From this springs a society of people who recognize that any individual’s skill level is merely relative and arrogance is left outside the door. Anyone will run with anyone, the fast slowing for the social joy of joining the slow, the slow happily straining to gain the training advantage of latching onto someone a notch up the ladder. And we’re gentlemen, competing hard yet helping, encouraging, and respecting both our companions as well as our rivals. Certainly practicalities intervene in this egalitarian nirvana, but nowhere else will you find a group of people more willing to play together to their heart’s content and health’s benefit with so little regard for stratification.
And so we run together, we race together, we drink beers and even eat donuts together (because we can), and we bond as friends. We spend our social time in motion, working hard for hours at a time, sometimes with those we barely know, at least at the start, but growing closer as the distance passes. So it is that along this journey I’ve collected an assortment of friends the likes of which you’ll never gain from your office. We argue and bitch and moan and complain like the best of them, then we strap on our shoes and knock off some road miles or track intervals or trail voyages. We come from different walks of life but share our common belief that we can if not control, at least influence our own well-being. We inspire others, we inspire ourselves.
Ten years of running is unlike ten years of just about any other activity you can think of. It’s a lifestyle, but better, it’s a lifestyle in which ten years is merely a beginning. I look back on the happy accident of that Google search that drove me out of my chair, and marvel at where that road has taken me. The next ten years, whether my pace is fast or slow, whether I’m able to cover many or just a few miles, will be better just by the nature of the impact that the last ten have made.
09 March 2015
You can have your Throwback Thursdays and Hump Days. For me, I’m in Hard Core March. I considered calling it the Long March (for those of you into Mao, there’s a big tome on that bit of history waiting on my bedside table, itching for time to consume), or maybe my all-too-frequently used phrase Death March, but this isn’t political and that second term is really reserved for mountain adventures. So Hard Core March it is, even if it doesn’t quite have the same ring.
Hard Core March was brought to you by our friends at Blizzarmageddonfest, that joyful result of a severely disrupted climate that resulted in Worcester, Massachusetts notching its coldest February on record, and of course you know about the snow (as does my left arm, which won’t be the same for weeks or more). Yes, the month that should have seen at least one if not more twenty-plus-milers to prep for Boston was erased in a cloud of white and series of single-digit gales. Somehow I managed to hit my monthly mileage target – barely – but with little quality, far too many miles on hamster cages, and only one run over fifteen miles. This was not an ideal result for one looking toward Patriots’ Day.
But the winter has spawned a bumper crop of news hounds, with a half-dozen media outlets fishing the ‘How are you coping with this weather and training for Boston?’ angle. Yes, it is community cable news season again, but the running media always has the better slant, so it was easy to say yes to the request to answer a few questions for the Boston Legion at Level Renner (follow the link for amusement!). It was there that the phrase was born, quite accidentally, when I penned for them, “I’ve yet to get in any twenty-plus-milers, so March is going to have to be hard-core.”
So that did it. It’s Hard Core March.
Hard Core March screams, “Don’t wait! Time’s running out!” And so our multinational band (a native Brit, a native Moroccan, and boring old me) didn’t wait, and dove in on the first day of the month with twenty-one and a half, enjoying the seemingly balmy near-thirty degree weather while marveling at the chilling effect of the omnipresent off-the-snowbanks wind – no matter which way we were heading. Hard Core March begs you to get past the feeling that seven or eight is enough for the day, and remind your body that ten should breeze by without much thought, because the game doesn’t start till well past then. Hard Core March doesn’t really care that you did that twenty-one-plus yesterday, today is today, time isn’t running backwards, get back to it!
So it was that a week later, after notching my highest weekly tally in two years, the very next day it was back out with The Brit for another sixteen plus, this time cranking the pace down well below the previous week’s long one. Uncertain whether this was a good idea, fighting what started earlier in the week as a rather mild cold but had progressed to lung-clogging voice-ripping cough-fest, I figured I’d give it a roll and turn back in the event of Level Seven Agony. But you know that never happens. By mile four I was already out of my zone, but held on for the fun, especially the hill at nine that my companion claimed wasn’t impressive (he lied). By twelve, when like the previous week, again the weather turned, the temperature dropped, and the wind hit us full force face first, even adding a bit of snow for insulting impact, I gained respect for how my companion had felt the previous week when, somewhere around mile twenty, he already struggling, I informed him rather nonchalantly that in fact the course was a mile longer than promised. Like he the week prior, I was toast, and very cold toast at that. And that was with a mile-long climb yet looming ahead.
What’s beyond toast? Perhaps breadcrumbs, effectively finely dissolved toast? Find your own metaphor; on reaching our terminus, I was there, and just for dramatic effect found my two-hour-frozen well-overdue-for-a-coughing-spell lungs heaving painfully, needing to clear out the crap, but being over-chilled, not really able to. But hey, that passed quickly, and even with the late-game crash and burn, it was still a big breakthrough run. What’s a little agony, right?
Following that, one might expect that the next day would be a day of leisure, but one might be overlooking that not only this is Hard Core March, but that yours truly rarely ignores geeky statistics, having missed my calling to be the guy in the back room coming up with ridiculous facts throughout the NFL telecast. Yes, Frank, with that pass, Brady just surpassed number four on the all-time list of slot-left lobs to left-handed tight-ends resulting in six-to-eight-yard pickups! Can you believe it?
In my case, I found myself in reach of clocking my monthly meter to a hundred miles by the ninth of the month, something I’d only done a couple of times years back so it wasn’t new, but still notable (and no, I haven’t done it by the eighth). Meaningful? Of course not. Nerdy? You bet. And besides, the day was utterly spring, sunny and reaching the mid-forties, so late in the day when I could shovel the work stress aside for an hour or so, bon voyage.
Wow. Coming off the previous day’s virally-enhanced abuse, I expected a slow and stiff start, but I didn’t bargain for the lungs literally hurting. It felt like I’d literally pulled a lung muscle or two. No, not the diaphragm, but the mysterious, never-before-seen lung muscle. A mile out I was this close (how close?) to jogging it back in and calling it a sunny and glorious but relatively run-free day.
And that’s when the Magic of the Run kicked in.
By now, you’re saying, enough of your tales of woe, your moans of agony, your slipping in a few numbers (which you usually avoid) just to put some dimensions on this thing. We’ve all been there, you’re saying. We’ve all been worn out, beat up, fried, baked, and left out to dry.
And when you’ve been there, I hope you’ve had the chance to experience the Magic of the Run.
Mile two wasn’t much better than mile one. It still hurt. But then my planned course turned downhill, so I let it ride for a bit to see what happened. It got a little more bearable, but for self-protection I stopped the watch so as not to goad myself into running harder than I should. And I just let it go.
Around four and a half, traffic politely let me cruise a four-way stop I often pass, and it occurred to me that what they would have seen was indeed someone cruising by, but I dismissed it, having just come off a long sweet downhill. By six, I’d forgotten about the mile one lung syndrome. By eight, the small rises were floating by, and only the last, long climb back to the homestead offered up any level of concern. Somewhere halfway up that climb, the monthly meter chimed one hundred, and a half-mile later, only on finishing up, did I remember that my lungs were, in fact, still sort of messed up. Casual timing – alias glancing at the watch, noting only the minutes, not the details – offered up a pleasant, even if only mildly accurate, pace surprise. The detailed accuracy didn’t matter; only the obvious message that the run had, in fact, in its own odd way, healed me.
How many days do we find it hard to get out the door? Something hurts, the body is tired, aches, pains, this, that. Sometimes we have to heed those messages, listen to our bodies, and leave the shoes on the rack for the day. But when we can get past those inhibitors, let the heart pump, the muscles work, the mind wander (for some odd reason, today’s tune was, “Up, up and away…in my beautiful balloon” – can’t fathom what corner of the brain that came from), we come back stronger, happier, refreshed, and yes, healed.
The Magic of the Run.
28 February 2015
In barely an hour, Spring arrives, at least by my reckoning. March First! Day 60 of the challenge! And yet, once again it’s dropping to the single digits tonight, and once again the call is out for another four to six inches of snow tomorrow eve. But it doesn’t matter. The sun is high, the forecast is for warming, and daylight savings time will be here in a week. It’s over. Winter, that is.
But something else is just beginning again: racing. It’s beginning again not because winter is ending (though more significant races have been cancelled or postponed than I’ve ever seen, so this year we did need winter to end for racing to start!) but because it’s been over four months since I toed the line. The last time was at Baystate, a race that went swimmingly till suddenly it didn’t, leading to a significant injury time-out, protective custody to keep me out of favorites like New Year’s Day’s Freezer, and a slow return to reasonable, though certainly not optimal, fitness.
Four months, tough training conditions, no speed work, weight on, weight off, and it’s time to race, which leads to the inevitable question, well, how fast can I go now? How fast should I go now? It’s not so simple as just bolting away with abandon. A decent performance requires decent pacing, and decent pacing requires some knowledge of capabilities. The wrong strategy means leaving too much on the course…or being scraped off the course with a spatula. And while four months isn’t really that long, four months with complications makes that strategy a complete mystery.
It’s really amazing how quickly we forget.
Racing is a funny thing. You forget how to do it in no time. Not as in forgetting how to ride a bike, not as in not knowing what to do with each leg in succession (no, left-left, right-right really doesn’t work), but you forget what you’re capable of and therefore how hard to go after that threshold. The only cure is…racing. My times of peak racing always come not just with consistent training, but with plenty of racing.
The plan was to ease in with my local Highland City Strider club’s annual tradition of re-assembling our masters team for the Hyannis Marathon relay. But alas, like the Martha’s Vineyard Twenty-Miler the week before, which sanely belied its slogan of “No Weenies” by cancelling when they couldn’t find the paths that the race was to traverse, the folks in Hyannis threw in the towel, or should I say they tossed off the Cape, in the face of overwhelmingly bad road conditions.
As far as easing back into racing and starting the process of capability rediscovery, Hyannis had three things going for it. First, it’s a relatively short (seven mile) leg. Second, it’s an easy course; that leg having one small hill that barely registers in my book. Third, and most importantly, being a relay, everyone’s performance matters, but there’s no microscope on anyone’s, and at the end of the day, we do this as a fun club excursion. It’s not all that competitive. It just doesn’t matter. It’s a perfect return-to-racing laboratory.
So why was it that within hours of learning of its cancellation, there I was, answering that email from my Greater Boston buds to join the team at the Amherst 10-Miler? The Grand Prix Amherst 10-Miler. As in, the every ringer in New England will show, guaranteeing you will get your butt kicked Amherst 10-Miler. Why?
Part of the answer is that I didn’t do much for my Greater Boston buds over the last year of injuries and wanted to fly the flag. Part of the answer is that I miss Amherst every year for Hyannis, and, well, I was curious. But the real reason was because I’d forgotten how to race, really needed to start that recollection rehab process, and my vehicle to do so had just dried up. I was signed up before I’d even looked really closely at the course profile which was, courtesy of its creator some forty years ago, GBTC’s own Tom Derderian, brilliantly challenging, brilliantly evil.
So instead of low-pressure fun and easy seven, I was now committed to a highly visible uber-competitive, diabolically hilly ten. Seven to ten may not seem like a big jump, but the other factors made it feel like triple the challenge. And just to add flavor, it was only after I’d picked my target pace and locked my brain around it that I learned that over two miles of this beast was on a dirt road, which, in the Winter from Hell, though pleasantly on the nicest day we’d seen in a long time during the Winter from Hell, meant snow and mud to help your target time slip-slide away.
How quickly we forget. How about something so simple as lining up at the start? Certainly not up front, this is Grand Prix, I’d be killed up there. As it was, I chose too conservatively and lost a bit to traffic on the snow-narrowed roads. Not that it mattered much in the end, but it just reminded me how quickly we forget the details.
And certainly not that it mattered in placing. You don’t go to a Grand Prix race with any expectation of hardware. By the time the course straightened out enough to see ahead any considerable distance, those ahead were gone at far more than a considerable distance. These races will make you feel small. While you might be in the top few in a local race, here there are hordes ahead, and not because there are twenty-five thousand in the race a-la-Boston. On this day, in a six-hundred person race, I wouldn’t crack the top quarter, so you’re not battling for place, it’s just you against you. How tough can you stay, mentally, to stay on pace through ten? And not just any ten, but a brutal ten?
The course is a “lollypop”, the first two-and-a-half being out and back, with a five-mile loop in the middle. The bulk of the out part of the out and back is downhill, planting firmly in your mind that you’ll have a treat of a climb at the end. But it’s the loop where the real action is, starting with climb so tremendous that it added a solid minute and a half to my mile three split compared to miles one and two. So bad that those I was paired with when hitting the three-mile marker groaned and insisted I not tell them the embarrassing number I’d just read off my watch.
After being hit by that blunt force trauma, there was no recovery and thus no settling in till it was over, which was a long, long ways away. Even the long downhill through mile six required mental effort; I’m not a natural downhiller and have to force the stride open. Then, the climb on the back part of the out and back surprised me only in that the part I expected to be the worst wasn’t, though that was no consolation as the part I didn’t expect, was twice that. This was the kind of race where I was quite pleased that the professional photographer, who happened to be sitting on that climb, stopped snapping pictures of passing racers a dozen or so worn faces before mine appeared. Short of visual evidence of the crime, that sort of imagery really didn’t need to be seen.
I already mentioned that I was pummeled in the standings, though I did get minor consolation of rising about forty notches in the age-graded stats. But I’m calling it a win. Even with the unexpected snow & mud, I hit my target pace within a second. I’ve got a data point. I’m starting to remember what I’d forgotten. A few more of these and it’ll seem like old hat again.
And about the time I finish this column…it’s Spring. At last.
21 February 2015
Normally at this time of year, I’m elated that we’ve blown through the eighty-percent mark on the Sixty Day Challenge and that my definition of Spring is just days away. This year, I’m fighting off the feeling of being beaten. My soul says, “Never Surrender!” but my body has had quite enough. Never before have I succumbed to the terrors of the treadmill to the extent of these past few weeks.
Perhaps worse than the weather has been listening to the science deniers who proclaim that all of this snow and bone-chilling arctic air disprove the theory of human-induced climate change. It’s a core tenet of climate science that overall warming does not mean warming everywhere. It means increased volatility and changes to established patterns. One aspect of current thinking is that with the warming of the Arctic and subsequent loss of polar sea ice, the temperature differential between the polar and mid latitudes has diminished, which has weakened the jet stream, which has allowed more meanders in the atmosphere (think a slow, meandering river compared to a fast-running stream), which allows air masses to dive northward or southward more than in typical years, which results in pretty much exactly what we’re seeing.
Which brings us to the news of last week, the much ballyhooed (I’ve been waiting years to use that word!) story paraded through the media of how running too much or too fast will kill us. (Yes, this column is about running; we do have to return to that topic.) Said study, published in the American College of Cardiologists journal, reported on the findings of the Copenhagen (Denmark) City Heart Study, and concluded, not unexpectedly, that “People who are physically active have at least a 30% lower risk of death during follow-up compared with those who are inactive.” So far, so good.
But then it gets interesting, and we get to the part where the media, always ripe for an angle and an argument to drive twenty-four hour coverage, tried to pick a fight. And I’ll admit they succeeded. I joined the fight, posting some rather pointed comments on various social media sites. But it’s worth stepping back a bit and looking at the whole story.
The second sentence in the abstract of the study (full disclosure: all I’ve seen is the abstract, since I’m not interested in paying to gain access to the whole study, so correct me if you’ve got the whole thing and I misspeak) states clearly, “However, the ideal dose of exercise for improving longevity is uncertain.” That too, would seem a reasonable statement. Every perspective is relative. Couch potatoes think light joggers are extremists. Light joggers view typical runners who actually race as hard-core. Typical runners see die-hard fossils like yours truly as a bit daft. And die-hards look at anyone who’s considered the Western States 100-Miler as a bit off their boat. It’s a given that at some level, too much of anything will kill you, so the authors’ statement is not unreasonable, no matter how much any one of you thinks you exercise an optimal amount.
Next, we get into the core of how science works, and this is where everything falls down, because I’d hazard that most in the media, and indeed most in the general public, aren’t enlightened on the process. In the simplest terms, you run a study, you publish the results. But the subtle key bit is that it’s unethical not to publish your results, even if they don’t match what you want or expect to see. It’s up to the rest of the scientific community to examine your methods to determine merits or correctable flaws and to try to replicate or repudiate your results based on further studies. One study doesn’t make knowledge. Replicable results do.
The media, of course, had a field day. One could probably guess that most of those in the media who ran this up the flagpole rarely run the length of a flagpole, but that’s beside the point.
It’s perfectly acceptable to state that there may be a healthy upper limit for exercise. There are probably also healthy upper limits for broccoli, fish oil, and meditation.
It’s perfectly acceptable for us runner types to look at the study and guffaw at their category definitions of light, moderate, and strenuous.
It’s perfectly required of the scientific community to look at the study and determine its merits and flaws. To me, two stand out immediately. First, the sample size of strenuous joggers and the number of deaths in that tranche don’t provide enough statistical certainty to determine anything. Second, the causes of the two deaths in that group aren’t revealed, at least in the abstract. They’re labelled only as “All Causes” and for all we know, they were hit by a falling hyena in a freak zoo accident (but even if they died mid-stride, see Flaw One). The authors seem to recognize these facts, thus while they ethically report the data they found, they clearly state in their abstract that the optimal amount of exercise is uncertain.
This is one study. It is not knowledge. It is a data point to be replicated or repudiated. The media doesn’t get that. They just want news. But it brings up a good point when we go back to the weather. The media wants news, eyeballs, advertisements, revenue. They portray opposing sides of the climate change debate as having equal standing, because it makes for news. Any chink in the armor of one side grabs more headlines, sells more ads. But in this case, it’s not just one study. It is an overwhelming, nearly unanimous agreement of many, many studies and most people in the scientific community. It is knowledge. We can debate the details of how, and what to do, but it is knowledge. And it’s all of our responsibility to understand the scientific process so we understand why that is so. If we do, we can certainly question specific studies, but we can’t deny the very scientific process that brought us the technological capabilities to receive that twenty-four-hour news on the amazing device we carry in our pocket in the first place
Can one blame the public? I think I got a great education both in secondary school as well as at both of the colleges from which I graduated, yet through all those years of learning, never did anyone explain the process of peer-reviewed research. Only self-directed reading later in life lit me up on it. It’s no wonder most don’t get it, but we all need to. We’ve got to put a filter on the media, look behind the headlines, and understand the scientific process. Self-immolation through ignorance is a terrible way to go.
So at some point science might eventually tell me that all this running is folly, and if so, I can’t deny it. But at least I can enjoy the other benefits. A few days ago on a lunch-hour nine-miler, I came upon an unlucky motorist who, in an attempt to avoid an oncoming Behemoth SUV hogging the bulk of the curved, snow-covered and narrowed lane-and-a-half-wide road, ended up hung up on a massive snowbank. I can’t say that I was able to do a lot; a bit of digging, a little pushing (New England cross-training), some advice and moral support, but twenty minutes later we succeeded in freeing and sending him on his way. I ran off with a story and the satisfaction of leaving a little gratitude in my wake. That’s worth it.
09 February 2015
Saturday morning arrived with the kind of surprise that tells you that you’ve dug in, you’re into the winter thing waist-deep (literally). Rolling out of bed with nary a minute to spare to meet my local club-mates for our weekly donut run, I depended on the forecast from the night before and slid on the one and only pair of fleece tights I own, the ones reserved for sub-twenty days, since the Weather Gods had called for eleven to fourteen. Creaking stiffly down the stairs, I made a quick diversion to check the thermometer mounted in the dining room and – say what? It read twenty-three. And I thought, wow, it’s warm outside!
When twenty-three seems warm – and indeed, that morning’s run did feel warm and comfortable – it’s time for spring to set your sanity back in order. And to my way to thinking, it’s near, having passed the halfway point in the Sixty-Day Challenge (my definition of winter as the sixty days from January First to March First, after which is it spring, no matter what the calendar reads). Hump Day was January Thirtieth. For a while there it looked like we’d make the Hump with a light sentence. Ah, how wrong we can be. Summer has dog days. Clearly we’re in the sled dog days.
School has been off more than on, the venerable Martha’s Vineyard Twenty-Miler has been cancelled, Massachusetts’ groundhog muttered something unprintable, and probably the most unthinkable result, I’ve actually hit the Hamster Cage (a.k.a. the dreadmill) more than once. Suffice to say it’s been a helluva hump. Yet amidst all of this, good things are happening.
Let’s face it, there’s nothing like adversity to inspire. Damn the torpedoes, we’re over the Hump, even if a Helluva Hump it has been. Three weeks till spring.
23 January 2015
[ Ed. Note: While this won’t be posted till I’m home, I won’t revise the text based on any resources available when I get there. What would be the fun of that? Also, apologies for the length…lots of time on my hands up here! ]
I’m certain I’m at least somewhat misquoting John. F. Kennedy when he stated, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” I’m not in a position to check my wording, being currently about seven hundred miles south of Reykjavik and thirty-seven thousand feet up (and may I digress an note that thinking of Reykjavik brings back thoughts of Rocket John because he ran their marathon, and now nearly two years lost, we miss you…) in a plane with no WiFi, not that I’d pay for it anyway. But I’ll go further than misquoting and intentionally twist JFK’s words and note that we do things not just because they are hard, but because we can. One of the joys of being a runner is the opportunities opened up because you can.
It’s been another week of adventure in my one-seven-billionth segment of the Stories of Humanity mini-series, and one of the less mundane weeks in that story. Completing my World Financial Centers Tour (or Centres, if you prefer) which started last week in Toronto (where admittedly, at minus six Fahrenheit with a wicked northern wind and no daylight outside of business hours, I most adamantly Did Not Run), this week’s agenda was New York and London. Yes, all of that in just a week, or more accurately, four days, home to home (or at least it will be in a few hours). If that sounds rather rock ‘n roll, it has been.
Tuesday morning in New York delivered what’s become a favorite in my more-frequent-of-late visits to Manhattan, a tour through Central Park. This edition delivered perfection, a crisp thirtyish, crystal clear, the sun igniting the facades of Eighth Avenue in blinding brilliance as I circled the reservoir (which ironically is named after Jackie Kennedy, and no, that hadn’t crossed my mind when I stole Jack’s words to launch this reflection). Eight and a half miles left me awake and alert for what turned out to be a surprisingly good day of corporate training, before doing some commuter training out to Newark to catch a Dreamliner (first ride on a 787, the electronic window shades are very cool) overnight to London.
[ Roar of the engines, we’ve risen to thirty-eight thousand feet…]
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve visited the United Kingdom over the years. It’s approaching, if it hasn’t already hit, double digits, but almost every time I’ve popped in, it’s been into Heathrow and head west, or northwest, or southwest. Save one night in ninety-three for a quick show (Phantom! …and it was notably dark, no touring), I hadn’t been in central London since…can you believe…nineteen eighty-seven? Pushing thirty years. Finally, on this trip we were booked in the heart of the city because that’s where our customer was. Finally, it’d be nice to check out the bits that make London what London is. But business being business, and this being an itinerary from Purgatory, stretching this into a mini-vacation wasn’t an option, so the window to enjoy the city was seriously slim. But we are runners. We run. We do these things because we can.
Red eye flights, well, there’s no other word. Suck. A couple hours of fitful sleep do nobody any favor. Over the years, I’ve tried all the usual methods of combating the results without materially changing the outcome. So why not try something different? We are runners. We run. We do these things because we can.
The locals will tell you not to drive in London. The locals are right. I’ll add to that, don’t even take a cab. We tried, over the course of our one-and-three-quarter-day visit, with results ranging from decent (late at night), to slow (noon), disastrous (morning rush), and calamity of epic proportions (previous morning rush – epic as in nearly three hours shoehorned in the back of a minivan with the world’s cruelest seats; I am still lacking feeling in certain body parts – and let’s remember I’m small to begin with). The locals will tell you to take the tube, alias the Underground, and there’s something to that (day passes are quite reasonably priced). But you don’t see much while you’re underground. And walking the central city is grand, if you’ve got the time. But with only a few hours between arrival and customer time, well, that’s not gonna’ happen. So? We are runners. We run. We do these things because we can.
Arriving just past noon Wednesday at our home away from home in the Old Street area of the City of London (the central city area), I grabbed a light lunch with my colleague and left her to retire to her hotel room to nap, or drink, or both. Around two local time, less than four hours off the plane, I hit the road. London in January, gray, overcast, but dry, mid-thirties again like New York, but a damp thirtyish that almost felt warm. Just right to keep the sweat down without freezing. (Well, technically it was three degrees, since they use Centigrade. But they mark the roads in miles and miles per hour, and their cars report miles per gallon. Yet they sell petrol by the litre. And tell you that you are five-foot-seven tall. Then sell you food in kilos. But measure your resulting weight, or mass, in stones. This is a confused country.)
That cheap mini-camera I bought for my post-surgery casual Boston back in oh-nine came in handy once again. I rarely made a quarter mile at a time without stopping to snap some pics or occasionally pester a local for a non-selfie – a collection follows the prose (easier than weaving them in when there are lots). London being London – twistier even than Boston – I got turned around a few times here and there, but not being an entirely typical male I took no shame in asking my way now and then, and thus managed to cover off the route I’d plotted and committed to memory, never unfolding the break-glass-in-emergency map in my pocket.
The afternoon quickly became a check-off list of the must-see spots of the city: St. Paul’s Cathedral. The “Shard” (a cool pointy skyscraper). The Millennium Bridge. Views to the Tower Bridge. South Thames promenade. The London Eye. Parliament Bridge, Parliament, and Big Ben (“Look kids, there’s Big Ben! …can’t look up the hyperlink to National Lampoon’s European Vacation while aloft…). Westminster Abbey. A London call box (for Dearest Offspring the Elder, the Dr. Who fan) (remarked the Londoner who shot the pic, “Pity it’s not blue!”). St. James Park. The Mall, memories of Meb’s heroic fight back to fourth place in the 2012 Olympic Marathon. Buckingham Palace. Another park who’s name I can’t remember. A famous arch who’s name I can’t remember. Even pelicans! The Serpentine, and out to the Italian Garden. All in about an hour-twenty.
Did I seriously tour any of these spots? Of course not. Was this a comprehensive expedition? No way. But how else can you take in that much of any city on very little time? We are runners. We run. We do these things because we can.
And most importantly, I didn’t die. The Brits have a heart; they paint warnings to look right or look left at almost all crosswalks. It’s not just Americans who show up and become taxi fender fodder. Still, despite these persistent warnings, at running speed – even casual running speed – getting the brain to process which way to look first takes some practice. I’m proud to say that I only slipped up once. It was close. I can tell you exactly what the front of that cab looked like at point-blank range and I can still hear the horn. But close doesn’t count against you.
Turning at the Italian Garden, I knew I had a long stretch back to the hotel and decided it was time to dial it up from the stop-start tourist eights and nines into some real mileage on the return leg. A tip from a local put me on a quieter parallel to my planned busy-but-direct (read, less likely to get lost) route. Shortly thereafter another runner burst around the corner and settled not twelve feet ahead of me. Oblivious to my presence but moving at an ideal mid-sevens clip, this guy clearly had the left-right-don’t-become-a-hood-ornament thing down. Perfect. I had a native blocker! The next mile and a half felt like I had an escort, a bodyguard, LeGarrett Blount of the Patriots weaving through the lines, and I wondered how long before he’d notice me back there (I wasn’t stalking, he was just focused…). At last we spoke; to my surprise he was merely another Yank, though clearly a London-experienced Yank at that.
A planned eight to nine morphed into twelve miles on a two-hour tour, the last forty minutes delivering a decent workout after playing blatant tourist. I’d refreshed the memories of my last city tour twenty-eight years past. There was simply no better way to get such a tour in the time available. We are runners. We run. But best of all? Jet lag? What jet lag?
[ Air’s gotten quite rough. Hitting the right keys is getting a bit trickier, and my fellow passenger to my left reveals he’s not keen on flying. The saga continues… ]
In our client meetings that night and the next days, my co-travelling colleague continually remarked to all we met how her crazy partner got off the plane and ran twelve miles. Suspicious, worried, and pitied glances were exchanged and the local mental health authorities were put on alert. It wasn’t really worth getting into the philosophy behind what they viewed as a rather extreme life choice. And if I’d told them how effective it was on the jet lag, they’d have likely locked me up as a looney. But I think I’ve finally stumbled on the best method yet for beating the suck out of the redeye.
After a long day of meetings yesterday (highly worth the trip, for the record) and another late night, the obvious choice would be to recover and slink home the next morning. But you know I couldn’t resist one last chance.
You can count on far less than one hand the days in an average year that I’m out the door and running before six AM. Start this year’s count at one; it happened. Darkness wasn’t an issue in the well-lit city. Indeed, darkness made my traverse of the Tower Bridge (the one everyone thinks is the London Bridge) and the actual London Bridge (which is quite boring, save for its view of the Tower Bridge) into a delight. Beautifully lit, it left me a few memorable (even if of only marginal quality from the cheap mini-cam) final shots of London.
We are runners. We run. We do these things because we can. We can reap joys like running tourism. We only regret that our friends and colleagues don’t also share the fun.
Enjoy the pictures!
18 January 2015
I’m tickled when serendipity tosses a little airtime my way and a few extra eyeballs might meander into the mire of my prose. My friends at Level Renner (a fine running eZine, well worth frequent visits) were kind enough to re-post my previous penning, as well as a link to these hallowed halls of harrumphing. And for those adventurous enough to come my way this week, I offer…toenails?
I will spare you and not provide any pictures this week. At my core, I am not cruel.
I hear your voices scream in the night, why? And I respond not with the answer you expect, but with something entirely different.
What you expect is a discourse about how runners are notorious for destroying toenails. Runners are even more notorious about bragging of the toenails they’ve destroyed. Such notoriety has reached the point that we aged jaded types don’t even laugh anymore at the signs along the marathon routes which read, “Toenails are overrated.” This is news?
This isn’t about trashing a talon doing twenty or more. I haven’t actually done that in a long time. That’s not to say I don’t usually have at least one claw in a regeneration state. It’s just that I’ve figured out how to avoid this on the roads, and instead I tend to do it on the mountains – not while running, but while hiking. I will indeed brag of my masterly abilities to stumble and stub just about any part of my body while slogging through the woods. Maybe a new set of boots would help, but hiking boots become old friends, and you don’t abandon your friends just because they occasionally cause you pain.
He’s opining on relationships with leather footwear. Yep, he’s truly lost it.
No, seriously, there is a point here, just stay with me. It’s about aging.
A couple of years back when I was invited to join the Greater Boston team, when I doth protested, “I’m not worthy” and the likes, one of the key messages my GBTC introducer said to me was that in order to maintain a masters team, plenty of bodies were needed because of two reasons. First, masters, being in a different stage of life than the post-collegiate whippersnappers who make the club’s name great, have a lot more going on in their lives and just can’t make it to races as often. And second, masters, being in a different stage of life, period, break more often and take longer to heal.
I didn’t buy into that all that much. In my late forties, I was still enjoying the on-ramp to what became – at least to date – my peak (and no, I’m not saying it’s not yet re-attainable, just stating the historical facts here). Things broke, but I got over them, even if it took a year, two years, or more.
On the surface, things aren’t really that different now, in my early fifties. Things break, and I work to get over them, and it clearly is taking a year, two years, or more. I don’t know, I’m not there yet. The Achilles is far better after my late-year respite, but it’s not a hundred percent, and meanwhile other stuff hurts, pace suffers, and wind sucks. Coming back from any downturn is a long process. This time is no different. Or is it?
Late in August, Dearest Daughter the Younger and I slogged up a couple of summits in the Adirondacks. On a fine day when DDY started her ADK 46ers list (I’m nearing the halfway mark), all was joy and happiness except for two nasty toe stubs (well, and there was that bit where I walked into the tree stump with my thigh, but it left no lasting damage). While it’s not uncommon for me to trash little toes, this day was quite rare in that I managed to trash both big toes. Yah, well, whatever. A few days of tenderness, manage the damage in graphic yet proven ways that I won’t describe here, and wait six months, good as new. What else is new?
Except it’s now over four and a half months, and the renewal process is way behind schedule. The damage isn’t even half grown out. It looks like I’m going to miss the usual six month repair window by a long stretch. Maybe my recollection of the expected timeframe is misguided (it’s been a while since I previously trashed the big ones), but this seems like a notable slowdown to me.
This has no impact on my running of course, nor will it stop me from surmounting the next summit that avails itself. It is, however, a curious view of what it means to be growing older. In short, my GBTC friend appears to have been onto something, something that didn’t resonate back then, but that this little biological window has now illuminated. It’s not a surprise (indeed, Dr. Foot Doctor has made similar comments many times), it’s just something you don’t internalize until you have to.
The implications are rather interesting, in that I’d always figured as we age, our racing would slow down because our bodies would simply slow down. I’m sure that’s still true, but it’s also becoming clear that our racing will slow down also because as we age, we can’t keep up the same level of training because we just don’t repair the damage we inflict at a fast enough rate to maintain the load. Maintaining a balance of optimal strength and fitness relative to what your body can handle is a challenge at any age, but it’s becoming clear that the test gets harder, which is all the more reason for us to respect those still at it, logging the miles into later and later decades of life.
Someone telling me this a few years back made sense, but didn’t really hit home. You’ve got to get there to see the landscape. The good news is the realization that more and more becomes clear as time goes on and we never stop learning; not just about facts and details, but about life and ourselves.
All this from looking at my bashed up toenails. Yep, he’s truly lost it.