16 November 2016

No York

It’s oh-so-difficult to fire up the motivation to write about running when you’re not running.

In the seemingly unending story of, “What I didn’t do on summer vacation”, despite the fact that it’s no longer summer, add to the list that I did not, as planned, go to New York City two weekends back, and I did not, as planned, run the New York City Marathon, and let the record be known that I am not, as is to be expected, happy about those facts. So stop spreading the news, I didn’t leave on that day, and I wasn’t a part of it nor did I even start it. No York, No York.

Call this Strike Two, but unlike the unlikely Cubbies, I may not have three strikes to work with here. Four years ago, my first attempt at checking the “You’ve Gotta’ Do It Once” experience box that is the New York City Marathon was cancelled by a highly unpleasant female named Sandy. This time the enemy lay within; the body betrayed, the cancellation replayed. And of course, as it would turn out, the weather on marathon morning was…utterly delightful. Figures.

Dearest Spouse was enduring a marathon of her own with my constant vacillations on whether to make the trip; vacillations which endured for months and reached a fever pitch in the weeks leading up to the big event. On one hand, the entry fee, and New York’s is considerable, was paid, and was gone no matter what I did, so why not use it? On the other hand, travel wasn’t cheap, and by the time I opted to go if I could find someone to split the hotel cost, everyone had their plans set. But on the third hand, while I knew I couldn’t race it, a Boston Qualifier for 2018, when I will have the benefit of a new age group offering up a forty-minute cushion over my last marathon, seemed fairly easily within reach, even if the day devolved to race-course tourism, so why not spend a few bucks and go for a tour? But on the forth hand (I think I’m into feet at this point), even that relaxed (for me) time goal wasn’t at all a certainty.

Oh bother.

About ten days before, it was time to excrete or get off the cooking utensil. I headed out the door with the intent of loping an easy twenty (yes, ten days before marathon day, because at the pace I was targeting for both that run and the race, tapering wasn’t a big worry). It was decision time, do or die, and… the answer clearly was die. Yeah, it might have just been that day, and the next day I might have been fine, but for the sanity of Dearest Spouse, that day had to be the deciding day, and that day’s run was utterly horrible. By five miles my body was in revolt. The next four, returning on a short-circuited course, wouldn’t have even made my relaxed qualifier pace. Yeah, it was that bad. Come home, don’t reconsider, save yourself for another day, click the button.

And it was over, as was my fall racing season, which consisted of exactly one outing (though to be fair, I will slog through a turkey run next week). That one outing, the John Tanner Memorial, was a decent but not terribly encouraging outing, though the point of it wasn’t so much the race as to honor our dearly missed John and do some good in his name.

So long has passed – it’s that writing motivation thing again – that the details of that race have faded, which isn’t terribly fair to the organizers of a fine event. Unlike last year, when in retrospect I felt a tad embarrassed, having showed up to be competitive against a field that was mostly out for a pleasant outing, I came at this year’s race a little more casually, partly because I had to. Coming in on utterly terrible training over the summer; poor mileage, no quality, big gaps, and body parts that were still not healed or healing, my expectations were pretty low. When one of the two kids who put up a bit of a fight last year showed up on the starting line, I was ready to hand it to him right then and there.

Lesson to self: Don’t be so harsh. No, this ramble wasn’t anything stellar, but it wasn’t a horror show, either. The first mile clocked in close to six, far quicker than I expected from achy, tired, out-of-shape legs. A downright duel was on by a mile-and-a-half, not with last year’s kid but with a different collection of unknowns. I snagged a half-stride lead for a brief while until a twenty-something opened up a gap that wouldn’t close.

By the turnaround, I’d settled into a solid third and spent the next ten minutes weighing the old racing instinct against the newly aggressive self-preservation instinct. My head was wrapped more around trying to remember how many jugs of maple syrup I’d seen on the awards table – a truly sweet award if there ever was one – and how they’d be allocated – top three? – age groups? – rather than contemplating dropping a hammer (if indeed one even existed, which it probably didn’t) to go after the two guys ahead of me. Opting for the amber bottled proverbial carrot on the stick, I did a little on-course math, reset expectations, and gave myself a modest goal of clicking in within a minute of last year’s time.

The nice thing about modest goals is that they’re easier to hit. Fifty-nine seconds over last year wasn’t a thrill in the record books, but it checked the box on the artificial goal, still meant being the top old fart in a race that didn’t distinguish between young’uns and old farts, and did, in fact, ring the bell at the syrup table. The ending score was quicker than expected, but not quick. This, it seems, may be a hint that I need to act a bit closer to my age.

But alas, that mildly brightish spot back in early October did not translate to readiness a month later. Hopes that shaking out the cobwebs would put me on a path for New York not only didn’t pan out; rather I’m now two weeks into another full stop – Dearest Spouse is putting in more miles than I! – and hoping for healing that to date continues to be elusive. The left knee alternates between fine and pain, but worse, it feels a bit like a dangling pendulum post-run. The right heel jumped into the fray just to be irksome, as if it knew that this was an optimal time to gain maximum annoyance. It’s disappointing to be sure, not just for me, but knowing that it’s tough to put out my usual upbeat positive message in these screes. And that’s the real reason for the motivation gap. I’ve no desire to be a doggie downer for you.

So, No York. But to pull out some badly needed positivism, I’m not dead yet. There are detours and curves in every road, some extreme, and some, like the one warned of in this, one of my favorite signs located just a town over, not so serious. Only time will tell which kind I’m dealing with. There have been comebacks before. The game’s not over. Let’s see what happens in the next inning. After all, even the Cubs can win it all.

24 September 2016


Once you start, it’s an ear worm you can’t get out of your head. It’s summittime, summittime, sum- sum-summittime… except that it’s already over. Summertime passed rapidly, so long as that ‘rapidly’ adjective isn’t applied to my pace on the roads. Summittime too has passed, with a satisfying goal achieved.

For one accustomed to racking up over two hundred miles a month, logging four, yes four (well, technically four and a half) in July and barely ninety in August has been downright agonizing, and this month is likewise lacking in linear legwork. The pizza-to-miles ratio is out of kilter and the body knows it, but worse than the few extra accumulated pounds is the passage of the six week mark when my body typically responds to changes in training levels and the bottom falls out of any attempts at rapidity. It’s all uphill from here to get back, though hope springs eternal; and based on yesterday’s better-than-usual-of-late outing, there may be another life ahead. I’m not dead yet.

Ah, but that uphill, now there’s an idea! While the mileage was down on behalf of the crackling (both) and painful (left) knees, along came the opportunity to clock in an alternate form of workout. In the last post, we left a little cliffhanger (pun intended) on Dearest Daughter’s Determined Deathwish to finish off her New Hampshire (White Mountains) Four-Thousand-Footers before heading off to places collegiate. As the last minute inserted note in that last posting said, yes, we made it in time, with less than forty-eight hours to spare before her departure, completing an ambitious odyssey. Such is the way that summertime this year became redefined as summittime.

Now, stomping over mountains on rough trails isn’t necessarily the kindest thing one could do to injured knees. But the climbing was, I figured, good for strengthening that atrophied quad, and the descending was, let’s just say, done as gingerly as possible. My current Physical Terrorist didn’t entirely agree, but she settled for the lesser of two evils while doing her best to calm the inflammation that she’s convinced is the source of much of my woe.

Thus began the adventure that led DD and me over thirty-three summits in a dozen outings over a span of only forty-four days, culminating at one of the most spectacular spots in the Whites. For her, it was a major life goal realized. For me, it was a trip down (or, more accurately, up) memory lane, relived and relished. Though by cutting back on my running I felt as though I lost track of many big doin’s around town, I traded my knowledge of the latest local road construction for the delightful familiarity with the northern landscape that only comes with the exertion of many miles. It’s a comforting, satisfying mastery that grows exponentially as the trails and summits add up, culminating in the ability to stand atop a mountain, look around, and not need the map to get your bearings. There’s no substitute for accumulating the experience.

So while I typically avoid chronological journaling, I break my rule here and provide a brief tour of those forty-four days that took DD from twenty-six to forty-eight qualifying summits. Come along on an adventure…because next time, it’ll just be about the run once again.

Excursion One, Whiteface & Passaconaway: It’s July but it’s cold, damp, drizzly, and foggy, on these forested, viewless summits, nothing to see here, move along, just whiteness from the overlooks. The steep climbs up Whiteface make me wonder how I got a troop of boy scouts up this one in back in eighty-nine. (Answer: There were steps bolted into the rock then; they’re gone now – note the holes in the rock behind my pack.) Summits twenty-seven and twenty eight.

Excursion Two, Willey & Field: Mt. Tom is usually included when the Willey Range is taken down, but DD bagged that one years ago on a day when the family tired after just one of the three planned peaks. This time we assaulted from the south so as to traverse the stairs DD had built last summer on her month of trail work, then it was up ten impressive trail ladders and a long (long!) loop back through Zealand Notch, because, well, why not turn a few miles into sixteen? Summits twenty-nine and thirty.

Excursion Three, Moriah: Because we just didn’t want to come home… An impromptu overnight, complete with a Wal-Mart run for basics like toothbrushes, so we could knock off a simple one the next day. Met a number of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who we’d see again and again in coming days. Summit thirty-one.

Excursion Four, the Wildcats: To start a planned five-day stretch, it was up the steep and rocky ridge of Wildcat in a foggy drizzle. Five summits, two count as Four-Thousand-Footers, but unlike my last trip over them twenty-three years ago, they’re no longer labelled. With multitudes of ups and downs, we’re never quite sure if we’ve hit the high points till reaching the final A summit overlooking Carter Notch as the clouds gave way to glorious mountain sunshine. Summits thirty-two and thirty-three.

Excursion Five, Jefferson, Monroe, and, oh yeah, that one: DD is missing two Presidential summits, one north, the other south of Washington (which she’s already tagged), so the plan is to knock them both off, skirting the ‘Rockpile’ on the way. After a phenomenal cliff climb up Caps Ridge, the delightful morning turns Presidential Fierce, and a happenstance link-up with another hiker leads us to summit Washington anyway, since he’s never done it. Sixty-mile gusts reclassify the adventure into the Epic Zone and we’re feeling cold in our cores as we reach Lakes of the Clouds to recover. Toss in Clay and Franklin for a five-summit day and we’re glad to have snagged a lift back to our trailhead parking. Summits thirty-four and thirty-five.

Excursion Six, The Twins and Galehead: It’s been twenty-four years since I last stayed in an AMC hut and it happened to be Galehead. Since then the hut was entirely rebuilt so it’s sort of inaccurate to say I finally returned, but the logs are still there and I managed to find my entry from May of ninety-two. We return to visit neighbor Greg who’s working croo, and take an easy day of three summits on a brilliantly perfect summer day. Summits thirty-six, thirty-seven, and thirty-eight.

Excursion Seven, Garfield: My fourth time on this one and our intent is to continue up the ridge, top Lafayette, and sidle down past Greenleaf to our car parked at Canon. But threats of severe weather and a surprisingly and suddenly strong wind coupled with an evil looking sky turn us around at Garfield’s summit. We bail, hot-foot it down the Death-By-Boredom Garfield trail, and find a serious dearth of ride opportunities. The sketchy guy who kindly shuttles us back in his decades-old pickup truck has to move something off the seat that seemed to have been alive quite recently, but a ride’s a ride. Summit thirty-nine.

Excursion Eight, Cabot: One of Mother Nature’s bad jokes, Cabot, so far from anything that we ended up crossing a covered bridge into Vermont to get there, offers little excitement on a clear day, and even less on a cloudy one. A challenging climb to The Horn makes it interesting, though the out-and-back traversals of The Bulge add nothing but meaningless work. We’re only fifteen minutes from the car when the skies open with such ferocity that we’d have been drenched had we been only a minute away, but it makes for good chit-chat when we meet up later at a store in Berlin with hikers we’d chatted with who’d gone out the opposite direction and just beat the rain – and who turn out to be USATF Grand-Prix racing types. Summit forty.

Excursion Nine, Isolation: After five days at sea, we’re pretty tired, but after yesterday’s deluge, today’s forecast of perfection can’t be missed, so we book another night and hit the trail from Pinkham at the crack of dawn to tackle Isolation, as far from anything as its name suggests. Eschewing the usual Rocky Branch route that I’d slogged through back in eighty-eight (and which we’d learn was an intolerable mud pit after yesterday’s rain), we opt for Glen Boulder over Slide Peak, returning over Boott Spur. It adds thousands of feet of climb on both ends, but it’s spectacularly beautiful on a spectacularly amazing day and we’re spectacularly whipped by the end, but the sight of clouds pouring over the Presidential ridge was astounding. Summit forty-one.

Excursion Ten, Carrigain: It seems everyone leaves this for last, because although it’s five miles up Signal Ridge, it’s an easy five miles, so they can bring their friends, and besides, the last mile is magnificent. The four leading up to that spot, though, are rather interminable. We instead take the long way in, circling around the mountain through Carrigain Notch and ascend via the steep, challenging, and much more fun Desolation Trail. The summit is busy and beautiful, with views to what we’ve decided will be our finish line on the Bonds. Summit forty-two.

Excursion Eleven, The Kinsmans: Being easy to get to, right off the highway on the close side of the hills, we knock these off in a few hours, not hitting the trail till near mid-day. The South peak amuses with a unique summit cairn throne of stones. On our second trip over the North peak, returning from the out & back, I convince DD that a particular boulder looks like the true summit. She’s tired and reluctant but I goad her to scramble to the top. Back in the car, she sheepishly reads me the trail guide which we hadn’t carried which, sure enough, advises the peak bagger to be sure to climb that particular boulder to touch the true summit. Summits forty-three and forty-four.

Excursion Twelve, Zealand and The Bonds: Dearest Spouse, ever sporting, rises in the middle of the night so she can drop us at the Zealand trailhead before seven as this will be a one-way traverse. We’re enjoying the expansive views on the ridge above Zealand Notch before nine and the viewless summit is check-marked soon after. From there it’s off to one of the most amazing stretches of trail in the Whites, over the open alpine ridge of Guyot, West Bond, Bond, and onto the truly sublime flat-topped but vertical sided summit of Bondcliff. It’d been over twenty-nine years since I last stood here, a place with a cliff so iconic that it graced the cover of the AMC guide many years back. I looked about as terrified standing on that cliff this time as I did last time, but DD strode confidently onto the ledge for her victory shot, having completed her quest from the first to the last summit in a little under ten years. Summits forty-five, forty-six, forty-seven, and yes, forty-eight. Huzzah, I think they say. And then the long walk out the other end, to find that Dearest Spouse, not wanting to join us for our twenty-mile traverse, had herself covered fifteen miles that day on her own. Huzzah, I think they say, indeed.

21 August 2016

The Silence of the Hams

Several lives ago I worked a summer in a big data center at Big Blue that was, for all practical purposes, underground – in the basement with no windows. This being the time before cell phones and online weather maps (we were high tech because we had email in the early 80’s), I had no inkling of the storm bearing down, so when the power went, it was both utter shock and the awe of hearing something I’d never imagined. One of my co-workers later remarked excitedly, “Did you HEAR it?” Yes, the sound of hundreds of washer-sized disk packs (we called them packs in those days, not drives), spinning down. ZZZzzz…until…Nothing! “It was beautiful!” he exclaimed!

So on that theme, I ask you, “Did you HEAR it?” And when you shake your head in puzzlement, I’ll quickly exclaim, “Nothing!” That’s right, nothing, nada, nyet, nischt, zippo from me for over two months. But it’s not beautiful. Why write about running when, for the most part, you’re not running? The legs have largely been still. The calves, quads, and yes, to close the loop on the title pun, the hamstrings, have been silent.

Thus the big question: Why would you want to read about not running? (I will ignore the obvious opposite question, assuming by nature of your being here that you’ve found some excuse for that scenario.) How can I make this at least somewhat compelling for you? It’s not an easy charge, so I’ll try to spice this up with some coping mechanisms interspersed with the physical processes.

Where last we left off, the crushing downhill of the Sugarloaf Marathon had been a rather crushing experience. I went in uncertain of my racing readiness, and though I came out victorious (for the old farts, at least), I also came out rather crushed. After a month of trying to beat the bruises the old-fashioned way – by running – reasonably, of course – through the grief, I had to face the music and take a break. Six weeks off wasn’t quite enough to heal, but it was plenty to knock me out of racing shape for months to come. Now as I begin yet another come-back (or so I hope), it’s a good time to meander through the maladies and madness of recent months.

It’s ironic that about two days after Sugarloaf, a giant fireball lit up the New England sky. I wasn’t fortunate to see it, but some who did managed to track the incoming rock and determine that its fragments landed in a swath in the forest a mere ten miles west of the Sugarloaf start (the start is circled in red, the rock-strewn landing in green). People often say they cratered in a race, but had the timing and aim been just a little different, we could have said it literally this time. What a fine metaphor for the damage left over when the dust settled!

For years I’ve endured non-runners exhorting me about how this sport will ruin my knees. For years I’ve pointed out that while we’re not immune to injury, research shows that running, in general, strengthens knees. But wear and tear are a reality with age, and a course like Sugarloaf, with that horrible stretch around mile ten which extracted curses on each jarring stride, can bring out the worst in anyone’s skeletal systems. And it did.

I’m no stranger to pain and injury, as anyone who’s burned bits of their life reading this column is aware. Along came another instance. One of these will in fact become the ‘career limiting blow’, but who’s to say which one, who’s to say said ‘end of career’ (or worse) wouldn’t have come much earlier without the strengthening effects of training, and who’s to say that ending that ‘career’ might not just mean slowing down and enjoying the ride with a notch less competitiveness?

Sugarloaf hurt. It hurt going in, it hurt during, it hurt like hell on that brutal downhill at ten, and it hurt afterward. The left knee – remember, the side where the quad felt weak going in – afterward seemed to be both swinging loosely in the wind and unwilling to straighten out after sitting a spell. Both of these being a bit on the frightening side, going easy was the only choice on the menu. For a month, the distances were moderate and the pace was leisurely. By the time we hit Mount Desert Island on our annual sojourn a month later, it finally seemed reasonable to turn the dial up a bit. Redemption in Maine seemed an appropriate recovery from the damage done in Maine. And the famed carriage roads beckoned irresistibly…

Maine Note One: Photo of the Year award for to my attempt to snap a shot of Dearest Daughter the Younger running the eleven-point-five mile Around the Mountain carriage road while I ran the opposite direction on a sixteen-point-five mile inside-out horseshoe extension of the same route. Though I nailed a few in-stride scenery shots, my ability to target her wasn’t quite so successful…

Maine Note Two: This sounds hokey, but it’s the little pleasures that make this endeavor so much fun. Skiers speak lovingly of that rare day they get to shush the virgin powder. I had that chance on an Acadian carriage road when I happened to be the first footsteps following behind a grooming tractor which had roughed up the road into a soft bed of freshly turned sandy what-not. And it even happened to be on a downhill. Shush, shush, baby.

Maine Note Three: Way back then in June I promised Ward and Marla, a couple we met on Sargent Mountain, that I’d pop the picture we shot of them on the blog for their retrieval, then promptly didn’t publish for nearly three months. On the rare chance you happen to check in, here it is, drop an email for the full res version…

A week of Acadian hiking seemed to glue things back together, but on return home, they quickly fell apart, worse than before. It was time to break the glass in case of emergency and turn off the spigot; the unthinkable, stop running for a while. As is always the case with these breaks, the question is, for how long? In an extended break, every day off is at least two days work to get back, and usually more. But if the break isn’t long enough, it’s rather useless. Start over again.

Keeping a base level of fitness is key. But in this case, one of the go-to interim routines proved problematic. As much as I despise the stationary bikes at the gym, they have their purpose. But this time, even that no-impact platform elicited an ominous click-click on each spin. When after the proverbial while things weren’t really getting any better, it was time to break the glass again, pull the medical lever, and blow a few bucks from the health savings account to get a good look inside. Doc confirmed my suspicions: the left quadriceps really had atrophied; my concerns going into Sugarloaf had been real. But why?

One MRI later, which under normal circumstances I’d share with you here, but in this case I really just can’t figure out what I’m looking at, I was at least assured that nothing was broken, torn, or seriously ugly. But inflamed and worn, well, I am older than I choose to act, so I guess it was a foregone conclusion. And apparently said inflammation had been going on long enough that I’d subconsciously been shutting down the left in favor of the right. I can buy that; it makes sense. So we’re now on a witch hunt to whack the inflammation with some physical therapy, stretching, strength work, and some generous doses of the usual meds.

Meanwhile, in that uncomfortable state of non-running, DDY conveniently provided a fitness and sanity outlet in the form of her Death Wish to complete her New Hampshire Four-Thousand Footers before she left for college. Yes, hiking isn’t terribly easy on the knees either, but the climbing did seem to strengthen things, as Acadia had proven. The scope of DDY’s quest, given her time remaining, meant this offered a fairly high-intensity keep-fit agenda. There are forty eight summits, and at the start of July, she had only twenty six nailed, with only seven weeks left. Damn the torpedoes, full speed uphill! Between sneaking in a day here and there and a six-day extravaganza with some epic adventures, as of this writing she now stands at forty-four (as do I on my “Second Tour”, having completed the circuit in ninety-five), having racked up eighteen summits that count and a dozen or so more that don’t. We’ve whittled her list down to one long day to knock off the final four, coming soon if the weather holds. Just in time for college. [Ed Note: By the time of publishing, yes, we knocked those off. More later on that…]

Having logged trail mileage that approached a significant percentage of my usual running mileage for the month of July, you might think that the running restart, which finally commenced a couple weeks ago, might be a little smoother and easier than had I started at ground zero. Of course you’d be wrong; it’s a slog, a struggle, a chore, and it’s all coming down in the hottest weeks of the year, and on top of that, stuff still hurts. So again I’m running that fine line between trying to heal by running lightly, taking the PT, and so on, and fall racing plans are in limbo. But at least I’m out there again. Let the hams sing.

Amusing Outburst Department: My training partners are well-acquainted with my standard warning bark, a sharp “YO” designed to pierce the soundproofed automotive cocoon of inattentive drivers. Generally, it works pretty well. Back at the Clinton Tribute, I had to activate the outburst when an equally inattentive cop proceeded to direct a motorist into my path. I could suggest that his decision might have been different had he actually turned around to see there was a runner coming, I mean, after all, he was there to marshal a race, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise. But I won’t harp, because in general I like the cops and I like them to like me. But a YO was in order, a YO was emitted, and a few strides later I had to do it again to ward off another automotive threat pulling out of a parking lot.

Just another day at the office. Except amusingly, this time it was caught on tape. The locals had set up cameras on the course and spliced the footage into a full race montage. It turns out they had a camera pointing at said cop and said parking lot, and though it’s a distant shot (and my already diminutive form appears even more so from that range) those barks are clearly audible. You might just think I’m crazy, but I found it kind of funny to hear. Hey, it’s a topic, right? Check out the video here; the fun is a mere forty-four seconds in, with the second outburst just a few seconds later (this was “Part 2”, near the finish; Part 1 can be seen here if you’re really into punishment).