23 January 2015

Tourism


[ 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

Toenails


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

04 January 2015

No Whimpering


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 December 2014

Coasting

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I hope.

23 November 2014

Mindless Gap


Yeah, it’s been a month since I posted. And no, it’s not been a good month. It’s been a month of negative progress, centered on a rather poorly executed – and therefore not very fruitful – training break. I didn’t use my head too effectively on this one, which is why I’m calling it the Mindless Gap.

The bright side of the story is that a couple of folks chimed in to debate my assessment of Baystate. To their eyes, what I called a failure to finally run that smart race was nothing of the sort. I take their point and appreciate their support. Let’s reclassify the effort and say that it was smart, I just wasn’t able to hold that smart together the whole way, but I held it long enough to get the job done.

The dark and scary side of the story is that the Calf of Death, which terminated my joyride at mile twenty, was only getting started…little did I know. I did find it rather amusing that my post-race pain was far more asymmetrical than ever before. The port-side muscles were in full mutiny as the forty-eight-hour burn reached apogee, clearly having taken the brunt of babying the starboard-side Calf of Death. As usual, it’s always those right-leaning factions that cause the problems.

But more than usual post-marathon muscle protestations were at work. As I puttered though my usual week-after recovery slogs it became clear that the compensatory single-sided-soreness in the quads (or, in this case, quad) wasn’t the issue. It was that Calf of Death, joined in evil with the Nasty Knee, leaving me kneeding to call off the party for a while. I checked the two-hundred-mile month box with a day left in October, and shut it down for a few days.

But only for a few days, as Election Day arrived, and I simply couldn’t stand idly by and let a right-winger own my space, whether it be the one attached to me physically, or the one threatening to put a sour name on my district. It was simply beyond my ability to resist a bit of mobile campaigning. After all, if my local statehouse representative was good enough to have supplied a tech shirt back when I marched in the local parade for her, well, let’s face it, tech shirts demand to be run in, and the least I could do was to sport it around town to rouse up the electorate a bit. Succumbing to a bit too much irrational exuberance, I popped in ten fairly quick miles, gleefully including a pass through her opponent’s neighborhood, calling out for votes from all I encountered. The evening found her happily returned to her seat, and me ruefully wishing I’d stayed in my seat. The Calf of Death wasn’t at all happy.

Thus we arrive again at the age old question: How long does anything take to heal? And how long can you stand to wait? Especially when you know that every day off means two days to come back, or probably more at my advanced age. Even more so when you know that only in recent weeks did you finally, after months of waiting, excise those last few pounds, finally reaching fighting weight, and you wonder how long until they creep back on. And to pile it on deeper, knowing that your last cholesterol test, in a word, well, sucked, and that Lady Doc wants a retry in a few weeks, a retry who’s chances of improvement probably depend on the kind of test cramming that can only be done on the roads.

Not to mention the question of retention of sanity. Not running means not having that crutch that staves off the effects of the crazies all around. But I knew I had no choice. Pull the plug again.

A week seemed like a month. I found myself explaining to people how I wasn’t running at the moment due to some injuries, getting ahead of the situation because I just knew that it would appear so obvious to them, as if they’d see some sort of black mark on my forehead that read, “Slacker” or worse, despite knowing they probably hadn’t walked around the block in a month. Such is the irrational mind of a grounded runner.

A second week seemed like I’d fallen out of my lifestyle. I found myself worrying that it might be too easy to slip into Normal American, drink (lots more) beer, eat beef jerky and cheeseballs, and slouch in a Barcalounger every night wearing a stained wife-beater tee shirt. Dear God, what if my mind rotted to the level of channel surfing to Fox News?

I exaggerate, of course, but a couple days on business travel in the Big Apple and the amount of caloric consumption that accompanied screamed that I had to get back on the roads. Much more of this and the scale dial will certainly start spinning (even though it’s digital), and my newly taken-in slacks will have a very short half-life!

All of these thoughts, and it was only sixteen days off. Twenty-one if you counted the days before Election Day, but really, only sixteen off in a row. For some people, that’s just a healthy break.

Friday I pulled the lever and scuttled a few miles. Three stinkin’ miles and my quads were mildly sore the next day for the club’s donut run. Add the gym back into the mix, and a day later the upper body was complaining as well. But those are good pains. I like good pains.

I don’t like bad pains. The Calf of Death. The Nasty Knee. And they’re really no better than they were. Three days of light runs, and really, no progress. Back to Square One. It’s very disheartening.

Were I always smart, rational, and in control of all impulses, I would have simply said, “A month off”. I might even have said, “Put the Calf of Death in the Dreaded Boot” and make it heal faster. But I’m not always smart, rational, and in control of all impulses.

Thus I ask myself if this Mindless Gap accomplished anything at all, besides reminding me of how much I love this sport. Then again, that’s not such a bad accomplishment, now, is it?

21 October 2014

Ten Year Sentence


In the aftermath of the Inexplicable Alien Leg Pain of a week ago and the resulting suspenseful (and happily, negative) blood test, Lady Doc, upon relating to me that I wasn’t going to die of a blood clot (at least not now), asked for an update a few days later. I like that she’s in the medically modern world and doesn’t mind the intrusion of email, so obligingly, Sunday night I somewhat sheepishly admitted to her that yes, I did run a marathon on the leg that only a week prior I’d feared fatal. Her brief reply conveyed amused disbelief – not doubting what I’d done, but the very fact that I would – and went on to make reference to my apparent toughness. I’m not certain I concur. Foolish, perhaps. Determined, perhaps. Tough? I prefer to think it’s just what we do.

In any event, as you’ve guessed, I pulled the trigger. Despite a rather sleepless night, somewhat inexplicable considering the lack of import and barely perceptible level of pressure I’d applied to this race, when the alarm went off at a quarter to five, I was already awake. The game-eve decision had been a go, the game-day decision concurred, and an hour later I was off into the pre-dawn darkness, destination Lowell, where I say in fun that you’re incented to run fast since you never know who’s behind you, but which is in truth a fine venue for an extremely fine race.

At the end of the day, the standard rules of morality applied. You do dumb things, you pay the price. I subjected myself to the trial of the marathon when my body wasn’t really where it should have been, and in return I was given a ten year sentence for my transgression. This, however, was a ten year sentence to celebrate. I came home with another ticket to the dance having notched my tenth successive year of Boston qualifiers. April of 2016 is eighteen months away and a lot can happen before then, but at a minimum I’m invited to the party to hit double digits.

Frankly, there’s no place I would have rather done it. Despite considering a new venue for this year’s fall punishment, defaulting to my nearly-hometown race was by no means a let-down. About the only thing I don’t like about this race is dealing with the fact that they make ‘Baystate’ into one word. It just offends my sense of style and usage. Oh yeah, and somehow the hotel hosting the pre-race follies couldn’t come up with enough pasta to feed everyone. But I’ll blame Radisson for that, not the terrific race crew. Besides, that race crew made it up not only with their signature hot soup post-race, but with the boxes upon boxes of homemade PBJs. Sounds corny? Perhaps, but tasted like heaven. And everything else about this race is first class.

I ran my first Boston qualifier at Baystate. It’s only fitting I ran my tenth there as well.

This one was textbook, but like my college physics textbook, it came in two volumes. Volume One was textbook on how to run a marathon the right way. Despite being Rodeo Number Twenty-One for me, this was, quite frankly, a new and highly enjoyable experience. But Volume Two was textbook on how the marathon is, in fact, a marathon, and what it can do to you. It will find your weakness, prey on it, attack you, chew you up, and spit you out the other end. That’s why the marathon retains its respect no matter how many hundreds of thousands slog through their twenty-six at the pace of their own personal hells.

I’d suggested previously that of the two goals I’d held out for this race, only one was reasonably within reach. Bettering my three-oh-seven from this past year’s Boston in hopes of improving my seeding for next April was at best a long-shot, but notching that 2016 qualifier – which at my age requires only three and a half hours (less a few minutes of safety for the cut-off under the current system) wasn’t outlandish (and I know many of you cringe when I say “only” but it’s all relative…). And that’s exactly how it turned out, but rarely if ever do I get from here to there in a straight line.

When I’m in top shape, hitting the first miles in the low sixes is normal. Settling in for a dozen more in the mid-sixes is typical. Trying to hold it together in the late stages is standard operating procedure. In my best races, I’ve nearly held it under sevens the whole way. In others, it’s gotten ugly. But never have I run what the pros would consider a smart race. Not once have I approached even splits – the second half at the same pace as the first – let alone negative splits, coming home faster. This time, with no pressure to go for anything dramatic, I figured I’d give it a try, just for kicks and grins. For once in my life, run a smart race. Go out conservatively. Baby that right calf that, while gloriously devoid of the Alien Pain from Hell, still was clearly unhappy from a garden-variety strain, and was, I figured, the likely source of my comeuppance.

Trying something new and foreign, I linked up with the three-oh-five pace group, led for the first half by a youngster I know only as Somerville John. Three-oh-five was a bit of a stretch, considering my starting condition, but with a controlled pace, for once not burning rubber early, it was worth seeing what would happen. Maybe, just maybe, if I ran this smart, for the first time ever, I could see what negative splits felt like. Besides, I knew if I blew it up, I’d have twenty-plus minutes to clean up the wreckage and drag my bones back to the Tsongas Arena – and still get that 2016 time. It was a fine day for an experiment.

From the outset, I loved it, truly. No tension. We didn’t even stand near the start line – well, by my usual standards, at least. Granted there were a thousand and a half behind us, but in a race of this size, I’d normally stand near the front and be over the line in a second. This time, a leisurely six seconds passed post-gun and pre-line, hugely indicative of my hope to keep this under control. We just rambled and ambled, John carefully checking his GPS and setting us on sevens, plus or minus a few seconds, with glorious accuracy.

And the gang was enjoyable, the camaraderie palpable. I tried to keep them amused with silliness and stories of previous race stupidities, and how exciting it was to try to do it right this time. Plenty of return tales circulated. But above all, we were a functioning machine, men and women on a mission, getting the job done, on a perfect cool overcast morning, with the bonus of a lighter headwind than expected but even at that, working together trading shifts out front to share the load. Click, click, click, textbook.

First three miles, a hair under sevens per mile, meaning a little below three-oh-five, but so amazingly under control that it felt effortless. Not painless, as the Calf of Death never went entirely silent for a single step, but certainly effortless.

First time to the Tyngsborough Bridge at mile eight, despite passing through the head-windiest section of the course, still manufacturing dead even sevens, not effortless but also nowhere near the kind of energy expenditure I’m used to when burning six-and-a-halves at that point. And with the bonus of a downwind stretch ahead, cruising. But the Calf of Death was registering dissent.

At twelve, over the Permanent Temporary Bridge (also known as the Rourke Bridge, a “temporary” span put in place nearly thirty years ago!), and into the second loop. Hit the halfway mark in a tad over an hour thirty-one and a half, still nailing sevens, heading back into the wind, noticing the work, but in control. Still thinking about nailing the second half in even or negative splits, and pondering that Goal One – bettering that Boston 2015 seed time – might come back into reach. But the Calf of Death seemed to be arming for a fight, and I knew if anything was to stop me, it would be he.

Back to the Tyngsborough Bridge, knowing I’d defeated the wind the second and final time, and onward into the downwind stretch, coming up on twenty, still cranking sevens. Doing the math for if – or when – things blew up, how bad it could get while still getting that 2016 qualifier; the math getting more favorable at each milepost. And the Calf of Death was ready to pounce.

Textbook, Volume Two, where we are reminded that this is, after all a marathon, arrived with surprising ferocity. I suppose this is why I like paper books over e-readers. With a paper book in your hands, you can see and feel when you’re near the end. There are no surprises. But at mile twenty, it was like reading a tome online without the benefit of a scroll bar. Volume One ended without warning in a way I haven’t experienced in twenty previous marathons, and I was forced to open the next book. Right. Now.

Almost precisely at mile twenty, where race organizers had lovingly painted a brick wall on the road, the Calf of Death announced that if I didn’t stop punishing it immediately, it might do something really nasty, like go Snap! Crackle! Pop! It didn’t so much change feeling instantly as it somehow signaled mentally that its time was up. And I can’t place in my head whether it was real or I was fooled, but mentally I went into preservation mode. I’d covered twenty in two hours twenty. I had an hour-plus to cover the last six and change and still get that ten year sentence. If I let it break, I’d have to do it all over again (and if it broke, no telling when – or if – I’d be able to), or go into Boston 2015 with the pressure of needing it then or facing a warm-weather recap.

Rationality took over. Time to shut it down.

Never has a race changed character so suddenly and so dramatically. Twenty-one clicked in at eight minutes. Twenty-three, the low point, bogged over nine. Somewhere the Calf-of-Death-imposed shuffle brought the rest of me down mentally to an overall shuffle, though the well-controlled first twenty meant I could still do it with a smile on my face (or at least it seemed that way, but we’ll see how the overpriced race photos look). I still did the math, and I was still well ahead of it. Nines were ugly, but I could afford twelves, and I told myself that if I couldn’t do a few more twelves, I didn’t deserve the Boston time anyway.

Soldier on, more high eights, but goal in sight, sucking up any encouragement possible. Two miles out, sharing the road with the grunts of the shuffling dead, more striking than usual because I really wasn’t there with them; rather I was just wicked slow from the pain, willing the Calf of Death to hold together and not tear itself to shreds. A half mile out, pleased to hear sideline encouragement from pacer Somerville John (relieved with fresh pacers at the halfway mark), who built the first half of this race for me and now added that ounce of fuel at the end. At last, over the line, soaking up a nice shout-out from announcer Steve who publicly recognized my feat of running every street in the city a few years back. And oh-so-pleased to see former teammate Mark working the finish, knighting arriving warriors in cloaks of Mylar armor. At times like these, it’s good to have friends.

Textbook, yes, in two volumes: How To Run A Marathon Perfectly, and How A Marathon Will Try To Defeat You. Volume One was short a few pages, so we had to dip into Volume Two. Things got ugly, and that vision of a smart race evaporated. Negative splits turned into ten extra minutes on the back half, ballooning a potential three-oh-three to -thirteen, but as my old friend Chris (working the water stop with the Squannacook crew at mile seven, thanks!) would say, that makes a better story on Monday morning.

And no matter. Mission accomplished, sentence imposed, tenth date in Hopkinton now slated for April 2016.

18 October 2014

The Maybe Marathon


At eight tomorrow morning I might be running a marathon. No, scratch that, I probably will be running a marathon. But it’s four in the afternoon the day before, and I’m still not sure. To most who’ve run a marathon, who know the training build-up, the inescapable anticipation leading to the starting gun, such a laissez-faire attitude might come across as, well, rather strange. Trust me, I’m not that far removed from reality, it’s rather strange to me, too.

This wasn’t the plan. The plan was improved training, improving health, readiness for a fall race. The plan was to better my seeding time for Boston 2015, and in the process, land a decent qualifier for Boston 2016. The plan was for a real marathon. Then along came last weekend.

I’m used to things hurting. I’m old, I run, that’s just the way it goes. But there’s hurting, and there’s hurting. And the circumstances under which that hurting arrives have a lot to do with how I, or anyone else for that matter, deal with said hurting. For the past few months, when people greet me and ask how I’m doing, my answer has been pretty straightforward, “Stuff hurts.” It’s not a complaint so much as an honest answer. I’m not going to tell you that all is rosy, when in reality, stuff hurts. But as I’ve written before, I’m not going to stop doing what I do just because of that.

But a week ago this morning, it was different. The lower right leg – the one that’s been on the edge of a calf / Achilles strain for weeks (no, not the left one, that Achilles is finally feeling mostly better; yes, the other one…it’s always something!) suddenly erupted in pain. Not the, “oh, I strained / pulled / ripped / otherwise abused it” pain, but hot, radiating, hugely aching pain, out of nowhere. And it did it while I was doing absolutely nothing. No, not running, not even walking, but instead it came while driving on a ten minute ride to meet the gang for our Saturday morning social run. Out of the blue.

I did what any red-blooded runner would do, and tried to run it off. After all, this wasn’t anything that felt like a running injury, nor was it anything that seemed to impede motion, other than due to its alarming pain. And it wasn’t anything that seemed to intensify – or abate – when confronted with some gentle jogging. Over the next couple days, in between hits of Vitamin I, it came and went, radiating backward into the calf, forward through the bone, upward, downward. Its very centrality – after all, what is in the center of your leg, but… lit the warning bulb on the dashboard of my brain, recalling last fall’s bout with the blood clots, Clot! Clot! Clot!

Boy crying wolf? Maybe. But if boy doesn’t cry wolf and it is, in fact, a wolf (sorry, I know wolves are unfairly characterized as evil when in reality, they’re glorious creatures), boy is in deep trouble. And the logic of the explaining the excruciating extremity was otherwise stumped. Muscle strain? Too strong a pain. Tear? Wrong kind of pain. Stress fracture? Coming on while doing nothing? Broken leg? I’d likely fall down. What’s left? Alien disease? Can’t be, no warning from Donald Trump. The word clot kept coming into the limelight, though unlike last year’s post-surgical adventure, I could conceive of no logical reason for another one to appear. Unless, God forbid, it was my fate to have become susceptible to them.

These are the thought processes that scare the willies out of us. Sometimes it’s better to stay ignorant. Fat, dumb, and happy. Of course, that probably translates to a much shorter life.

As it was, being a quasi-holiday, and being as my own Lady Doc wasn’t on call for the long weekend and I wasn’t thrilled with who was, it wasn’t till Tuesday that action became practical. Wait a minute, you say, you’re worried about a life-threatening condition and you waited till Tuesday? Well, it went away, sort of. Then came back, but went away again. And so on. It was highly worrying, but still in the leg, not near the lungs. And besides, I did call off the seventeen-mile trail run and summit climb I’d planned in the Whites with Dearest Daughter the Younger. Wasn’t that alone indicative of the severity here? (And wasn’t that alone an indication that the word ‘taper’ has a strange meaning in my vocabulary?)

On Tuesday, by which time it had largely vanished as fast as it had come on, a simple blood test confirmed it wasn’t a clot, and there was great rejoicing. But the mystery remains as to exactly what it was.

Back on the road on Thursday, I felt exactly how a forced three-and-a-half-day break typically makes me feel: stiff, clumsy, and out-of-sorts. It’s not how I like to spend taper week. And the same old strain in that same mysterious leg reappeared, but I know what that’s all about. So with only a few days of re-loosening-up under my belt, I’m looking at Bay State in the morning. But hey, at least I’m rested, right?

Beating my Boston time for a better qualifier is likely an impossibility. Scratch goal number one. But gaining a qualifying time, even if not a terribly strong one, for 2016? Even in my abused state, that likely isn’t too tall an order. Goal number two, still on the table…if nothing breaks en-route. And given how I’ve gotten here, that’s not a sure bet.

It’s a calculated risk. I’ll set the alarm clock and decide sometime before eight tomorrow morning.